Resolution of Problem of Cuban Migrants Stranded in Central America

On December 28, 2015, five Central American countries and Mexico apparently resolved the problem created by the presence of 6,000 to 8,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica. Many of the circumstances leading up to the presence of these migrants have been discussed in prior posts.[1] This post will review subsequent events that have made the problem more pressing for Costa Rica, the recent agreed-upon solution for this problem and issues presented for its full implementation.

Recent Developments

On December 18, 2015, Costa Rica suspended its participation in the political bodies of the Central American Integration System (SICA) because of the refusal of three members (Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua) to seek a regional solution to the transit of the migrants on their way to the U.S.[2]

On the same date, Costa Rica announced that it would no longer issue any more transit visas to Cubans seeking to enter the country and that it would deport to Cuba any Cubans in the country without such visas. [3]

On Sunday, December 27, Pope Francis led the Angelus Prayer with pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square from the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Immediately after the prayer, Francis said, “[M]y thoughts at this time to the numerous Cuban migrants who find themselves in difficulties in Central America, many of whom are victims of human trafficking. I invite the countries of the region to renew generously all necessary efforts to find a timely solution to this humanitarian tragedy.”[4]

Agreed-Upon Solution[5]

On Monday, December 28, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala met in Guatemala with the International Organization for Migration and agreed to what they called a “pilot project” to resolve the Cuban migrants problem. Here the main points of that “pilot program:”

  • In the first week of January 2016, 250 of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants in Costa Rica will be flown from San Jose, Costa Rica to San Salvador, El Salvador, where they will obtain the latter’s transit visas.
  • These migrants will then be transferred to buses to be taken from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the latter’s northern border with the U.S. while obtaining on the journey the latter Guatemala and Mexican transit visas.
  • At the U.S. border, the migrants will present their papers to U.S. immigration officials and presumably will be allowed to come into the U.S. under its dry feet/wet feel policy.

In addition, the five Central American countries and Mexico reaffirmed their commitment to combat human trafficking networks, to apply the law “without delay” in order to severely penalize this illegal activity that “unfortunately obliges countries in the region to return to their country of origin all persons entering their territory in an unauthorized manner, ”to prevent irregular migration and to firmly combat the crime of human trafficking, and primarily to protect the integrity of migrants and ensure respect for their fundamental rights,” They also agreed to convene a Regional Conference on Migration to address this issue in its entirety.

El Salvador’s announcement of this agreement stated that its participation in the solution was “in line with the call made by His Holiness Pope Francis, in his message of December 27.” This sentiment was echoed by Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and former Guatemalan foreign minister, who said, “I believe that the pope’s comments were extremely important to accelerate the negotiation process.”

The U.S. and Cuba were not directly involved in the negotiations of this agreement, but according to the Wall Street Journal, both of these countries had pressed the Central American countries to reach a regional agreement on resolving the current situation before the end of this year. They did so after the U.S. reportedly rejected a Costa Rica request for the U.S. to airlift the migrants directly to the U.S. and after Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez stated that “Cuba requests that the solution for the thousands of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica is adequate, taking into account the welfare of these citizens, and that it is as swift as possible.”

Just before this agreement was reached, the New York Times published a letter from Costa Rica’s Ambassador stressing “the growing humanitarian and economic challenge that Costa Rica faces in caring for [the Cuban migrants].”[6]

Concerns About the Agreed-Upon Solution

 The current public information about the agreed-upon solution presents the following questions (and problems):

  • Will the ‘pilot project” be successful?
  • If it is successful, how many separate flights and bus trips will be necessary for all 6,000 to 8,000 migrants legally in Costa Rica? Based upon the 250 migrants involved in the “pilot project,” it will require a total of 32 such ventures for 8,000 migrants.
  • Over what period of time?
  • The “pilot project” and implementation for all of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants now in Costa Rica with transit visas will be expensive. At only $1,000 per person the total cost would be $6 million to $8 million. Who will pay for it? The countries directly involved clearly are not wealthy countries and presumably cannot afford it. As a result, they probably will ask the U.S. to do. So. Will the U.S. agree to do so?
  • Will the U.S. still have the dry feet/wet feet policy in effect when the “pilot program” and other migrants arrive at the U.S. border and, therefore, be permitted to come into the U.S.?

