Hours before airline offices open in the morning, hundreds of Cubans They wait in line, hoping to get a rare off-island ticket.
For many Cubans, waiting is just the beginning of a long and dangerous journey to the United States.
During much of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cuba’s borders have been closed, making international travel nearly impossible.
But with the island reopening to the outside world, Cubans grappling with worsening food and medicine shortages, the impact of severe US economic sanctions and a government crackdown after unprecedented protests in July, many say they are preparing to leave their homeland for good.
Amid the crowds outside airline offices in the Havana business center, a self-described “facilitator” named Sergio (who declined to give his last name due to the nature of the service he was selling) offered to use their contacts to help people cut long lines in exchange for a “ratio” of fare.
“Most of these people won’t come back,” Sergio said. CNN“Perhaps some go to Nicaragua to shop, but most of them emigrate,” she added.
Mass immigration is complicated because most countries require Cubans to obtain a visa. The pandemic only complicates the situation. To enter the United States, Cubans must have proof of vaccination with an FDA-approved or WHO emergency-approved vaccine, which most Cubans on the island cannot obtain.
Cuba is still in the process of ratification by the World Health Organization of the vaccine developed in the same country. This means that Cubans with a US visa still cannot legally travel there without first being vaccinated in a third country.
In November, Nicaragua, a close ally of the island, waived the visa requirement, meaning that any Cuban with cash could buy a ticket and fly there, and then, it is believed, try to reach the US-Mexico border.
The Nicaraguan government has said it is opening its doors to Cubans to encourage trade, tourism and reunification of Cuban families.
Critics of the socialist governments of Cuba and Nicaragua accuse them of trying to provoke an immigration crisis (such as the one that occurred on the island in the 1980s and 1990s) that would allow thousands of Cubans, fed up with the island’s economic instability, to leave.
“The Biden administration must respond quickly and treat this matter as an act of hostility,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement.
After the Nicaraguan government announced that it had lifted the visa requirement, ticket prices for Copa Airlines (which fly from Havana to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, via Panama City) went up. Conviasa, the national airline of Venezuela and an ally of Cuba, began on Wednesday (15) direct flights from Havana to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
It is unclear how many Cubans will travel to the country in order to reach the United States. In October (before relocation), US Customs and Border Protection detained 5,870 Cuban immigrants along the border with Mexico. It was the highest number in more than two years.
Although more expensive than many Cubans can afford, the route through Nicaragua would be much cheaper and more direct than the one chosen by many Cubans who left the island during the pandemic.
Cuban who asked to CNN Calling him Miguel instead of his real name for security reasons, he crossed the US-Mexico border in September to join his family in Texas.
It was a journey that almost took him around the world.
“I went to Moscow because at that time there were no direct flights to Mexico,” Miguel said. I stayed in Moscow three days. From there I went to Mexico City via Turkey. I spent two days in Mexico City, then some people I know took me to Mexicali and from there I crossed the border (into the United States),” he said.
Other Cubans provided details of similar trips on social media.
Russia is one of the few countries that does not require Cubans to obtain a visa, so some Cubans use the road as a means of transit to other countries in Europe, with the ultimate goal of reaching the United States.
But in recent weeks, Russia has apparently begun to ban Cubans from visa-free travel to third countries.
In December, a group of 71 Cubans were denied entry to Russia and sent back to the island “for not meeting the requirements of tourists,” according to a statement from the Cuban Consulate in Moscow.
In the photos posted by the group’s members on social media, they gather together and sleep in the airport bathroom while they wait for their return flight to Cuba.
At the same time, Cubans are increasingly trying to cross the dangerous sea of the Florida Strait, which connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean.
The US Coast Guard caught 838 Cubans at sea in 2021, up from 49 the year before. Since October, 410 Cubans have been denied crossing.
On Saturday, the Cuban border patrol said it had rescued 23 people and recovered the bodies of two others who had tried to leave the island in a crowded boat.
Cuban officials blamed the US government for an increase in illegal immigration after the then-Trump administration terminated visa services at the US embassy in Havana in 2017. The shutdown followed hitherto unexplained illnesses that affected US diplomats who worked on the island.
For Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, Cuba’s top diplomat for US affairs, the Biden government has yet to engage with Cuba on immigration issues.
“The reality is that the United States is not fulfilling its obligations in the immigration agreements,” the diplomat said. CNN on Wednesday (15). “This reality creates problems that benefit neither country.”
A spokesperson for the US State Department told CNN They are “committed to the safe, orderly and regular migration of Cuban citizens to the United States” and that the pandemic has “forced” the ministry to make “difficult decisions” in a way that prioritizes consular services.
The spokesperson also said that they are reviewing plans to increase staff at the US Embassy in Havana and that they “understand” the financial and other challenges Cubans face in applying for visas.
“Lack of hope is one of the main drivers of irregular migration in the Americas, including Cuba as well,” the spokesperson added. “That’s why we support Cubans’ desires for freedom and respect for their human rights, as well as providing greater economic opportunities so that they can lead successful lives in their country.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.
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