The Unforeseen Consequences of Normalization

Advocates of normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba have welcomed the recent diplomatic strides in that direction, including an Obama-Castro handshake and the American flag flying outside the U.S. Embassy in Havana. There is the hope of a new era of friendship, trade and liberalization and — ultimately — the demise of the communist regime.

But they regard in consternation an unforeseen consequence of the warming — a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Cubans fleeing for the U.S. are becoming stranded in transit in such places as Costa Rica and Panama.

The scale of the problem does not approach that of the Syrian migration to Europe, but it is significant and growing. The number of unauthorized Cubans arriving in the United States nearly doubled in 2015, to 43,159 from 24,278 the previous year. We have not seen a flight northward like this since the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans landed in South Florida.

However, the trek this time is overland and by air. The typical route has been by plane to Ecuador, then overland through Costa Rica and Nicaragua, then through Mexico to the U.S.

But this route was blocked in November when Nicaragua closed its border to the migrants coming in through Costa Rica. Approximately 4,000 U.S.-bound Cubans were stranded there as a result. Another 1,000 sought sanctuary in a small Panamanian border town, where officials declared a “sanitary emergency” due to an acute scarcity of food, water or shelter. Others are held at immigrant detention centers in Mexico.

Everyone asks: Why now? Why, when things seem to finally be getting better for Cubans, when freedom and economic betterment seem just around the corner, should there be a mass emigration?

For one thing, despite the diplomatic progress, living conditions in Cuba have not progressed. In fact, the availability of goods and food, and salary levels, are reportedly no better — and possibly even worse — than they were a year ago. Nor has the Castro dictatorship loosened its grip; freedom is still a dream, a hope — not a reality.

Then there is the irony of immigration law. Cubans fear that the 50-year window of opportunity to take advantage of the U.S. pro-Cuban immigration policy may be closing. Their fears are justified.

Since the Castro revolution, they have enjoyed special immigration status. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 includes the “wet-foot, dry-foot” rule, which offers U.S. residency and welfare benefits to Cubans who manage to reach American soil.

Now, the American option is in jeopardy. Cuban officials, long unhappy with an American immigration policy that entices their citizens to abandon the island, are seeking an end to the policy. Normalization, they argue, should mean that Cubans who want to live in the United States should be treated like everybody else, with no special favors. This would help to end the brain drain — exemplified by an estimated 1,000 doctors a year departing the country, leaving hospitals and clinics understaffed. It would also assuage the prestige drain, the anxiety of a communist regime which, like all communist regimes, has failed to fulfill its utopian promises.

American immigration officials have tried to calm the situation, declaring in public that there are no plans afoot to revoke the Adjustment Act. Understandably, the Cubans are skeptical, particularly in light of agitation on the part of Cuban-American lawmakers for a tightening of regulations. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) contend that American generosity is being exploited by Cuban migrants who obtain U.S. residency and then begin traveling back to the island to ferry merchandise, run small businesses or get cheap dental work.

The Obama administration hails these new Cubans as entrepreneurial harbingers of a brighter future. But the phenomenon of the business shuttle undermines the very premise of a uniquely oppressed people deserving of asylum privileges that others don’t have. And it feeds the argument of the government in Havana that normalization of relations with the United States must include a normalized immigration policy as well.

Perhaps what U.S. diplomats have to do is to persuade their Cuban counterparts that continued pressure for a repeal of the Adjustment Act only exacerbates popular anxiety about the closing window of opportunity, and accelerates the flight from the island that they so deplore.

In the meantime, efforts to relieve the humanitarian crisis continue. While Nicaragua refuses to cooperate, Costa Rica has suggested that the Cubans stranded on its soil be allowed to go to Belize, en route to Mexico. The Belize council of ministers is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to review Costa Rica’s proposal. We hope the U.S. government will be active in facilitating such a solution.