|La Habana, Cuba|
During the first half of 2015, more and more Cubans began traveling through Central America instead of taking to the sea in order to reach the United States. This route, which basically began in 2012 and became more common by 2014, typically begins in Ecuador for most migrants. Ecuador is the easiest country for Cubans to travel to legally, but most do not stay long (in late 2015 Ecuador changed its policy on allowing Cuban citizens to enter visa free, halting most from traveling so easily).
El Pais, a Colombian news outlet, reported that many Cubans are smuggled into Colombia from Ecuador, beginning their journey north towards the United States. Most of these persons are reportedly having family members in the U.S. pay $3,000 to $4,000 for their journey to the U.S. border. The trip typically takes at least 30 days to reach the U.S. for those starting in Ecuador. Many are also temporarily detained for weeks at a time on their journey.
Once entering Colombia, most Cuban migrants travel to port cities like Buenaventura and are taken to neighboring Panama by sea. In April, 21 Cuban migrants were detained near the Colombia-Panama border. Those detained included a pregnant mother and a 2 year old child. In total, 8,435 Cuban migrants were detained in Panama during 2014. The Wall Street Journal reported that most of these traveled by sea from Colombia.
Some migrants are taken through the more dangerous route, the Dairen Gap. The Darien Gap is a thick jungle that acts somewhat as a thick border between Colombia and Panama. The area spans 99 miles long and 31 miles wide, with little to no civilization inside it. According to the Panamanian government, 8,458 Cubans were detained at the Darien Gap between 2013 and the end of February 2015.
Once the migrants make it onto Panamanian soil, they typically head for a stop in Panama City. If migrants are detained in parts of Panama near the Darien, they are processed and brought to the city. Most are released after two weeks and instructed to leave the country on their own. This is an order that is rarely followed.
Alongside a group of 24 Cubans detained leaving Colombia for Panama in May were 14 Ghanaians, two Cameroonians, and a Haitian. Migrants from Africa and Asia are often smuggled alongside Cubans from Ecuador and Colombia.
After the migrants leave Panama City, they are believed to typically travel by bus networks through the rest of Central America. In the first four and half months of 2015, over 1,800 Cuban migrants were detained in Honduras. It is unlikely Honduras will ever have the resources to mass deport those detained back to Cuba.
Costa Rica had turned to handing out seven day transit visas to Cuban citizens merely headed north through the nation. But in November, neighboring Nicaragua turned back more than 1,700 Cubans to Costa Rica. Security forces returned the migrants across the border into Costa Rica, leaving the travelers stranded.
By December, an estimated 8,000 Cuban citizens were stranded at this border. Another several thousand were stuck in Panama to the south. Most of the Central American nations claimed they could not take on the burden of the migrants passing through and stated they would not allow passage of the large numbers of Cubans.
After much debate, and a plea by the Pope, Costa Rica finally came up with a plan to start flying some of the migrants to El Salvador in January of 2016. From there the migrants would be expected to travel by bus to the United States.
Not all Cubans rush through the journey. Some have to stop to work in cities along the way to support their trip or to pay traffickers. It is not rare to run into Cubans working temporary jobs in major cities in Colombia and Central America for Cuban business owners, as day laborers, and in prostitution.
Those traveling from Cuba to the U.S. through this route are typically trekking through eight countries. If the migrants make it through the sea or jungle between Panama and Colombia, they must soon face perilous Central America nations. Honduras and El Salvador have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. The next nations, Guatemala and Mexico, are notoriously known for criminals preying on migrants using the nations as a transit country.
Cubans are still allowed refugee status and the right to stay in the U.S. if they reach American soil. This policy, often referred to as “wet foot, dry foot”, means that only Cubans who are detained at sea are turned back. Those that reach the U.S. are eventually given residency status.
The distance from Cuba to Florida is only 90 miles, but the latest wave of migrants believe they have a better chance at survival by making the long trek by land after arriving in South America. According to Al-Jazeera America, many Cubans are taking the journey now because they are afraid that the U.S. will drop its “wet foot, dry foot” policy because of thawing relations with Cuba.
Cuba’s own travel restrictions were loosened in 2013, which helped pave the way for more Cubans to even leave the island in the first place. A costly exit fee was removed and a larger number of Cubans were allowed to travel legally to nations like Ecuador and Spain.
Cuban migrants often face their toughest test on their last and longest leg in Mexico. At this point they are joined by large groups of Central American and Mexican migrants heading north to the U.S. border. Gangs and cartels routinely prey on migrants, robbing and raping vulnerable travelers.
In 2008 Mexico signed a pact with Cuba to deport Cubans illegally migrating through Mexico. Before this pact, Cubans were allowed 10 to 30 days to travel to the U.S. border and exit the nation.
In May, 59 detained Cubans threatened to go on hunger strike if their legal status was not immediately determined. The Cubans had been detained in Tapachula, Mexico since late 2014. Many of these detainees are still only temporarily detained and then allowed to continue to the U.S.
In 2007, a surge of Cuban migrants used the sea route from Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico near Cancun. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this resulted in 11,000 Cubans being cleared at the border to continue on into the U.S.
The 140 mile smuggling route from Cuba to Mexico was slowed in following years by Mexican and U.S. authorities stepping up patrols in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2015, More than 43,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States during the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30. This was an increase of more than 77 percent compared with the previous fiscal year.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Spanish News Agency EFE that between October 1, 2014, and September 30, 2015, 43,159 Cubans arrived in the United States. During the previous fiscal year there were 24,278 Cuban arrivals.
The majority of the immigrants (30,966) crossed over the border from Mexico, according to figures compiled by border authorities in El Paso, Laredo, Tucson and San Diego.
Back in La Habana, everyone knows someone that has recently taken the long route to the U.S. The absence of 20 to 30 year old people on the streets is becoming evident. Many that are still on the island are saving their money in hopes they still have a chance to make the long trip, despite the difficulties those currently on the route are facing.
Questions still linger on what will happen with the policy on refugees as the U.S. and Cuba begin a new era in diplomatic relations. On July 20, Cuba raised its flag in Washington D.C. at its now official embassy building.
Despite new relations between the nations, little has been discussed publicly about those leaving Cuba for the U.S. More Americans are now allowed to visit Cuba and more Cubans are now allowed to leave the island, but the fear of another massive exodus are on the minds of some.
While some may hang tight hoping that Cuba will become a better nation because of U.S. influence and tourism, most wanting to leave will still leave. The average Cuban still makes on average the equivalent of $20 USD per month, which is hardly enough to even buy Wi-Fi cards to stay in contact with family in the U.S. The large numbers risking the dangerous trip clearly show that Cuba has a long ways to go before it is known as a nation that has opportunity for its own youth.
Between 2013 and 2015, K. Mennem traveled throughout Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.