Joy, anxiety as US-bound Cubans ready to fly out of Costa Rica


La Cruz (Costa Rica) (AFP)

Elation and trepidation gripped a first group of Cuban migrants about to fly out of Costa Rica on Tuesday on a trial air-and-land journey to ultimately start new lives in the United States.

"I still can't believe it. We could be arriving and I still won't believe it," gushed Liana Cabezas Gonzalez, a 28-year-old interpreter who left Havana seven months ago aiming to join her parents already in Miami.

She was among 180 Cubans who late Tuesday will be flown from Liberia in northern Costa Rica to El Salvador, to then take buses across Guatemala to the border with Mexico, from where they will make their way to the United States.

The trip was organized by the various Latin American governments in coordination with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the first step to helping nearly 8,000 US-bound Cubans stranded in Costa Rica.

- Fear of Mexico's gangs -

But while the joy was shared by the others who had paid $555 for a place on board the chartered Avianca airline jet and buses, there was fear too about running the gauntlet of Mexico's fearsome narco-gangs.

"We've heard a lot that in Mexico there are gangs like the Zetas that make attacks on roads and that there are dangerous zones," said Yordani Casanova, a 33-year-old who left his herbal drinks business in Cuba to make the journey to America with his wife, Lisleni Fernandez.

Mexico has not extended any aid to the 180 migrants beyond giving them a 20-day visa to let them make their own way across its territory -- a trip that takes at least 25 hours by road.

At the US border, the Cubans can expect a relatively easy entry despite not having American visas.

Under a Cold War-era law, America permits Cubans to enter under a scheme that gives fast-track access to permanent residency.

Central American authorities described Tuesday's departure of the Cubans as a "pilot plan" that, if successful, will be followed with other flights, other bus journeys.

If no problems arise, a second flight with a similar number will leave Costa Rica in a week's time.

"We are doing this in stages. We need to create experience, to build confidence. We need to guarantee that all goes well," said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez.

- Stranded at borders -

The air leg became necessary when Costa Rica's northern neighbor Nicaragua -- a Cuban ally -- closed its border in mid-November to Cuban migrants.

Costa Rica was then forced to host 7,800 Cubans who piled up near the border until it, too, declared that further Cubans would not be permitted entry.

As a result, another 2,000 Cubans are now stuck in Panama, unable to enter Costa Rica. They have no access to the air bridge being organized and their fate has not been resolved.

"We weren't expecting them to do that to us, especially Nicaragua, which Cuba has always helped in everything," said Daisy Aguada, a 49-year-old Cuban who has dreams of working in restaurants in Miami.

In shelters set up in churches and school grounds in northern Costa Ricas towns such as La Cruz, the chosen few about to fly out were packing bags and saying farewell to travel companions.

Around them, other migrants waiting for their own exit played football or washed clothes or relaxed on mattresses on the floor -- the activities that have marked their long weeks of limbo.

- A costly American dream -

The Costa Rican government and the IOM have stated that the entire cost of the journey organized to Mexico's border must be borne by the migrants themselves.

Many sold their homes in Cuba to finance their trip to America, while others have relatives in the US able to help them out.

But many have also exhausted their funds, squeezed dry by people-smugglers and corrupt Colombian cops along the way, and can expect little help from families left in Cuba, where the monthly state wage is just $20.

It was unclear what would happen to them. They can see the door opened to their American dream, but they are unable to buy a ticket to make it reality.