For over 50 years Cubans have endured enmity and a trade embargo, and are now set for closer US ties.
San Ramon, Costa Rica – For as long as she can remember, Yipsi Murgas has planned to leave her native Cuba and head for the United States.
“It’s been my dream for my entire life,” the 32-year-old told Al Jazeera. “In Cuba, there is no freedom.”
Despite her eagerness to leave, the responsibility of caring for her elderly grandmother left Murgas marooned on the communist island.
When her grandmother died last year, Murgas saw a window of opportunity. She and her husband sold their house, scooped up their 12-year-old son and Murgas’ father and flew to Ecuador to begin their trip overland to the Mexican border.
For Murgas, it was a dream come true, but her plan of quietly slipping across Central America by bus was foiled in November when Nicaragua closed its border to a flood of Cuban migrants. The sudden closure left Murgas, her family and nearly 8,000 other Cubans stranded in makeshift migrant camps across Costa Rica.
After months of negotiations, Costa Rica was able to secure an airlift for the first group of waylaid Cubans in January.
In the coming months the remaining migrants will fly to El Salvador and board buses to Mexico, where they will have 20 days to make their way north. This flight marks the beginning of a dangerous leg of the Cubans’ journey, through cities run by drug cartels and littered with smugglers looking to take advantage of migrants.
Many of the Cubans will follow the same routes as other migrants headed north to the US, but once they reach the border the Cubans will fare much better.
As the US deports tens of thousands of undocumented migrants from Central America each year, a long-standing US policy grants Cubans immediate amnesty when they declare themselves at the border.
This well-publicised odyssey has highlighted a disparity in US immigration policy, in which Cuban migrants are given preferential treatment over all other nationalities, and has led Central American governments to challenge what they see as an unfair policy.
The Cuban adjustment act
The current migration crisis has roots that stretch back to the 1959 Cuban revolution. In the years following Castro’s rise to power, Cubans fearing political persecution and economic change began fleeing to the US in huge numbers. By the mid-1960s there were more than half a million Cubans living in the US with no official residency status.
“[The migrants] were an incredible piece of propaganda at the beginning of the Cold War,” Anita Casavantes Bradford, a professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine, told Al Jazeera.
“The government decided to regularise their status because it was a tool of Cold War foreign policy. It was a way of encouraging outward migration from Cuba to discredit the Castro regime,” she added.
The resulting legislation, the Cuban Adjustment Act, is still on the books and allows Cubans to qualify for permanent residency and federal benefits after one year.
There is only one caveat: since 1995 only Cubans travelling by land are admitted to the US, under what is known as the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy”. Cubans caught by US Border Patrol in the waters between Cuba and Florida are sent back home.
The new policy cut off the treacherous 90-mile sea route from Cuba to Florida, but it did not stem Cuban immigration entirely. Migrants began forgoing rafts in favour of land routes through Mexico and Central America. Nicknamed “dusty-foot” Cubans by US Border Patrol, these migrants have been arriving in heightened numbers since 2009. But the migration reached a head in 2011 when a perfect storm of policy changes spurred a wave of outward migration from Cuba.
Between January and November 2015, Costa Rican police stopped more than 14,000 Cubans passing through the country without visas. In 2011, they stopped only 50.
Even more Cubans make it through Central America without being stopped. According to US Border Patrol, more than 43,000 Cuban migrants entered the US in the 2015 fiscal year, nearly double the number in 2014.
The numbers started to grow in April 2015, after Ecuador waived visa requirements for Cuban citizens, allowing hopeful migrants to fly to Ecuador and begin their journey north. Several months later, the US announced plans to normalise relations with Cuba, stirring panic that the Cuban Adjustment Act would soon be eliminated.
“Just the possibility of a warming of relations got the attention of those Cubans with medium-term plans to travel to the US,” Ricardo Dello Buono, an expert on Cuban-American relations at Manhattan College, told Al Jazeera. “They had already been saving money and this may have seemed like their last chance.”
Nestled in the mountains of the Costa Rican town San Ramon, an auxiliary facility for the local Catholic church serves as a temporary home for 231 Cuban migrants.
On a windy afternoon children jump on an outdoor trampoline, and most of the adults huddle over their smart phones in a cramped hallway that houses the encampment’s only wi-fi signal. In a dark gymnasium that serves as a dormitory, a wrinkled American flag hangs off one of the bunks.
“In Cuba, I work and work all the time,” said Dioclis Fay, a 43-year-old migrant who owned a transportation company back in Cuba. “I owned my own company and I would make $26 a month. That wasn’t enough to feed my family.”
Jorge Luis Garcia, 50, echoed Fay’s concerns.
“I worked as a barber, a nurse and a farmer,” he said. “I would do practically everything because in Cuba you just can’t live off one salary.”
Each of the migrants interviewed for this story described their economic circumstances as the primary motivation for leaving Cuba, while some also mentioned that their political ideologies did not align with their government.
None of the migrants claimed to fear political persecution or violence in Cuba, but, unlike other migrants, the US government does not require Cubans to meet those standards to be allowed into the country.
These reasons for migrating deviate sharply from those of the Central American migrants taking similar paths into the US. Of the thousands of undocumented Central Americans who enter the US each year, most are women and children.
According to a recent study by the American Immigration Council, between 59 and 61 percent of children that reach the US report crime, gang threats or violence as their reason for fleeing their home country. In the 2014 fiscal year, Homeland Security deported more than 120,000 migrants back to the northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“When you look at the actual facts, it seems very clear that we are favouring a group of migrants who are migrating to improve their opportunities over a group that is migrating to preserve their survival,” Casavantes said.
While circumstances in Central America continue to create thousands of migrants, those same countries have now been saddled with the costs of aiding Cubans. El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, three of the highest migrant-producing countries, have all granted the Cubans free passage, while Costa Rica has spent more than $3m to house them. As the US continues to tighten its border controls, Costa Rica may have more costs to bear as northern triangle migrants look for other options.
“The situation in northern Central America has not improved, in some cases it has gotten worse,” Roman Macaya, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the US, told Al Jazeera. “If the reasons to migrate are still there, and it is more difficult to reach the US border, it appears that some of them are looking south and looking to Costa Rica. We have seen the numbers of these migrants looking for refugee status grow.”
Even with a plan in motion, the Costa Rican government continues to foot the bill for the thousands of Cuban migrants. Though most will buy the $555 ticket to Mexico, those who cannot afford it face an uncertain fate. Despite the political battles and the challenges ahead, virtually all of the Cubans now in Costa Rica will eventually reach US soil. It is something that, for some, is difficult not to dream about.
“In America, I’ll get to study whatever I want,” said Yahir González, Margas’ 12-year-old son. “Maybe one day I’ll even get to go to Disney World.”