The dangerous journey to the U.S.
On November 15, 2015, I met a young man at a restaurant in a western Cuban city. His American flag lapel pin and his English skills caught my attention. This was my first trip to Cuba and like any good student interested in learning about the country and its people, I listened attentively to what the young waiter had to say.
In a mere 30 minute conversation, sprinkled throughout dinner, I learned many things about his life. With no family members outside of Cuba, he and his immediate family live off his earnings as a waiter at the tourist restaurant. When I asked about his American flag lapel pin and possible opportunities to work outside of Cuba with his English speaking skills, he became very anxious and desperate. He expressed his desire to leave his home country as soon as possible, but that the financial burden is difficult to overcome when you have limited income. The cost for one or multiple visa applications, the cost of airfare, the cost of lodging and initial expenses until employment is found in the foreign country become overwhelming. This is especially true when you have no financial support or family members in the foreign country you seek to visit.
The desperation I saw and heard in this young man’s voice is not uncommon throughout Cuba. I imagine for Cubans who don’t work in the tourist industry and also have no family members outside of Cuba, the economic hardship is likely much greater.
One of the most surprising tidbits of information that this young man shared was how Cubans are opting to reach the U.S. border and how he would attempt to reach the U.S. While the Florida Keys are a mere 90 miles from Cuba, many Cubans choose to take a longer, more expensive, and in my opinion, a more dangerous route to the U.S.
In speaking with locals, many find U.S. visas to be costly and difficult to obtain. Many people seek Mexican visas as it makes the journey to the U.S. shorter. Venezuela is another option for Cubans; however, the situation in Venezuela is unstable and no better economically than Cuba.
In November, Cubans could fly to Ecuador without a visa. However, in early December Ecuador began requiring Cubans to obtain a visa. Cubans have been using Ecuador as a starting point for their long journeys to the U.S., making their way across Central America and Mexico. The number of Cubans making this journey has increased in the last year. According the Miami Herald, 45,000 Cubans reached U.S. check points along the Mexican border during the period ending in September 2015.
In mid-November, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cubans attempting to cross from Costa Rica. On December 28th the Costa Rican government announced an airlift deal that had been reached with five other countries. The airlift deal is scheduled to begin as early as Tuesday, January 12th. It is expected that several thousand stranded Cubans who can afford to pay $555 (adults) $350 (children) will be airlifted from Costa Rica to El Salvador and continue safe passage to Mexico. Upon their arrival in Mexico, Cubans will have to make their own way to the US border.
The path to the US for Cubans, once easy, became more difficult at the end of 2015.