No transit for US-bound Cuban migrants, says Guatemala

Part of a group of 300 Cuban migrants rest in a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica, near the border with Nicaragua on November 26, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ezequiel Becerra) (AFP/File)

San José (AFP) - Thousands of Cubans backed up in Costa Rica and Panama in a frustrated bid to reach the United States will not be permitted to transit through Guatemala, Costa Rica's foreign minister said Thursday.

The Guatemalan government has rejected that proposal, Manuel Gonzalez said, dealing another blow to Costa Rica's advocacy of a Central American "humanitarian corridor."

Nearly 4,000 Cuban migrants are being sheltered in Costa Rica, near the border with Nicaragua, which has denied access to them since mid-November.

Panama, too, has around 1,200 massed in a border town close to Colombia, in what that country's government says is insalubrious conditions.

The number of Cubans trying to reach the US -- which has a Cold War-era policy of accepting them if they set foot on its soil -- has shot up in recent months.

Many Cubans wanting to emigrate fear thawing relations between Washington and Havana will lead to that policy being scrapped.

Ecuador this week abruptly ended visa-free access for Cubans, closing their principal access point to the South American continent.

Costa Rica, which recently dismantled a people-smuggling ring that facilitated the Cubans' journey, has been trying to find a regional solution to get them to the US border that bypasses northern neighbor Nicaragua.

"It will not be possible to use Guatemala as a waypoint to get them to Mexico so we are in negotiations with Belize," a small English-speaking nation bordering Guatemala and Mexico, Gonzalez told reporters.

At least part of Guatemala's refusal to allow Cubans to pass through appears to stem from official frustration at the difficulties Guatemalans encounter trying to reach the US via Mexico.

Gonzalez said Mexico was only willing to allow the Cubans to enter by land, not by direct flights from Costa Rica.

"That is why Guatemala was originally looked at and why we are now thinking of Belize," he said, adding that a response from Belize could arrive after Tuesday next week.

Another problem was proving a challenge, Gonzalez said: that of finding air transport for the Cubans.

It is currently high tourist season for Central America and Mexico, meaning planes are full and not available to convey the Cubans.