In one of the largest waves of Cuban migration in decades, more than 70,000 have fled the island this year, rushing to the U.S. out of fear that its preferential policy toward those escaping the Castro regime might change.
This time though, the majority aren’t braving the Florida Straits in rickety rafts, as in 1980 — they’re flying to South America, then taking a treacherous land journey all the way to the southern U.S. border. Recently that route has been cut of by local allies of Cuban leader Raul Castro, leaving thousands of Cubans stranded along the way, most in Central America.
Liannis Rodriguez rests in a corner on the concrete patio of the dusty Costa Rican border station with Nicaragua. Like the dozens of other Cubans here at the station, she’s been sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes under metal awnings or a cover of plastic bags.
Rodriguez left her small town in eastern Cuba late last month and flew to Ecuador, the nation closest to the United States that doesn’t require a visa of Cubans. She says that nearly everyone on her plane was Cuban, and that once on the ground, all headed north using every kind of transportation possible.
“We took buses, cars, boats you name it,” she says. She paid bribes to Colombian police, hundreds of dollars for a clandestine boat ride to Panama, then still more payoffs until she arrived here at the Nicaraguan border. Rodriguez, a fourth-year engineering student, says she has no future in Cuba.
“I was about to graduate, and I would get a job, but I’d be forced into one that pays 12 dollars a month,” Rodriguez says. “What kind of a life is that?”
Since the 1960s nearly all Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are granted residency, but many fear — despite denials from American officials — that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations could close those doors.
Cuba says the policy entices illegal migration. Last month, Nicaragua’s President, a close ally of Cuba’s Castro, closed the border it shares with its neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, shutting down the path to the United States.
In the northwest border town of La Cruz, Costa Rica, local churches, the Red Cross and the country’s national Emergency Commission have set up shelters for the growing number of Cubans stuck here, who now number about 2,000.
At one of the largest shelters, more than 500 sleep in a school’s tiny classrooms and fill the outdoor basketball court. Women wash clothes in outdoor sinks. Men play dominoes, while others watch television.
Fernando Pacheco, an orthopedic surgeon says he had to leave Cuba.
“You can’t say what’s on your mind, go where you want or do anything freely,” he says. As a doctor, Pacheco earned one of the highest salaries on the island — still only $65 a month. He says he can’t provide for his wife and two small children at that meager wage.
Last week, Cuba reinstated rules prohibiting doctors from leaving the island without permission.
Julio Vargas of Costa Rica’s National Emergency Commission says his agency is running out of money. What’s going to happen to all the Cubans is “the million-dollar question,” he says.
With an estimated 200 Cubans arriving in Costa Rica every day, he says he hopes a solution is worked out soon.