Secret deal hatched to airlift 8,000 Cubans out of Costa Rica and put them back on track to U.S.

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

Sidestepping Nicaraguan intransigence, Costa Rica and five other countries have announced a secret deal to airlift some 8,000 Cuban immigrants out of Costa Rica and into El Salvador, where they’ll be put on buses and transported up to Mexico in the last leg of their harrowing 5,000-mile journey to the United States.

The decision to leapfrog Nicaragua comes nearly six weeks after the Sandinista government decided to militarize its southern border and prevent Cubans from continuing their journey north through Central America. Cuban immigrants have been piling up on the border ever since, as their numbers swelled from 1,500 to some 8,000, according to the number of temporary visas issued by Costa Rican authorities.

Nicaraguan soldiers guard the borderTim Rogers

Nicaraguan soldiers protect the border from Cuban families

Costa Rica, which is lodging the Cubans in 37 temporary shelters, tried to broker several regional accords, all of which were blocked by Nicaragua. That prompted Costa Rica last week to announce its withdrawal from the Central American Integration System (SICA) and threaten to deport thousands of Cubans stuck on its border.

DSC_0368Tim Rogers

Cuban men head back towards a shelter along the Costa Rican border

Costa Rica’s hardball tactics seemed to have worked. Days later a secret deal was hatched between Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Notably absent was Nicaragua, which continues to do the bidding of the Castro brothers by blaming the crisis on the U.S.’ wet-foot/ dry-foot immigration policy, echoing complaints by the Cuban government.

Nicaragua? Absent. The rest of Central America gets it donecourtesy of Costa Rican foreign ministry

Nicaragua? Absent. The rest of Central America gets it done

Costa Rica, however, had to find a solution that was faster than the speed of geopolitics. And it appears to have finally brokered a deal, after weeks of bilateral and regional diplomacy.

With an arrangement in place, a solution to the worsening migrant problem could be just weeks away; the first airlift flights scheduled for early January, although the logistics and finance of the arrangement remain top secret at the behest of the countries involved.

“The technical meeting in Guatemala has concluded, and the results are positive,” said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González. “The member countries have asked that we be discretional about the details of the agreement and we need to respect that.”

Stranded Cubans on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua borderTim Rogers

Stranded Cubans on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border

The brokered deal comes amid reports that human-trafficking networks were starting to flourish along the militarized Nicaraguan border, where smugglers are offering to sneak desperate Cuban families up to Honduras. The situation has gotten so bad that Pope Francis addressed it during his Sunday mass on Dec. 27, saying “My thoughts at this moment go out to the numerous Cuban migrants who find themselves in difficulty in Central America, some of whom are victims of human trafficking.”

The pope called on the countries of the region to find a solution to the problem as soon as possible. And 24 hours later, they did.

For thousands of Cubans, that gives new hope for the New Year.

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