Cubans try­ing to get into U.S. face ‘to­tal limbo’

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Juan Zamorano

PANAMA CITY >> It took three months for Gabriel Marin and his wife, Yan­siel, to make it from their home in east­ern Cuba to this mi­grant shel­ter in Panama’s cap­i­tal. The goal was the United States, and now the door that spurred their odyssey has slammed shut.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple like Marin were stranded in tran­sit in South and Cen­tral Amer­ica on Thurs­day when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” pol­icy that since 1995 has cre­ated a path to le­gal res­i­dency for thou­sands of Cubans who touched U.S. soil.

Marin and his wife were among 53 Cuban mi­grants at the Car­i­tas shel­ter in Panama’s cap­i­tal when the de­ci­sion was an­nounced. Most had ar­rived in re­cent weeks af­ter slog­ging a sim­i­lar route that in­volved a flight from Cuba to Guyana fol­lowed by travers­ing the jun­gles of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colom­bia and fi­nally a gru­el­ing hike across the Darien Gap into Panama.

“This has left us frozen, in to­tal limbo, and sad be­cause it wasn’t worth risk­ing ev­ery­thing, our lives,” Marin, a 24-year-old cook wear­ing a Venezue­lan soc­cer jer­sey, said Thurs­day shortly af­ter the news broke. Po­lice in Peru near the Brazil­ian bor­der had stolen $200 from them, and now they were stuck.

“We can just wait and see what Trump can do,” Marin said, hold­ing out hope that Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump could re­verse the change as part of a de­sire to dis­man­tle the re­cent de­tente be­tween the U.S. and Cuba. “I have a bunch of cousins wait­ing for me in the United States.”

Jour­nal­ists ar­riv­ing at the shel­ter seek­ing re­ac­tion con­veyed the dev­as­tat­ing news. Some of the Cubans sat in stunned si­lence, while oth­ers moved anx­iously from one floor of the shel­ter to an­other with moist eyes.

Asked whether they would now re­turn to Cuba, a small group on the shel­ter’s pa­tio chanted that they would not re­turn dead or alive. The most an­i­mated among them was 26-year-old Yan­cys Diaz, who left Ha­vana in Septem­ber with her mother and daugh­ter.

“In Cuba we were ha­rassed by the au­thor­i­ties. Now we can’t think about go­ing back; some­one has to help us get out of this,” Diaz said, smack­ing the shel­ter’s wall in frus­tra­tion.

Tran­sit chal­lenges

The “wet foot, dry foot” pol­icy has ir­ri­tated Cuba’s gov­ern­ment for years, and its end was ne­go­ti­ated for months. From one day to the next, Cuban mi­grants to the U.S. went from a spe­cial class with spe­cial priv­i­leges to just like ev­ery­one else fol­low­ing the dan­ger­ous mi­grant routes through Cen­tral Amer­ica and Mex­ico.

Cubans can still re­quest hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief, but they have to pass a “cred­i­ble fear” process and present doc­u­men­ta­tion prov­ing they face a real threat in their coun­try. The out­come is far from cer­tain and can in­clude lengthy stays in de­ten­tion. Fail­ing that, they will be de­ported, in many cases to an is­land where they sold their homes and pos­ses­sions to fund the trip.

An es­ti­mated 100,000 Cubans have fled the is­land fear­ing the end of “wet foot, dry foot” since the an­nounce­ment Dec. 17, 2014, that the U.S. and Cuba were re-es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions.

But the ex­o­dus has cre­ated prob­lems in Cen­tral Amer­ica, es­pe­cially when Nicaragua closed its bor­der to Cubans in sol­i­dar­ity with the Ha­vana gov­ern­ment.

That stranded Cubans in Costa Rica and Panama, forc­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments to fly Cubans in their coun­tries to the Mex­i­can-U.S. bor­der.

Costa Rica last year flew more than 7,000 Cubans to El Sal­vador and Mex­ico to leapfrog Nicaragua. Gov­ern­ment spokesman Mauri­cio Her­rera said Costa Rica ap­plauds Obama’s move and no longer makes spe­cial al­lowances for Cubans. In 2016, 1,200 Cubans were turned back at the Pana­ma­nian bor­der while other groups caught en­ter­ing the coun­try il­le­gally were de­ported.

On Fri­day, Cubans con­tin­ued mov­ing north. In the south­ern Mex­i­can bor­der town of Ta­pachula, Jor­dan Ale­gria of the Mex­i­can Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion In­sti­tute said that since Thurs­day night 200 Cubans had crossed into Mex­ico from Gu­atemala.

Javier Car­rillo, di­rec­tor of Panama’s Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vice, said the flow of Cubans had slowed from its peak be­fore the an­nounce­ment. He es­ti­mated there were about 100 still in the coun­try, though lo­cal me­dia said there were far more.

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