News Analysis: Airlift only short-term solution to Cubans trapped in Costa Rica

January 5, 2016 6:22 am 

SAN JOSE, Jan. 4 — A burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Central America seemed to have got a temporary solution last Tuesday when regional countries agreed to begin next week airlifting around 8,000 Cuban migrants from Costa Rica to El Salvador.

With the first flight set for early January, the migrants will then be transferred to Mexico by bus before continuing their journey onto the U.S., their final destination.

The number of Cuban migrants traveling to the U.S. dramatically increased in 2015, as fears have grown that the rapprochement between Washington and Havana will see the favorable American immigration policy for Cubans be scrapped soon.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in 1966, states that the Cubans who arrive on American soil will be fast-tracked for work permits, economic assistance and permanent residency status.

It is estimated that over 43,000 Cubans entered the U.S. during 2015, while around 24,000 in 2014. Many are now choosing to risk the long route through Central American countries as the U.S. Coast Guard keeps patrolling the Straits of Florida.

The sheer scale of Cubans pouring into the borders led Nicaragua to shut its borders on Nov. 15, leaving thousands stuck in Costa Rica and Panama.

Nicaragua's refusal to budge has been such that it did not participate in the meetings between Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras to solve the situation.

Upon its announcement on Tuesday, the airlift plan was hailed as a huge breakthrough. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez called it "absolutely exceptional" as a lasting example of regional cooperation.

Nevertheless, while the airlift will certainly come as a relief for the currently stranded Cubans, it remains little more than a stopgap.

To start with, there is no guarantee that all the Cubans will be transported to El Salvador. If they are, no timeframe has been made clear. Even the basic question of who will pay for all these flights has not been fully settled.

Furthermore, any Cubans now trapped in Costa Rica will be deported as the airlift will not apply to them.

As Ecuador has canceled its no-visa policy for Cubans and Nicaragua attacked the immigrants with tear gas, the plight of the Cubans transiting Central American countries is not getting easier.

However, the deal does not solve any long-term issues.

With 8,000 Cubans still stranded in Costa Rica, Cuban officials have poured scorn on the U.S. authorities, reiterating that the current migrant crisis was caused by "the migratory privileges" Washington has offered Cuban migrants.

Cuban President Raul Castro has been adamant that the "wet foot, dry foot" policy by the U.S. is racist and encourages people trafficking.

Until Washington abandons its politically motivated "wet foot, dry foot" policy, more Cubans are willing to risk their lives on their way to America.

Furthermore, this migratory policy continues to be one of the main obstacles preventing the full normalization of ties between the U.S. and Cuba.

However, any policy change of this kind is unlikely to happen before U.S. presidential elections in November 2016. For many of the Republican Party, including Senator Marco Rubio, Cuba represents the last ideological bastion of the Cold War. In their eyes, the Castros are enemies of the U.S. that must be fought and their people must be welcomed, if possible.

As a result, the Cuban lobby in Florida is so influential that President Barack Obama will not risk shutting out Cuban immigrants, for fear of Florida voting Republican.

This hedging means that more Cubans are likely to make the perilous trip through South and Central America to Mexico and then the U.S. border.

The new airlift operations will help those currently stranded, but urgent planning is needed to deal with the upcoming complex situation. (PNA/Xinhua)

RMA/SSC

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