Amid warming diplomatic relations, Cubans’ feverish sprint to US soil

by November 5, 2015 5:00AM ET

For many, the circuitous overland trek through Mexico is cheaper and safer than traveling by sea

US-Cuban Relations
Cuban migrants reach the Mexican side of the Suchiate River after crossing from Guatemala. The last country they have to traverse before reaching the U.S., Mexico is considered the most dangerous for them as they navigate corrupt government officials, gangs and traffickers.
Jonathan Levinson

CIUDAD TECÚN UMÁN, Guatemala — At 6 a.m., darkness swallows the cobbled streets of Ciudad Tecún Umán. Shadowy figures walk hurriedly to the river at the edge of town — a natural border between Guatemala and Mexico.

As men help women and small children onto makeshift tube rafts, bleary-eyed faces begin to take shape in the dim morning light. “We’ve been on this route for nearly a month,” said Alejandro Aganda, 47, lifting his 4-year-old daughter, Julieta, onto a raft.

Aganda negotiated his family’s passage across eight borders since leaving Cuba in September to start a new life in the United States. He; his wife, Sandra Maylin Santi, 25; and Julieta spent the past 25 days hopscotching across Ecuador, Colombia and Central America, avoiding capture by corrupt police and traversing the thick Colombian jungle by foot. “We left our fear back in Cuba,” said the resolute Aganda, formerly a cook in Havana, earning the equivalent of $12 a month.

When they reach the Mexican side of the riverbank, it is an 18-mile bus ride to the migration office of Tapachula, a tropical border city in the southern state of Chiapas surrounded by coffee plantations. There they join hundreds of other Cubans waiting to get an exit permit and continue their journey north.

Mexico processed a record 6,447 Cubans en route to the U.S. in the first nine months of the year, more than five times as many as in 2014, government statistics show. Yet the flow of Cuban migrants in October has already eclipsed this amount, officials told Al Jazeera.

“Last year we had about 1,800 Cuban nationals in our [migratory] stations,” said Mario Madrazo Ubach, the director-general of immigration control at Mexico’s national migration institute, INM. “This year, with still a couple of months to go, we already have more than 8,000.”

Alejandro Aganda and his wife Sandra Maylin Santi are transported by migration officials to a shelter on the outskirts of Tapachula, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala.
Jonathan Levinson

According to the national human rights commission, CNDH, more than 1,000 Cubans were processed at the Tapachula migratory facility in the space of one week in October, far more than the 2015 monthly average for the whole country.

The surge in Cubans is largely motivated by fears that their unique migration privileges could be revoked, after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington last year. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act has already been tweaked once to the detriment of migrants, when the U.S. implemented the 1995 “wet foot, dry foot” policy, stipulating that Cubans apprehended at sea be repatriated.

“Cubans are afraid that [the U.S.] will change the law, so many think they are running out of time,” said a government worker from Havana waiting outside the Tapachula migration facility.

Unlike all other foreigners, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are fast-tracked to permanent residency because of an American policy, dating back to the Cold War, deeming that those who flee to the U.S. are political refugees. Most countries along the land route now provide them with transit visas to continue their journey north, and the likelihood of deportation is increasingly slim.

Yet these nations are now struggling with the Cuban influx. In Honduras the migration office was closed during a three-day national holiday in October, resulting in a massive buildup of pending requests for transit visas. That, in turn, caused a huge spike in Mexico, overwhelming authorities’ ability to attend to them.

Cubans waited for days to be admitted inside the migration facility in Tapachula, the largest in Mexico, with capacity for almost 1,000 people. Many piled into nearby hotels or slept outside under tarps to escape the sweltering heat and rain. Others were received by César Augusto Cañaveral Pérez, a Catholic priest who has started to open the doors of his shelter for infirm migrants to Cubans.

The circuitous trip overland is attractive because it is cheaper and considered safer than traveling by sea. Cubans who enter the U.S. by sailing across the Florida Straits to Miami Beach pay about $10,000 to make the six-day voyage, migrants told Al Jazeera, whereas a monthlong slog across Central America and Mexico usually does not rise above $5,000. The lifting of travel restrictions on the island in 2013 has facilitated this process, enabling Cubans to fly part of the way if they can afford it.

In sharp contrast to the hundreds of thousands of impoverished Central Americans that flood across Mexico’s southern border each year — usually fleeing deadly violence from drug gangs — Cubans could easily be mistaken for tourists.

They are often well dressed and educated, having left Cuba in order to pursue economic opportunities that they cannot find at home. Many sell their property to afford the trip or scrounge money from relatives in Cuba and the U.S.

“Cubans are very well prepared,” said Edgar Corzo Sosa, a CNDH general inspector in Mexico City. “They travel in groups because they know there is safety in numbers. They are informed about the legal system, and they know their human rights.”

Cubans are becoming more outspoken about violations of those rights. In July this year, migrants from Cuba filed 15 complaints with the federal prosecutor’s office in Mexico against INM officials for allegedly demanding bribes.

“I got lucky, very lucky,” said Herman, 39, a Cuban engineer, recounting how he narrowly escaped Colombian police who roughed up one of his traveling companions and stole his money. “Now I hate Colombia. I will hate it forever.”

Some of the roughly 200 Cuban migrants who arrived in one day outside the migration office in Tapachula for transit visas. The office has been overwhelmed in the past couple of weeks by a surge of Cubans making their way to the U.S.
Jonathan Levinson

Herman, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against his family in Cuba, previously worked in a call center in Quito, Ecuador, selling vacation packages to tourists. When his work visa was not renewed, he began making preparations to join a cousin in Florida.

He spent three weeks researching the safest routes through the perilous mountains of Colombia — the longest leg of the journey, taking several days. When he reached the Colombian port city of Turbo, he used a smuggler, or coyote, to take him by boat to Panama.

Hoping to pass as an American and avoid being intercepted by authorities, he wore a blue wool hat accentuating the lighter tone of his skin and grew out a straggly gray beard, addressing police who stopped him in broken Spanish. “My technique was to pretend I was an American speaking in Spanish, and it worked, thank God,” he said.

Others are not so lucky. According to Cañaveral Pérez, Cubans are extremely vulnerable to extortion at every step of the journey, in part because many people believe Cubans will pay anything to reach the U.S., where they are almost assured asylum. But along the way, opportunistic hoteliers and drivers in Mexico charge them in dollars, at unfavorable exchange rates. Also, their identity cards are sometimes stolen and peddled on the black market, according to human rights activists, where they are hot items for other migrants, who want to pose as Cubans and take advantage of their visa privileges.

Among the other difficulties that Cubans face, some have complained about conditions in the migration facility in Tapachula, where they compete to be processed with hundreds of undocumented Central Americans.

“There was not enough food. The water was too cold to drink. The children slept on stinking mattresses on the floor covered in their own vomit and urine,” said Lazara García, 25, joining a chorus of angry Cuban mothers and fathers clutching coughing children as they streamed out of the migratory station late in the evening. “We were treated like criminals.”

INM officials have denied the allegations about conditions at the Tapachula migratory station. Al Jazeera was not granted access inside. “This is a huge increase in Cubans,” said Corzo Sosa. “So it is logical that in an abnormal situation, there will be problems.”

Under the fluorescent light of a hotel room in Tapachula’s busy downtown, Noel, 28, formerly a chef in the Cuban resort city of Varadero, cracked open a can of beer. Noel, who asked that his full name be withheld to avoid possible repercussions for family members still in Cuba, received a transit visa the previous day, allowing him to legally continue his journey to the Mexico-U.S. border. The struggles of the long journey seemed already behind him.

“Next stop, Miami,” he said with a smile, lifting the can to his lips to reveal a long, spiraling tattoo across his right arm. The focal point is a date written in thick black ink, 12-9-2015.

“That is the day I left Cuba,” he said, “and got my freedom.”

A shelter run by Catholic priest César Augusto Cañaveral Pérez on the outskirts of Tapachula takes in migrants from Cuba and elsewhere making the perilous journey to the U.S.
Jonathan Levinson