Central America deal brings hope for stranded Cuban migrants

Liberia (Costa Rica) (AFP) –


Cubans risking all to reach the United States are cheering a deal this week between Central American nations to start flying them out of Costa Rica, where they have been stranded for weeks.

Officials are cautiously describing the operation -- due to start next week -- as a "pilot plan" involving just 50-200 of the up to 8,000 migrants who are currently in northern Costa Rica, packed into dozens of temporary shelters.

But the Cubans, and the Costa Rican government, believe the scheme to fly the Cubans to El Salvador, then put them on buses to cross Guatemala and Mexico to the US border, will soon be broadened to take most, if not all, of them.

"There was a lot of happiness. Everyone went running to try to call Cuba, to say 'We're going! We'll be getting there (to the US) soon!'," said Yaniuska Sousa, one of dozens of Cubans being put up in a Methodist church in the Costa Rican city of Liberia, said of the deal.

She and her husband sold their home in Cuba for $8,000, a quarter of which they spent on air tickets to Ecuador. Almost all the rest of the money was spent in Colombia, on "coyotes", or people smugglers, and corrupt police milking them for bribes.

The couple had to leave their two children, an 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, with their parents in Cuba while they made the perilous trip.

The husband, Rene Marti, said there were kidnap gangs in Colombia and Guatemala that abducted migrant children to demand ransoms, and water crossings were especially dangerous.

"A river, or a sea, needed to be crossed between Panama and Colombia. In this sea, some Cubans have lost their lives, including a woman who just a short time ago, her child fell in and she lost him immediately," he said.

Sousa, almost crying, said that once they made it to America they planned to work hard to be able fly their children over to join them.

Like many others, they said their pitiful wages in Cuba -- $20-$40 a month -- did not cover basic necessities and the journey was for economic survival.

Sousa said the tough life at home was "the direct results of the politics in Cuba."

With help from churches and the Red Cross, the Cubans are getting by in the shelters.

And life goes on. Sousa and others interrupted a meal they were preparing for the migrants to race outside when a cheer went up.

"A baby!" exclaimed one woman, holding up the first ultrasound photo of the baby a pregnant Cuban woman is carrying.

The woman, her distended belly showing under her white top, and her partner, wearing a US baseball t-shirt and cap, hugged as the migrants clapped.

- Nicaragua's closed border -

The Cuban migrants have been blocked in Costa Rica since mid-November, when Nicaragua, an ally of the Cuban government, prevented them from crossing its border.

Costa Rica's city of Liberia, close to that border, is expected to be the point of departure for the Cubans to be flown out to bypass Nicaragua completely.

Details, though, are still being worked out and not being made public, out of what Costa Rican officials said was a need for domestic "discretion" in the partner countries.

The United States has also been involved in the discussions but is keeping a low profile.

It has a policy since 1969 of accepting any Cuban refugee who steps on its soil. But at the same time Washington is working to thaw decades of Cold War-era antagonism with Communist-ruled Cuba.

A rapprochement announced a year ago, though, has done little to ease the hardships faced by ordinary Cubans, who are fleeing in record numbers this year.

- Cubans warned away -

On Tuesday, the US ambassador and a visiting Texas congresswoman, Kay Granger, met with Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis and Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez at Liberia's airport.

The US officials declined to speak to the media, but an embassy spokeswoman said the issue of the Cubans had been discussed in the "routine" visit by Granger.

Gonzalez later told a news conference that, while Costa Rican had made every effort to shelter the Cubans and negotiate their onward journey, no further Cuban migrants would be taken in.

"The message is very clear: We cannot take them all. We encourage them not to come. The conditions are not there to give proper assistance to them. We have done so far as much as we can," he said.

He also stressed the Cubans being flown out would be covering the plane tickets themselves.

Felix Roque, a Cuban-American doctor who is mayor of a small Latino-majority town called West New York, in New Jersey next to New York City, shook hands with Gonzalez in Liberia.

He told AFP he was visiting Costa Rica as he tried to drum up US sponsors to help the Cubans pay for their flights out.

"This hurts me in the heart because these are my people. I’m Cuban, I came (to the US) when I was 11 years old to a town where I’m now the mayor, of West New York, and I feel sorry for them," he said.