PEDRO DE ALVARADO, GUATEMALA – After more than three months stranded in Costa Rica, 180 of the 8,000 Cuban migrants trapped there finally began their long-awaited trip north toward the U.S. border, flying to El Salvador and then traveling by bus to Guatemala on Wednesday.
The first pilot flight took off from Costa Rica’s Daniel Oduber airport in the northern city of Liberia late Tuesday night as part of a regional agreement to overcome Nicaragua’s refusal to let them through by land.
The migrants appeared to get special treatment along the way: They were greeted by El Salvador’s foreign minister upon arrival in that country even as, when they got to the Guatemalan border, they saw a busload of Salvadoran migrants headed the other way after being deported back from the United States.
The Cubans won’t have to worry about that due to a U.S. immigration policy that lets them stay if they reach the United States. That special status initially raised some resentment in Central America nations whose citizens are often deported from the U.S. if they enter without visas.
But the Cubans’ trip was smooth so far. Private chartered transportation and transit visas had already been arranged for them.
“It has all been very quick, thank God,” said Ruben Chil Cruz, who left his wife and two children behind in Cuba.
But Chil Cruz said he wasn’t sure exactly how he would cross Mexico, known for vicious attacks on and kidnappings of migrants, especially those from Central America. He said he didn’t plan to use a smuggler in Mexico and hoped immigration officials there could give him advice on how to travel to the U.S. border. From there, he said, he plans to travel to Miami.
But he expected the trip to be quick. “I think I will get to the United States by Sunday,” he said.
For most Central American migrants, the trip takes weeks or sometimes months.
Cuban migrants previously got through even faster by traveling a well-established route through Ecuador — which until December did not require they secure entry visas — and then north through Central America. But close Havana ally Nicaragua closed its southern frontier to the Cubans Nov. 13, creating a logjam of thousands stuck in Costa Rica.
Central American nations and Mexico later reached an agreement on the pilot program to help the Cubans leapfrog Nicaragua by air. Mexico’s Interior Department issued a statement Wednesday vowing to quickly issue temporary transit papers giving them 20 days to leave the country.
Emigration from Cuba has spiked dramatically in the year since Havana and Washington announced they would restore diplomatic relations. Many Cuban migrants say they’re making the journey now for fear that detente could bring an end to the U.S. policies that given them privileged treatment.
Cubans selected for the first flight said they were relieved to finally be on their way.
“They told me four days ago and I still don’t believe it. I didn’t expect to be in the first group,” said Lislenia Fernandez, who arrived in Costa Rica from Panama on Nov. 8 with her husband, Yordani Casanova. “I’m happy because I can travel with my husband.”
Fernandez said she hopes to get to Miami, where her brother-in-law is, but she had to leave behind her sons aged 4 and 8: “We are going to look for a way to bring them over.”
Arnobis Tellez also left behind three children and a grandchild in Cuba. Like Chil Cruz, he wasn’t sure how he would cross through Mexico.
“These last months have been terrifying, because nobody thought this was going to happen,” Tellez said. “We thought that by this time we would all be in the United States.”
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said he wished all migrants in the region had such a happy story.
“With this action (for the Cubans) we are showing dignified treatment and respect for human rights,” he said, “which are things that the administration of El Salvador’s president … is asking for our own migrants.”