For years, Ecuador has been the route of Cubans who want to reach the United States. For many, it was the first step towards the El Dorado of the North. In recent weeks, a fear has been growing that the South American nation might toughen the requirements for access to its territory. Entire families could stay on the island with their bags packed and their dreams broken.
Luis, 27, is the youngest of two brothers. In mid-2014 he put together the money for a ticket to Quito and left. Single, with no job, no bank account or property, no consulate would have granted a visa, considering him as a “potential immigrant”. However, Ecuador does not require a visa for Cubans, or even ask for a letter of invitation.
The Ecuadorian Constitution adopted in 2008 proclaimed “the principle of universal citizenship, free movement of all inhabitants of the planet and the progressive end of foreign status.” President Rafael Correa said at the time that he was determined to “dismantle the invention of the twentieth century which were passports and visas”. And there the Cubans went en masse.
Healthy and young, Luis was confident that his hands and entrepreneurship would allow him to make his way anywhere. And so it has been: in one year, in La Mariscal, he has managed to make money as an auto mechanic and has saved money to help his family. His obsession remains the same: hitting the road to take him to Miami, where relatives have promised a roof and work. In a drawer, he saves a two-dollar bill that will bring him good luck on the way.
The route from Ecuador to the US includes a path through seven countries
The route from Ecuador to the United States includes a path through seven countries: Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. It is a road full of dangers, ranging from extortion to death. Of all the variables, the most feared is deportation. Returning to the Island becomes the worst nightmare.
Some cross the Darien Gap, 80 miles of tropical jungle extending between Colombia and Panama. Mountains, passes between mountains, muddy terrain, crocodile infested rivers and jungles full of beasts. It is in this area that criminal groups linked to drug trafficking and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also operate.
From October 2013 until August 2014, almost 13,400 Cuban immigrants arrived at the border between the US and Mexico, according to a US Customs and Border Protection. Many of them made the route that Luis planned for months. All that’s missing is family members in Havana completing the sale of the family apartment to be able to afford tickets to Quito. His family already has a buyer. Every night his mother lights a candle and thinks of Ecuador, the first step on a long road.
Diplomatic sources in the United States Interests Section in Havana, who preferred anonymity, say that this year the number of Cubans who will enter the United States, legally or illegally, could exceed 70,000. The fear that the process of reestablishing relations between Washington and Havana will put an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act has triggered the departures.
In 2013, it seemed that Quito might turn off the tap of entry for Cubans. The country started requiring a “letter of invitation” to put the breaks on the migration avalanche. But a few months later, in 2014, it eliminated this requirement in virtue of the “excellent framework of bilateral relations” with Cuba.
The Cuban migratory reform that went into effect in January of 2013 also contributed to the increase of people leaving for Quito. Now, without exit visa requirements to leave Cuba, the main obstacle is the purchase of a plane ticket with prices averaging around $650 from the island.
Ecuadorian authorities reserve the right to decide which Cubans can enter their country
However, the apparent “open door” policy does not work for everyone. Ecuadorian authorities reserve the right to decide which Cubans can enter their country. The decision is taken during an interview with immigration at the airport. Any inconsistency, any doubt and the passenger is put back on the plane heading home. Activist and independent Cuban journalist Ernesto Aquino, was rejected a few weeks ago when he arrived in the country for a leadership course organized by an independent entity. He was returned to Havana without appeal.
Among those on official missions* in the South American nation, desertions are common. To prevent the escape of Cuban doctors the Cuban Ministry of Health has implemented new policies that include “suspension from the practice of the profession” of those who “left the service without authorization.” Unable to practice as doctors in Cuba, the doctors have another motivation to reach the United States.
Barbara, 42, was among the first Cuban who went by way of Ecuador. Almost ten years ago she made a marriage of convenience and settled in that country waiting to take the big leap. She was deported to Cuba when the Panamanian authorities surprised her at the border. Now she is in Havana, desperate and without a place to live. “I can’t stay in my parents’ house because not one more person can fit there,” she explains. Her only option now is to cross the Straits of Florida by raft. For her, the door to Ecuador is closed.
*Translator’s note: "Medical missions” are the Cuban regime’s scheme to send doctors abroad as a major source of hard currency income, as the receiving countries pay much more per doctor than the doctor is paid.