Exodus of Cubans walking to the U.S. is quickly becoming the Americas’ own refugee crisis

(Part I in Fusion’s special series on Cubans’ 5,000-mile trek to freedom. Full series at the bottom)

Borrowing a page from Hungary’s refugee playbook, Nicaraguan soldiers and riot police on Sunday used teargas, truncheons and roadblocks to repel a wave of nearly 2,000 undocumented Cuban emigrants who were trying to cross the southern border en route to the United States.

The Cubans, who had been piling up on the Costa Rican border for more than a week, were issued special safe passage visas by the Costa Rican government and given seven days to leave the country. Nicaragua, however, never signed off on the plan and refused to let the Cubans enter.

Instead, Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government is taking the opportunity to repay the Castro regime for years of generous solidarity by militarizing its border to halt the advance of Cuban emigrants who are considered traitors to the revolution.

Sandinista spokeswoman and first lady Rosario Murillo released an angry statement Sunday evening blaming Costa Rica of “violating our national sovereignty” and threatening Nicaragua’s security by orchestrating the “forced entry of thousands of irregular emigrants of Cuban nationality.”

“We blame the Costa Rican government for unleashing a humanitarian crisis that will have serious consequences for our region.”

- Rosario Murillo, spokeswoman for Nicaragua's Sandinista government

The border standoff between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is the latest in a rich history of unneighborly behavior between the two countries. But more importantly, it shows how the growing influx of Cubans beating a path to the United States has the potential to quickly develop into a serious refugee crisis in the Americas.

Wait, why are Cubans heading to the U.S. by land?

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But let’s take a step back for a second. Anyone with even a basic grasp on geography is probably wondering at this point in the story what thousands of Cubans are doing trying to walk to the United States via Central America, which is such a roundabout route that even eternally baffled navigators such as Christopher Columbus could probably chart a more direct path.

After all, when most people think of Cubans coming to the United States, they conjure up images of people crowded on makeshift rafts paddling purposefully towards the iconic Key West buoy that’s 90 miles away. On a map it looks like a short jaunt. But as Ernest Hemingway once wrote—and as every Cuban balsero can confirm with a solemn nod—”Brother, don’t let anybody tell you there isn’t plenty of water between Havana and Key West.”

As it turns out, brother, there’s also plenty of land between the two. More than 5,000 miles of mostly unfriendly terrain, starting in South America and wending its way up the spine of Central America and through Mexico. It may seem like an implausibly long detour to freedom, but it has become the preferred course of travel for most Cubans heading to the U.S. This year two out of every three Cuban immigrants arriving in the U.S. have entered through Texas instead of Miami. And in recent months the numbers are spiking in a way that’s changing hemispheric immigration flows and exacerbating tensions along borders throughout the region.

FSN_NEW MAP ROUTE_2Omar Bustamante

For most Cubans, the path to U.S. citizenship begins in the Andean highlands of Ecuador or the former British colony of Guyana. Those may seem like wondrously distant and absurd trailheads to the U.S., but Ecuador and Guyana are the only two countries on mainland Latin America that allow Cubans to enter without a visa. So the trip north to La Yuma, as Cubans call the U.S., usually begins with a 1,500 mile flight in the wrong direction to South America.

The long land bridge is used partly to avoid getting caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, as interdictions reach a two-decade high. It’s also a way for Cubans to leave their country legally, since escaping by raft is against the law. But many Cubans are simply afraid of rough waters. A lot of emigrants—especially those traveling with young families—say they’d rather risk two months of unknown jungle and foreign cities than brave two weeks in shark-infested waters on a raft cobbled together with metal barrels, inner tubes and 1950s car parts.

“I’m no fisherman. I have no experience at sea. You think I’m going to get on a raft made of four logs tied together? No way!” a Cuban man I met in the Panamanian jungle told me. “This way is longer, but psychologically I’m still on dry land.”

I met Jose, a former Cuban soldier who says he fought in Angola, on the Panamanian border. He was sleeping in the central park waiting for family to wire him money to continue his journey north.Tim Rogers

I met Jose, a former Cuban soldier who says he fought in Angola, on the Panamanian border. He was sleeping in the central park waiting for family to wire him money to continue his journey north.

The Cuban trail is becoming an increasingly crowded place throughout the hemisphere. Daily newspaper reports from the region chronicle the misfortunes of those who don’t make it.

Yet thousands more manage to wiggle through the Latin American gauntlet and arrive safely in Texas. A total of 18,397 Cubans have entered the U.S. at the Laredo border crossing in just the first nine months of this year—a 66% spike in traffic from last year, according to official U.S. data obtained by the Pew Research Center. Overall, 27,296 Cubans have entered the U.S. this year, up a whopping 78% from last year.