An overarching concern is whether this agreement will encourage additional Cubans to leave their country in an effort to get to the U.S. next year, especially after Cuban President Raul Castro’s December 29 speech to the country’s National Assembly warning Cubans that next year will be a difficult year for the Cuban economy.[7]

Carlos Raúl Morales, Guatemala’s foreign minister, said, “We are finishing the work of the smugglers, and of course it will incentivize the arrival of more illegals, but in solidarity we could not ignore the drama in Costa Rica.”  Similar thought were offered by Eric Olson, a Latin American analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Central American officials, however, stressed the deal was one-off due to a humanitarian situation and that Costa Rica has ended the transit-visa program that had opened the door to Cuban migrants. “This solution is absolutely an exception for those people who had already arrived legally,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told reporters after the agreement was reached on Monday. “Costa Rica has been very clear that we cannot establish a permanent mechanism” for Cuban immigrants. A Mexican diplomatic official concurred: “The agreement among all of us is that we had to solve this under the principle of shared responsibility and that the problem cannot repeat itself.”

Another result of the surge of Cuban migrants through Central America and of the agreement to resolve the current situation will be the enlistment of all of the Central American countries plus Mexico in Cuba’s effort to persuade the U.S. to terminate as soon as possible its “dry feet/wet feet” immigration policy for Cubans.

This U.S. immigration policy can also be seen as part of the U.S. “visa waiver” program, which currently is under legitimate review for future restrictions to attempt to prevent foreign terrorists from coming to the U.S.[8]

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[1] Cubans in Central America Provide Cuba with Opportunity To Reiterate Its Objections to U.S. Immigration Policies (Nov. 20, 2015); Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America (Nov. 27, 2015); U.S. and Cuba Fail to Resolve Complaints About U.S. Immigration Policies (Dec. 1, 2015); Status of Cuban Migrants in Central America Still Unresolved ((Dec. 11, 2015).

[2] Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Costa Rica suspends participation in political bodies of SICA refusal to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize agreed solution to the transit of Cuban migrants, (Dec. 18 2015).

[3]   Assoc.Press, Costa Rica Suspends Visas for Cubans as Regional Protest, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2015); Assoc. Press, Costa Rica Moves to Deport 56 Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2015).

[4] The Words of the Pope at Angelus, 27/12/2015Pope Francis Angelus appeal for Cuban migrants, Va. News (Dec. 27, 2015).

[5] Assoc. Press, Costa Rica: Some Stranded Cubans to be Allowed to Continue North, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Countries in the region agree to give exceptional, safe passage and ordered Cuban migrants (Dec. 28, 2015); Guatemala Foreign Ministry, Press the Republic of Guatemala regarding the meeting held to address the immigration status of Cubans in Costa Rica (Dec. 28, 2015); El Salvador Foreign Ministry, El Salvador reiterates its readiness to cooperate with immigration crisis solution (Dec. 28, 2015); Central American agreement to transfer first group of Cuban migrants, Granma (Dec. 29, 2015); Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015).

[6] Macaya, Letter to the New York Times (Dec. 28, 2015).

[7] Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015); Assoc. Press, Raul Castro Prepares Cuba for Tough Year Despite US Opening, N.Y. Times (Dec. 29, 2015); Raul Castro, We never accept conditionalities for lacerating the sovereignty and dignity of the homeland, Granma (Dec. 30, 2015).

[8] E.g., Hulse, Some revealing Moments as Congress Closes the Door on 2015, N.Y. Times (Dec. 21, 2015)

New York Times Calls for End to Special U.S. Immigration Programs for Cubans

 

The New York Times Editorial Board on December 21 called for the U.S. to end its special immigration programs for Cubans. It, therefore, joins the criticism of such policies by the Cuban Government.[1]

With respect to the so-called “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, the editorial notes that the recent exodus of many Cubans through Ecuador and Central America in attempts to reach the U.S. highlights the need for an immediate end to that policy. Even if Congress does not repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act that grants Cubans in the U.S. the right to apply for permanent residency after one year of such presence, the following can and should be done:

  • Because that Act does not require the U.S. to grant all Cubans who arrive here by land parole status, the U.S. Administration should stop doing so and instead only grant such status to those Cubans who demonstrate a ”credible”” fear of persecution in Cuba., which is a preliminary step for a subsequent application for asylum requiring a “well-founded” fear of such persecution.
  • Cuba should agree to accept the return of those Cubans denied entry into the U.S. and the roughly 34,000 Cubans n U.S. prisons for conviction of crimes in this country..
  • The U.S. should “continue to admit a high number of Cuban immigrants who apply for visas [at the U.S. Embassy in] Havana, giving priority to those who have legitimate persecution claims and those who have family members in the [U.S.].
  • “The Obama administration should negotiate a new agreement with the Cuban government that makes orderly immigration the norm.”

With respect to the U.S. “Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program,” the editorial calls for its immediate termination and for Cuba to end its new requirement for exit visa for such personnel.[2]

As previous posts demonstrate, I concur in these recommendations.[3]

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[1] Editorial: A New Cuban Exodus, N.Y. Times (Dec. 21, 2015). The most recent of many Cuban demands for ending these U.S. immigration programs was in President Raúl Castro’s December 18th speech to his country.

[2] The Times recently published an article about the Cuban Medical Personnel Parole Program: Burnett & Robles, U.S. and Cuba at Odds Over Exodus of the Island’s Doctors, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2015).

[3] E.g., Results of U.S.-Cuba Discussions After Ceremonial Opening of U.S. Embassy in Havana (Aug. 18, 2015; New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel (Nov. 23, 2014).

Raúl Castro’s Declaration Regarding the First Anniversary of U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement 

 

On December 18, Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and Army General, issued on state television a Declaration regarding the first anniversary of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.[1]

After briefly reviewing the year’s accomplishments that were “achieved through a professional and respectful dialogue based on equality and reciprocity,” Castro berated the failure to make “any progress in the solution of those issues which are essential for Cuba to be able to have normal relations with the United States.” Those issues were the following:

  • First, of course, was the failure of the U.S. to end the embargo. Indeed, he asserted, the embargo or blockade, constitutes “persecution of Cuba’s legitimate financial transactions as well as the extraterritorial impact of the blockade, which causes damages and hardships to our people and is the main obstacle to the development of the Cuban economy, have been tightened.”
  • Second was the U.S.’ continued statement it “has no intention to change the status of” the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
  • Third was the U.S. continued implementation of “programs that are harmful to Cuba’s sovereignty, such as the projects aimed at bringing about changes in our political, economic and social order and the illegal radio and television broadcasts, for which they continue to allocate millions of dollars in funds.”
  • Fourth was the U.S. “preferential migration policy . . . [for] Cuban citizens, which is evidenced by the enforcement of the wet foot/dry foot policy, the Medical Professional Parole Program and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourage an illegal, unsafe, disorderly and irregular migration, foment human smuggling and other related crimes and create problems to other countries.”

Nevertheless, Castro continued, “The Government of Cuba is fully willing to continue advancing in the construction of a kind of relation with the United States that is different from the one that has existed throughout its prior history, that is based on mutual respect for sovereignty and independence, that is beneficial to both countries and peoples and that is nurtured by the historical, cultural and family links that have existed between Cubans and Americans.”

In addition, he said, “Cuba, in fully exercising its sovereignty and with the majority support of its people, will continue to be engaged in the process of transformations to update its economic and social model, in the interest of moving forward in the development of the country, improving the wellbeing of the people and consolidating the achievements attained by the Socialist Revolution.”

Conclusion

Although Castro has a different tone on the failure of the U.S. to terminate certain policies, his Declaration agrees substantially with the other comments about the first anniversary that were discussed in yesterday’s post. It is good to know that he vows to continue with the slow process of normalization and with transforming the Cuban economy.

Except for Cuba’s desire to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S., I agree with the Declaration’s calls for the U.S. to end the embargo, the so-called democracy promotion programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Radio and TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba and the preferential immigration policies for Cubans.

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[1] Raúl Castro Ruz, Statement by the President of the Councils of State and Ministers Army General Raúl Castro, Granma (Dec. 18, 2015); Reuters, Cuba’s Castro Says U.S. Can Do More to Normalize Relations, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2015);Assoc. Press, Raul Castro Urges US to End Broadcasts Aimed at Cuba, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2015)