Ecuador's lack of visa requirements has attracted Cubans who see it as a several-year stopover en route to the United States. A neighborhood in Quito, the capital, is endearingly called the new Florida.
But in a sense, Ecuador has become the new Florida for many Cubans. Since mid-2008, no foreigner has needed a visa to enter this country. Cubans have responded enthusiastically, driven by business dreams, hopes for prosperity, and perhaps a goal of eventually moving to the US.
According to the National Directorate of Migration, 4,783 Cubans entered the country in 2007, a number that grew to 10,948 in 2008 and 27,114 in 2009. Of those Cubans who entered the country in 2009 on tourist visas, some 4,000 stayed on. Most managed to become naturalized and receive an Ecuadorean passport through arranged marriages.
José Ernesto Zamora, a restaurant owner, arrived in Quito a year and a half ago after trying his luck in Russia and Venezuela. He divorced his wife in Cuba so that he could marry again here. "I left to try and improve my economic conditions," he says.
Mr. Zamora's paperwork came at minimal fuss and cost. But with marriage the quickest route to citizenship, a thriving business in illegal papers and arranged unions has emerged. In response, government officials in March established that foreigners who have entered on a tourist visa may not marry here without obtaining a different kind of visa.
"People get together on the Internet, but up to a certain point," says Eduardo Barrera, who heads the Advisory Council for Migration Policy.
For many observers, the question is why Cubans are choosing Ecuador, a country with high unemployment and poverty rates.
Some say that Ecuador has become the new steppingstone to the United States – a claim for which there is only anecdotal evidence from Cubans, as official data are lacking. Many use their new Ecuadorean citizenship to set up business with Cuba. They go back and forth with merchandise – most often clothes or shoes they resell on the black market at higher prices.
Others have come here hoping to get better salaries, but are disappointed when told they are qualified for their jobs, but couldn't be hired because they were not Ecuadorean.
Most, however, seem to agree that had they not been desperate to leave Cuba, they would never be here.
Zamora is not planning to stay forever. He knows what his next destination is: Florida, the American one, as soon as he can get citizenship, divorce his Ecuadorean wife, and reunite with his Cuban one.