Costa Rica Begins Air Lift of Cubans to El Salvador

The first group of Cubans heads tonight for El Salvador and points beyond.
The first group of Cubans heads tonight for El Salvador and points beyond.

HAVANA TIMES — Costa Rica begins tonight an air bridge to El Salvador to transfer a first group of 180 Cubans of a total of around 8,000 stranded in the country. The initial air lift on a chartered plane is considered a pilot plan agreed on by several Central American countries and Mexico to search for a solution to the crisis.

The 180 Cubans, who were staying in shelters located in the border area of Costa Rica with Nicaragua, were transported from that area in buses to the Liberia International Airport, located 300 kilometers north of the capital, San Jose.

The migrants are seeking to reach the United States, and are paying their own transportation costs, including payments for visas and taxes, as agreed upon December 28th by the involved countries under the pilot scheme.

The charter flight was scheduled to depart at 10:00 p.m. local time bound for El Salvador, where it should land at midnight.

After the Cubans arrive to the “Monsignor Oscar Romero” International Airport in El Salvador, there will be about two hours to wait before beginning their bus journey to The Hachadura border crossing, in the western department of Ahuachapán, from where they will enter Guatemala.

“They will have the benefit of expidited paperwork, so they can advance quickly,” said a Salvadoran immigration official, who declined to be identified.

After fulfilling immigration controls at the border, they will be taken by bus to the Guatemalan Tecún Uman border with Mexico, where they are expected to arrive around noon on Wednesday.

The transfer will cost the Cubans US $555 per adult, if they leave the shelters located in the north of Costa Rica, and $570 for those located in areas close to San Jose.

These costs include a departure tax of Costa Rica ($29), El Salvador visa ($60) and Guatemala visa ($10). Mexico does not charge for the visa.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that none of the governments of the countries involved and no international organization will assume the costs of the transfer of the Cuban migrants, and that, conversely, payment for the service is considered a private transaction.

“IOM sought a solution aimed at protecting the rights of the migrants and identified opportunities for commercial transport to allow the Cubans to cover their own travel expenses,” said a statement from the organization.

“This payment option on its own will reduce the incentives for irregular migration, as well as undermine the criminal people trafficking and smuggling networks, by creating a legal and commercially competitive alternative,” he added.

“The departure of the pilot group of Cubans should not distract attention from the urgent need for humanitarian assistance for the other 7,802 Cubans who remain stranded in Costa Rica,” said the chief of the IOM mission in Costa Rica, Roeland de Wilde.

Moreover, IOM said that “starting January 18, representatives of the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico will begin evaluating whether to approve the pilot project as a basis for full-scale commercial operation, designed to facilitate the dignified, safe and orderly departure of all Cuban migrants who remain stranded in Costa Rica with transit visas “.

Since mid-November there are some 8,000 Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica, while another 1,000 are in a similar situation in Panama.

The immigration crisis erupted when Nicaragua sent out army troops to blockade its border to the Cubans on November 15th. Guatemala and Belize then followed suit refusing transit to the Cubans.

The migrants were left adrift after a trafficking network was dismantled on November 10 in Costa Rica, that in exchange for large sums of money promised to lead the Cubans to the United States, where they receive preferential treatment at any border crossing from the immigration officials.