Central America in the Face of Cuban Migration

This post is also available in: Español 


The recent case of Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica illustrates the fact that, in the current international environment, any situation regarding migration – whether it be refugees or asylum seekers, political or economic migrants, individuals or groups – turns into a diplomatic issue over border control. However, there are certain things that set this case apart, and may help to clear up why people are emigrating, political opportunism and semantics aside.

The context, migratory dynamics, government responses, and possible solutions are four elements that cannot be ignored in terms of understanding what is occurring and, at the same time, interpreting its meaning.

The Context

It’s no secret that Cubans have historically emigrated for political reasons, and that more recently this has shifted to economic reasons. The political conditions in Cuba have been a key factor in the emigration of more than 40,000 people each year. In turn, the United States has allowed any Cuban that sets foot on US soil to obtain legal residency through refugee status. In the meantime, the Cuban economic situation worsened at the end of the 2000s, leading to a new wave of migrants seeking a better standard of living abroad.   

There are three key points in how the Cuban government relates to migration. First, remittances have represented a very important source of income for the Cuban economy and depend on a continued flow of migrants. Remittances to Cuba, which are estimated at US$1.6 billion, are one of the primary sources of income and support for more than 600,000 households on the island. Second, not only has migration constituted a very important “escape valve” for the Cuban economy, economic reforms have actually relied on the increase of remittances, as well as investment by Cubans abroad and remittance recipients, to develop the local economy. Third, issuing passports increases the flow of migrants and coincides with the Ecuadorian policy of not requiring visas for Cubans. When the United States proposed renewing its diplomatic relations with Cuba one year ago, rumors that the so-called “Wet feet, dry feet” policy would disappear caused fear among many Cubans, giving rise to a new wave of migration.

In fact, as the following table indicates, Cuban migration abroad, and to the United States specifically, has increasingly followed a trend of traveling by land from Quito, Ecuador.


Migratory Dynamics

What has changed in recent years is an increasing trend towards indirect migration from Cuba to the United States using third countries and migratory networks that include “coyotes.” This movement is not new, but reflects the fact that Cubans are using the same migratory networks as other nationalities to reach their destination. This is a journey that costs at very minimum US$7,000 and in some cases more than US$12,000.

The journey is extensive, departing from Cuba towards Quito, Ecuador and passing through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Thousands of Cubans have been passing through Central America for years. What has changed was a breakdown in the trafficking networks that emerged as a result of the growing demand itself. The increase in Cuban emigrants gave rise to an increasing number of intermediaries to facilitate their passage through South America and Central America, which in turn began to raise prices and set rates for Cubans. At the same time, demand was growing among a migrant population that saw the Ecuadorian route as an economically viable option.

Government Responses

Until recently, at the end of September, 2015, Cubans passed through these countries with the help of “coyotes.” In Costa Rica, they typically received a safe passage across the border. Nicaragua let them pass through as well since they were “controlled” numbers, until the network fell apart and many migrants began to be stranded in Panama or Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s initial response was to grant them a temporary transit visa for 7 days such that, for humanitarian reasons, they could continue their journey. Nicaragua responded by closing their borders and claiming a variety of justifications, such as that the Costa Rican decision was a provocation, and the Nicaraguans could therefore not let them pass through for national security reasons. At another point, Nicaraguan lawmakers argued that if they let one nationality through, they would have to do the same for all nationalities. Finally, they complained to SICA that the country was not going to condone “the legitimization of illegal migratory policies.”

These responses reflect the two countries’ respective foreign policy stances. Costa Rican foreign policy has promoted and defended human rights, as well as supported the respect for self-determination. Moreover, and with respect to the international arena, it is no accident that Costa Rica has maintained a pro-democracy stance in opposition to the Cuban regime, a stance that was accentuated in the 1970s during the chancellery of Gonzalo Facio. In this sense, the decision by Costa Rica to grant visas responds to a mixture of humanitarian and ideological references to Cuba. But make no mistake, although ideology counts, humanitarian considerations have had great weight in Costa Rica’s decision. Each year, hundreds of African and Asian migrants cross the Costa Rican border and are also given visas. In some cases, those who are migrating without documents receive a subpoena for asylum, but they usually eventually leave the country and move onward.  

Nicaraguan foreign policy has historically been guided by more universal principles and ideologies. The country’s international relations and policies have been directed by the party in power and show a strong ideological axis of support and even subordination to Cuba – and to Venezuela, more recently.

At the same time, it is a country where ideology is often put before human rights. Nicaragua has also been silent on recent human rights violations in other countries, not only Cuba, but also Syria under Assad and Ukraine after the Russian invasion of Crimea (instead of supporting a UN resolution to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia). Nicaragua has also congratulated Kim Jong-Il for his so-called dedication to the peace and prosperity of North Korea, among other things.  

With regards to migration, Nicaragua lacks a migration policy and has showed little interest in maintaining ties with the thousands of Nicaraguan migrants that leave their country each year for reasons that are as much economic as they are political. In large part, the response by Nicaragua has been perceived as immature, subordinated to its relationship with Cuba and an expression of arrogance and ego. Instead of addressing the issue at hand, Nicaragua has tried to shift the debate and engage in a vindictive discourse against the United States. In this sense, the Nicaraguan response was to be expected, unfortunate as it may be.


The situation of the Cuban migrants cannot be resolved with one or two steps. It requires complex joint actions as well as sustained work at multiple stages. Ecuador’s decision to require visas, while it partially closes a door, also creates a space for the countries involved, and Costa Rica in particular, to look for alternatives. However, this situation also responds to the US open-door policy, which the United States must address. This element is crucial; When the United States increased its maritime patrols, Cubans increasingly opted to migrate by land, via Central America.  

In the short term, it is imperative that a solution be found for the 5,000 Cuban migrants. As such, it is important that they be allowed to arrive at their destination, whether it is by plane or by boat, as long as it does not pass through Nicaragua.

In the long term, the United States and Cuba must agree on migratory methods and controls in favor of the Cubans that have already left and those that still wish to migrate. This requires recognizing that there is a refugee crisis, with more than 25,000 that have already entered by land this year.  By the same token, the United States cannot ignore the fact that more than 100,000 Central Americans are crossing into the United States each year (plus another 15,000 Nicaraguans that enter Costa Rica) for some of the very same reasons. This symmetry is important to recognize. All of this points to the fact that while the political and economic situation in Central America and the Caribbean are deteriorating, migration is very much on the rise.