What is behind the Migration Issue between Cuba and some Latin American Countries?

Gustavo A Maranges on March 31, 2022

During the last month there has been an increase in the coverage by news agencies on migration issues related to Cuba. One of the facts behind this trend is related to the need for a transit visa for Cubans in Panama and Costa Rica. The issue becomes even more relevant due to the tense migratory situation on the island. However, it is much more complex than a simple additional requirement for travel.

Cuba is currently facing a significant increase in the migratory flow to Europe, but mainly to the United States. The country’s harsh economic situation is the main cause of this uncommon flow. The COVID-19 pandemic, the strengthening of U.S. sanctions, and the rising prices of imports from Cuba have increased the economic tension within the country and, consequently, a growing migration.

The United States and Spain are the most common destinations for Cuban migrants for historical and cultural reasons. However, they are also among the countries with bigger obstacles for Cubans to get a visa. This contradiction has forced people to emigrate illegally, with all the risks that this implies.

For example, Cubans have to go to Russia, to start a long and risky journey through the Balkans to Greece if they plan to get to the European Union. Meanwhile, Central America and Mexico are the most common routes to get to the US.

That’s why visa-free agreements between Cuba and Central American countries are not common. So far, the only visa-free country for Cubans in the region, since November 22, 2021, is Nicaragua. Given the difficult economic situation in Cuba, thousands of people saw Nicaragua as a gap to emigrate to the United States. However, the trip from Havana to Managua is very complicated and usually involves stops in Panama, Costa Rica, or Colombia.

The number of Cubans irregularly arriving in the United States has grown rapidly in the last months. According to official statistics from U.S. immigration authorities, between 2018 and 2021, the number of Cuban immigrants did not exceed 2,000. However, in January 2022 alone, almost 15,000 Cubans entered through the southern border, while in February the daily average was 1,500.

In this context, Costa Rica and Panama began to demand transit visas for Cubans on their way to a third country. This measure created lots of hassles and stress for the travelers, leading to protests in front of the embassies of these countries in Havana. Panama’s case is the most complex because most of the Cuban travelers heading to Managua use Copa Airlines flight, which has stopovers in the Central American country.

The Panamanian government’s measure, in force since March, requires Cubans to apply for a transit visa 15 days before the flight date. There are 4 Copa Airlines flights from Havana to Panama every day, which means 800 people a day. If we take into account that the visa cost is $50, the profit goes up to $1,200,000 per month. Then, if we are conservative, we can reduce this figure to $12 million per year ever since not all of these travelers are Cubans.

The measure came out of the blue for thousands of people who had already booked their flights and many others who were planning to do so. The fact is that there are no real or at least evident reasons to justify this change. Someone might think that the measure has economic reasons, but $12 million a year does not seem to be enough reason for a country whose consulates earn much more than that. However, it is important to point out that for Cuba and its people it is a big deal, especially in the current context of scarcity of hard currency.

It is also suspicious that these two countries, along with Colombia, have taken similar measures almost in unison. This behavior can only be a response to U.S. pressure aiming to slow down illegal migration from Cuba. It is just ironic, ever since there is a law that promotes the opposite.

This reality has been denounced on several occasions by the Cuban government. The Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said the current migratory flow of Cubans to the United States in an illegal and unsafe manner is due to the non-compliance of the bilateral agreements on migratory issues. According to such accords, the US should grant 20,000 visas annually to Cubans based on agreements made in 1994; however, the average of the last 5 years does not even exceed 10,000. This is one more example of the slow squeezing by the blockade and the terrible effect it has on people’s lives.

On top of that, the United States closed its consulate in Havana and dramatically affecting the family reunification program for Cubans. The objective of these actions is to increase the discontent and unrest of Cubans while forcing them to migrate illegally, something from their sadistic point of view is used to further discredit the Cuban government.

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated it is making the necessary arrangements with its counterparts to reach an agreement to avoid this unjustified discrimination against Cuban travelers. Beyond the measures taken by Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica, the current situation shows the damage caused to Cubans by the U.S. government’s immigration policy.

Cuban migrants are forced to negotiate with local mafias in transit countries and they are exposed to human trafficking networks, kidnappings, and robberies in the best of cases if you consider that more than a few have lost their lives. The fact that Cubans who travel illegally are accepted in the United States, while those who aspire to do so legally, have to face all kinds of obstacles, is not just illogical, because this is thought through and can only be described by what it is; a callous disregard of human understanding. Things like this demonstrate the Machiavellian and inhumane character of the US immigration policy towards Cuba and its disrespect for the well-being of Cubans.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – English