After ordeal, US-bound Cubans enter Mexico

Ciudad Hidalgo (Mexico) (AFP) - Some 180 of the nearly 8,000 Cuban migrants who were stranded in Costa Rica for months entered Mexico by bus under a deal to help them reach the United States.

Four buses carrying the Cubans crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, many looking exhausted as they lugged backpacks and suitcases to an immigration office.

Migration agents gave them 20-day visas to make their way to the border with the United States, which has a policy dating to the Cold War allowing entry to Cubans fleeing their Communist-ruled island.

"We didn't agree with communism, with the Castros, and we felt oppressed," said Yumiley Diaz Riva, 21, who worked at a school in central Cuba until she left in October with her husband, leaving their one-year-old son behind.

"We didn't want to bring him on this difficult journey," she said, adding that she planned to be reunited with her son once she reaches Tampa, Florida.

The Cubans arrived in Mexico under a pilot program between Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala that could be expanded to the 7,600 other islanders still stuck in Costa Rica due to neighboring Nicaragua's refusal to let them in.

The path involved an overnight flight from Costa Rica to El Salvador, thus skipping over Nicaragua, a Cuban ally that has closed its border to Cubans since mid-November.

The 109 men and 71 women were put on four buses bound for Guatemala and then on to the Mexican border, on a 13-hour journey organized by the regional governments and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Costa Rica's migration director, Kathya Rodriguez, concluded that the pilot program was an "absolute success" and provided a "great opportunity" to coordinate the departure of the others.

Yet Costa Rica and the other governments involved insist that each migrant pay the trip's $555 cost, leaving open the question of what will happen to those without funds.

And 2,000 other migrants remain stranded in Panama by Costa Rica's own mid-December decision to close its border to any more Cubans. They will have no access to the air bridge.

Thousands of Cubans have left the island in recent months over concerns that the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw will prompt Washington to drop its policy of giving them automatic residence when they set foot in the United States.

- Fear of Mexican gangs -

According to Costa Rica's migration service, 28 flights would be needed to transport all the Cubans from the 38 shelters now housing them. The government hopes to organize two flights a day.

Some have expressed fear over their passage through Mexico, where drug cartels often prey on migrants.

"We've heard a lot that in Mexico there are gangs like the Zetas that make attacks on roads and that there are dangerous zones," said Yordani Casanova, a 33-year-old who left his herbal drinks business in Cuba to journey to the United States with his wife.

Many of the Cubans have already experienced extortion and kidnapping threats on their northward odyssey, which started in Ecuador and put them on smuggling routes.

After arriving in Mexico, some were unsure whether they would continue by bus or take a plane to the border, though they had spent much of their savings already.

"It's hard over there (in Cuba) because the salary is barely enough to survive," said Fermin Ramirez, a 46-year-old quality control technician.

- Anxiously awaiting turn -

For the thousands of Cubans remaining in Costa Rica, the departure was cause for hope and celebration.

"This is a blessing. If all goes well with this trip, we others will soon be able to travel," said Joel Gonzalez, a 34-year-old Cuban staying in a shelter on the grounds of a Methodist church in the northern town of Liberia.

But there was anxiety among those unable to come up with the money to travel.

Another Cuban in a Liberia shelter, Yandy Herrera, said: "I have just 4,000 colones ($7.50) in my wallet. I can't even call my family in Cuba because it's expensive: it costs more than a dollar a minute."