How Cubans rather risk their lives with coyotes than waiting for US-Cuba normalization

The reason behind increasingly Cuban migrants’ attempts to reach the US is to be found in the mainly business-oriented normalization deal and lack of interest in facing serious migratory agreements

After being caught by Colombian migration authorities in the Northern city airport of Barranquilla, Cuban nationals Osmany Rabassa y Alberto Leon declared they paid local traffickers around a thousand dollars for a fake Colombian identity card. Both Cubans, disguised as Costeños, Caribbean Colombians, were trying to fly to Panama City and then walk the whole Central America toward the US. Local Colombian officers, facing an impressive flow of migrants in transit through the country, got used to trick them by asking to sing some strophes of the national anthem.

The historical rapprochement between the US and Cuba and the ongoing rounds of negotiations have left many Cubans living in the island skeptical. Many fear that normalization would lead to the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which sanctions that Cubans who reach US soil are given the opportunity to get a resident permit. Even if US governments expressed at the beginning of January its intention to maintain untouched the law, the reconciliation caused an increase in Cubans attempt to reach the US.

But few are now the balseros who, on improvised boats, are risking their life to cross the heavy patrolled stretch of sea of fifty miles between the island and Florida. Most of Cuban migrants prefer instead a much longer road: they take a flight to Ecuador in order to start a 4000 miles route, often accompanied by Nepalese, Ghanians, Somalis and Bangladeshi, through selvas, local coyotes and corrupted officials, until they reach the Mexico border with the US.

Cubans are now essentially leaving the island due to lack of economic opportunities and trust in their government recent global economic overture. At least since the massive flow which started at the beginning of the 1990s, political reasons among Cuban migrants are practically missing. Indeed, both administrations too seem more interested in personal economic interests beside the normalization deal, while excluding from the agenda serious talks on migration and the increasing people movement between the two neighbor countries.

Pan-American Highway of despair and corruption

National Colombian Army recently detected in the Gulf of Urabà more than 50 migrants, 24 of them Cubans, who were attempting to cross the border toward Panama on a perilous route passing through sea and jungle. Nearly every week Colombian authorities come across groups of migrants who in different ways are attempting to reach Panama; more than a thousand only this year, mainly Cubans. Of the 2000 cases detected in 2014 by Migracion Colombia, the authority in charge of migration and belonging to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, almost half were Cubans.

Most of migrants start their journey in Ecuador, a country in which Cubans are exempt of visa, and where human traffickers placed their global recruitment headquarters. In Quito, local and international smugglers provide them with contacts for at least few places on the road. They cross first the porous Rumichaca border and they walk up north through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico toward the US border. Local Costa Rica media calculated that around 400 Cubans actually enter the country every week. In Honduras, in the last five months, around 2000 Cubans already passed through the country with a transit visa.

Local traffickers and corrupted authorities on the road, often doing business together, are the ones who most profit from the uncertainty around the Cuba-US rapprochement, its main business-oriented character and their lack of interest in discussing migration issues.

Cuba economic overture is business for everyone, not for common Cubans

The recent increase in Cubans migration is symptomatic too of the lack of trust in Cuba economic overture to the global business community, and in the US-Cuba business-oriented reconciliation. Indeed, the removal of Cuba from US terrorist list, which is finally, but only partially, repairing decades of injustice against the island, just represents a first step toward safer investments in the island.

And while waiting for the removal of the anachronistic economic embargo, the increasing surge in the US of politically transversal anti-embargo lobbies, sheds even more light on the business approach to half a century of what was a political and propaganda war between the former enemies.

Toward Cuba-US flexible borders

As was evident in the January first meeting of the binational commission on migration issues, both Cuba and the US seem not really interested in regulating the flow of migrants and people’s movement. Both countries enjoy the migration special relation for different reasons. The US defends the privilege for Cubans as a political way to give asylum to those escaping from what they still formally consider a military dictatorship. Cuba, which is still accusing the US of fomenting illegal migration from the island, enjoys the measure in order to lower the country unemployment ticking bomb, along with informally benefiting from the new Cuban-Americans remittances and their frequent visits to the island.

The recent case of the 38 Cubans stranded for weeks on a US Coast Guard boat in the middle of the sea near the Virgin Islands, well explains how Cuban migrants have become in the last decades a tool for both governments to achieve political goals, to blackmail the other or to display some kind of victory in the propaganda war. Such as was during the crisis of the balseros at the beginning of the 1990s, and which led to new migration agreements.

US and Cuba need to seriously face instead the actual conditions in terms of people’s movements between the countries, and also take into consideration the future increasing presence of US tourists on the island, after decades of travel restrictions. Conditions that were informally built in the last decades, especially due the use of Cuban population by both sides for their own political goals. The normalization agenda should pave the way for an all inclusive migration agreement with flexible and easy-accessible visa requirements from both sides.

Once used as symbols of the global fight between capitalism and communism, common Cubans and migrants are still trapped in the middle of uncertain political negotiations with strong economic interests from both sides. An agreement which seems necessary for not putting Cubans in the hands of human traffickers, actually another relevant actor in the mainly business-oriented US-Cuba normalization process.