So why now? Why are so many Cubans suddenly decamping from their sunny isle at an historic moment that’s supposed to be filled with optimism and good cheer? After all, a public opinion poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi and published in Fusion last April showed that 97% of on-island Cubans said they’re beamishly optimistic about their country’s improving relations with the U.S. The mood couldn’t have changed that quickly, right?

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Well, it turns out that the pessimistic minority, when assembled on the same migrant trail, can still form a sizable crowd.

In a Fusion special investigative series, “Cubans’ 5,000 mile trek to freedom,” we will distill this story in a series of regional dispatches from Ecuador, Panama, the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border, and Texas. We’ve interviewed dozens of Cubans at different stages of the journey to get their stories. No two are the same, but the underpinning message is: The transition from communism to whatever comes next on Cuba isn’t necessarily a joyous moment for all islanders.

Those who’ve decided to leave insist the conditions back home are worsening due to the rising cost of living and shortening food supplies—a situation some blame on the dramatic increase of foreign tourists shuffling around their tropical island and gobbling up all the food. Others complain that the economic changes coming to Cuba are designed to benefit only the ruling military-political elite, while life for average citizens continues to be a slough. Almost everyone we talked to said they doubt substantive progress will happen on their island during their lifetime.

Cubans rest in Panama, near the Colombian border, waiting for immigration officers to grant them a safe passage visa. Others are broke and waiting for relatives in the U.S. to wire moneyTim Rogers

Cubans rest in Panama, near the Colombian border, waiting for immigration officers to grant them a safe passage visa. Others are broke and waiting for relatives in the U.S. to wire money

“You only have a window of about 40 years to make something of your life. In the first 15 years of life you’re just a kid, and in the last 15 years you’re already an old man. Now is my moment and I’m not waiting,” said 28-year-old Yunielo, who told me he sold his house in Havana for $4,000 to make the trip to the U.S.

He made it as far as Panama before running out of money.

Cubans rest on the ground after making it to PanamaTim Rogers

Cubans rest on the ground after making it to Panama

Hundreds of Yunielo’s fellow travelers are in a similar predicament. The scene on the Panamanian border with Colombia is, at least in appearances, reminiscent of the Syrian refugee crisis in Austria and Germany, only on a much smaller scale. I covered both events, and the parallels are impossible to ignore, even if the reasons for departure are different. Many Cubans, like their Syrian counterparts, are traveling with their entire family in tow, carrying all their earthly belongings slung on their back in rucksacks. Many are educated professionals who are just looking for a chance to find work and a fresh start in a new country. Many say they’re making the trek for the sake of their children’s future. And most have no homes to go back to (many Cubans sell their homes on the island to finance their all-or-nothing push to the U.S.).

For both the Cubans and the Syrians, there’s simply no going home.

Dozens more Cubans arrive in Puerto Obaldia, Panama.Tim Rogers/ Fusion

Dozens more Cubans arrive in Puerto Obaldia, Panama.

So are these itinerant Cubans immigrants or refugees? The distinction is becoming increasingly blurred throughout Central America, where hundreds—indeed thousands—of Cubans are getting stuck on different borders.

The Costa Rica-Nicaragua border is not the only bottleneck. In the remote Panamanian border outpost of Puerto Obaldia I recently encountered 700 Cuban immigrants who are trying to make their way north, according to Panamanian immigration numbers. More than 3,000 Cubans pass through this tiny town each month, and the number is growing.

Exhausted Cubans try to maintain high spirits in Puerto ObaldiaTim Rogers

Exhausted Cubans try to maintain high spirits in Puerto Obaldia

The perils of the trip have not stemmed the exodus from the island. Cubans, it seems, are more afraid of getting stuck in Cuba than they are of getting robbed in Colombia, lost in Panama, tear-gassed in Nicaragua, or killed in Mexico.

“I hope the U.S. never gives back Guantanamo, because if they do relations will normalize and it will be the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

- Cuban woman in Panama, who wished to remain nameless

Their journey to the U.S. is a race against time. Cubans are afraid that improving bilateral relations between Washington and Havana will bring an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a cold war immigration measure that allows any Cuban who arrives on U.S. shores to stay in the country legally and qualify for citizenship. No other country has that type of sweetheart deal, known popularly as the “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy. Once that gets replaced with a normalized immigration procedure, Cubans fear they’ll end up trapped on their island forming an endless queue for a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy. So it’s better to make a run for the border now while the doors are still open, they told me.

“That’s why all these people are here,” said Cuban emigrant Lester, motioning to all the other Cubans hanging around in the Panamanian jungle. “Cubans are afraid that [Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama] are going to make a deal after their hug, and the U.S. is going to revoke the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

Over the next week, Fusion will take an in-depth look at the Cubans’ who are making this historic run for the border, and the problems they’re confronting along the way.

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Full Cuba Series: