C.America states agree breakthrough on stranded Cuban migrants

Henry Morales
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A Cuban man rests at a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica on November 26, 2015, part of a group of migrants bound for the US

A Cuban man rests at a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica on November 26, 2015, part of a group of migrants bound for the US (AFP Photo/Ezequiel Becerra)

Guatemala City (AFP) - Central American countries agreed a breakthrough in the case of thousands of US-bound Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica, after weeks of often acrimonious regional diplomacy.

In a meeting in Guatemala City, representatives from several of the countries said they would fly some of the Cubans to El Salvador, where they would be put on buses to cross Guatemala and enter Mexico.

Separate statements by the Guatemalan and Costa Rican governments said the exercise would be a "pilot plan" to be carried out in "the first week of January."

They did not say how many of the up to 8,000 Cubans currently stuck in Costa Rica would be flown out, stressing that talks on the logistics still needed to be held.

A Costa Rican foreign ministry official said the migrants would be paying for the transport themselves.

- Problem solved? -

The announcement suggested a bitter row among Central American nations over the Cubans could be on its way to being resolved.

The issue blew up into what several of the nations termed a "humanitarian crisis" when Nicaragua in mid-November closed its border to the Cubans, who had been given Costa Rican transit visas.

Costa Rica's efforts to have countries north of Nicaragua admit the Cubans had been in vain up to Monday.

San Jose's mounting frustration with its neighbors exploded of December 18 when it suspended its political participation in the Central American Integration System (SICA), a regional body meant to promote cooperation between member states.

It also said it would accept no more Cubans itself and threatened any more arrivals with deportation back to their home country.

Pope Francis on Sunday pleaded with Central American nations to end the Cubans' "humanitarian drama". A week earlier, he had called on Costa Rica and Nicaragua to improve ties frayed by years of border disputes.

- Surge in Cuban migrants -

Monday's meeting in Guatemala City brought together foreign ministry officials from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, as well as representatives from the International Organization for Migration -- but not Nicaragua.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez hailed its "positive results" and thanked the other countries for their "goodwill."

He said Costa Rica was hoping to put the agreement into action as soon as possible but admitted that the end-of-year vacation period "prevents us advancing more rapidly."

The number of Cubans trying to get to the United States jumped this year, following the December 2014 announcement by Washington and Havana that they were thawing relations frozen since the Cold War.

Many Cubans fear that the rapprochement will put an end to America's longstanding policy of taking them in if they make it over a land border.

With the US Coast Guard sending back any Cubans intercepted in the waters of the Florida Straits, Cubans increasingly have sought to make the overland journey through Central America and Mexico.

Thousands flew to Ecuador, a South American ally of Cuba's that allowed them easy entry -- until the beginning of this month, when it abruptly reinstated a visa policy.

- Panama affected too -

Costa Rica found itself lumped with the brunt of the problem of the migrants after it busted a human smuggling network in November that had been clandestinely taking the Cubans north.

Once that brought the migratory flow out into the open, Costa Rica initially mulled sending the Cubans back to its southern neighbor Panama, but relented and gave out transit visas.

But Nicaragua refused to admit the Cubans, forcing Costa Rica to put them up on its side of the border in 37 temporary shelters as their numbers swelled daily by a couple of hundred.

Panama, too, is struggling with stranded Cubans. It has 750 of the migrants blocked on its northern border with Costa Rica, which has stopped handing out transit visas.

Panama's government said Friday it was closing the temporary shelters they were using in the border town of Paso Canoas and relocating them to small hotels.

The Panamanian Red Cross warned last week that, if the Cubans did not soon receive Costa Rican visas, the situation could "spin out of control."