As US-Cuba ties warm, Cuban migrants take overland route north

Countries in Central America are grappling with rising numbers of Cubans trying to reach the US. The exodus appears driven by concerns that preferential US policies for Cuban migrants may expire.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Cuban migrants receive food at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua in Penas Blancas on Tuesday. Their goal is to reach the United States, where Cubans receive special treatment that welcomes them without a visa.

Hundreds of Cuban men, women, and children sit at a dusty bus station on Costa Rica’s southern border here on a recent afternoon, waiting for legal papers to transit the country. 

They’re making their way to the United States, trying to get there while migration policies still favor Cubans. Although the White House says it has no plans to halt the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that fast-tracks legal residency for Cubans on US territory, the Cuban government says the rule contradicts efforts between the two countries to normalize relations. 

Since the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations last December, the majority of citizens in both nations have welcomed the detente between cold war enemies. US vacationers are keen to visit the island and US companies are looking for trade deals.

Yet some Cubans seem to doubt that the benefits will soon flow their way. More than 27,000 Cuban migrants have entered the US between January and September this year, up nearly 80 percent over the same period last year.

“There’s a large cohort of Cubans that are frustrated,” says Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “Especially younger people that don’t find a future in Cuba and don’t expect things to change substantially in the future, even though by all accounts Cubans are welcoming this new phase [with the US].”

Luis Rodríguez, a taxi driver from Havana who was waiting for papers Saturday in Paso Canoas, seemed unimpressed by the US-Cuban diplomatic thaw. “Politics is between the governments," he says. "For the people there’s nothing."

"We’re not interested in politics,” says Mr. Rodríguez’s older bother, Roberto. “We’re interested in food, work."

A long time coming?

Unlike in the past, when most Cuban migrants piled onto makeshift boats to reach US soil, this wave of migrants is taking a more circuitous and expensive route to avoid being caught and sent back. They typically fly first to Ecuador, one of the few nations in the region with visa-free travel for Cubans. From there, they continue overland, through Colombia, across Central America, into Mexico, and finally across the US border. The trip can cost between $5,000 and $15,000; police and gangs take their cut along the way. 

Roberto Rodríguez, who also drives a taxi, says he decided to go overland because it was safer. "It's very dangerous [traveling by boat], bad weather. Anything can happen to you out there,” he says.

“Here, there are dangerous parts too, but,” it’s a calculated risk, he says.

Given the high cost of the trip, many of these migrants likely have relatives in the US or another country who can fund the journey, Mr. Duany says.

Jhoan Rodríguez, sitting with his family on a piece of cardboard at the border crossing, says the threat of US immigration policy change was a big motivator for his travel. He says he's hopeful that renewed diplomatic relations with the US will have an impact on the island – he's just not willing to wait and see.

"I think the hope of all Cubans is that this path leads to a better life for the Cuban people so they don’t have to" leave for the US in the future, he says. 

But for Levi Fontaine, who is trying to make his way to Hialeah, Fla. to reunite with his father, he's been thinking about this journey for a while.

“The decision to leave Cuba didn’t start now. It started 10 years ago,” Mr. Fontaine says, referring to Cuba as "a prison.” He says wages back home were too low to make ends meet. His goal is to make enough money in the US to bring his mother and sister over from Cuba as well.

'Let's not talk about that'

In an echo of the much-larger refugee crisis in Europe, transit countries in Central America are feeling the pressure of the growing number of migrants from Cuba. On Sunday, Nicaragua shut its border with Costa Rica and deployed tear gas against those trying to cross.

Costa Rica also tried to tamp down on the flow of Cubans passing through earlier this month, announcing it would stop offering transit visas. However, as the population built up at its southern border with Panama, where an estimated 300 Cubans arrive daily, Costa Rica reversed course and said it would issue seven-day safe passage visas.

Back in Paso Canoas, those waiting to get into Costa Rica say they are set on reaching the US. When asked what he would do if he were stopped in another country on his way to the US and deported, the elder Rodríguez laughs, and then sighs: “Let’s not talk about that.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to As US-Cuba ties warm, Cuban migrants take overland route north
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today