14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar (Special envoy), San Jose, Costa Rica, 30 November 2015 — Costa Rica has been overturned this November by the massive arrival of thousands of Cubans. From Ecuador, they tried to walk to the United States, but Nicaragua denied them passage and, desperate, they are stranded on Costa Rica’s northern border. On Sunday, the president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, talked about this immigration crisis in an exclusive interview with 14ymedio.
Reinaldo Escobar. How has Costa Rican civil society responded to this crisis?
President Luis Guillermo Solis. It has had a central role. People have shown up to help in a voluntary and spontaneous way, they have brought clothes and food. Churches have been side by side with us and the migrants, managing the shelters. If it hadn’t been for all this help, it would have been very hard to manage something like this, especially in the first days.
Escobar. Also in the poorest areas of the country?
Solis. The canton of La Cruz, where at the beginning virtually all of the Cubans were located, is one of the poorest cantons in Costa Rica, but the people there never said, “me first.”
The numbers were impressive. The first Sunday of the journey, when the migrants arrived in the central district of La Cruz there were more Cubans than Costa Ricans, because of the accumulation that was there, specifically. However, there was not a single incident, not a single dispute. Quite the opposite. People wanted to find solutions and they were very supportive.
Escobar. Does the solidarity extend beyond providing food and shelter?
Solis. We asked the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Sports to prepare some recreational activities, because over so many days, with so many people doing nothing and put in a shelter, they were going to go crazy. They got together 500 books, which were not many, and also began setting up football games, baseball games, concerts, putting on plays. The National Children’s Trust put on plays for children. With this we were able to realize something else about the migration, that it is made up of very educated people who wanted to read, who were also very interested in cultural interactions.
Escobar. Did Nicaragua’s closing of the border come as a surprise?
Solis. Nicaragua’s closure was very unfortunate, because until that time they had been letting the migrants pass. They were passing with visa, a procedure with the ugly technical name of “deportation,” that meant they could cross the country to continue their journey through Nicaragua. It doesn’t seem that they want to open the border, unless talks this Monday between Cuba and the United States, precisely with regards to migration, work out something else.
Escobar. Is there any solution to this crisis in sight?
Solis. There are several solutions, because a ton of factors all have to line up. One that already happened was that Ecuador slowed down the entry of Cubans to its territory, because this was generating a huge flow inexorably headed north. It was very complicated. Second, we need the transit countries to give the migrants document and they are willing to do so. Only Colombia and Panama haven’t yet started this process. In the case of Colombia, because they say that it is physically impossible to control a border as long as theirs with Ecuador.
At the meeting in San Salvado, I believe the governments will recognize the need to give them visas. Because it is not the same journey with a visa as without a visa. We have strongly insisted on it for humanitarian reasons. Because if not, how can we protect them. They need a visa to allow them to move. With a visa they don’t have to be afraid, they can go to the market, connect to the internet, buy a phone card.
We want to be sure that the people making this journey don’t fall into the hands of organized crime, which is what most troubles us. We are also making a call to remain calm.
The other thing is, if the United States wants to resolve this problem, it needs to change the Cuban Adjustment Act. Because right now it is perverse that they can enter, but not by the easiest route, only by the most difficult one. So, Cubans are trapped between their aspirations and the dangers of getting there in this way. This generates some very complicated dynamics, geopolitically on the one hand, and for practical reasons on the other.
I’m not saying build a bridge between Havana and Miami, but certainly when relations between Cuba and the United States are completely normalized they should establish a normal and fluid interchange. So this is why I say there are multiple solutions. We all have to do our part.
Escobar. And the differences between Cuban migrants and those of other nationalities?
Solis. Right now in Central America there is a debate that refers to a core part of the problem. For countries that generate migrants, and I do not want to exclude Costa Rica in that, it is very difficult to deal with a migrant population which, when it arrives at its destination is received, documented, eventually legalized and given a residence card, while its own population, traveling by the same route, is rejected at the border.
On the other hand, all the Cuban migrants come with their passport, they are documented, but our border is also seeing migrants come from Africa, Asia, Pakistan, without papers. The challenge of dealing with this undocumented population is formidable, because legally they don’t even exist. It is a terrible drama.
Escobar. You had announced a trip to Cuba for the 15 December before all this happened. Will the issue of migration occupy a privileged position during the talks?
Solis. We will be obliged to talk about it. Fortunately, I understand that the problem is being resolved, that is, the process to transfer [past Nicaragua] the Cuban population that is now in Costa Rica, and those arriving is being worked on by the Foreign Ministry. I was with the president-elect of Guatemala four days ago and he will continue with the policy of the current government, which is to facilitate passage through their country. And the Government of Mexico also said it would let them pass, so we are resolving it.
Although the subject of Cubans in Costa Rica is part of the agenda, the reasons why I am going to Cuba are also of a different nature; they go much further, because it was planned earlier. We will consolidate a process of normalization that began in the nineties, we will establish in Cuba one of our working sites towards the Caribbean Basin. This government has been promoting dialogue and greater involvement of our investors with that area.
I had breakfast in New York with the heads of state of Caricom focused on this. We are developing our Caribbean province, Limón, so it is the door of Costa Rica to the Caribbean. Cuba is a new reality that can make us competitive in some areas for the Costa Rican economy, but is also an opportunity for exchange and cooperation.
Escobar. What is your opinion of the Cuban people?
Solis. I have a great affection for the Cuban people. Although what we have done for Cuban migration we would for any other migration. In fact, one of the paradoxes of this whole story is that with Nicaragua, Costa Rica has been an open and brotherly country, but now they do not seem to have the same attitude with respect Cuba, which, by the way, has helped them so much.
Escobar. What do you say to those who say that Costa Rica is using Cubans as “spearhead” against Nicaragua?
Solis. We have our “bones to pick” with Nicaragua, we have a complicated agenda. In our case, it is being dealt with legally, in the International Court of Justice and the result will come soon, in the next six to eight weeks. It is one of those contentious border issues, a complicated litigation. In the international bodies is where these suits belong; we have no need to use Cubans as spearhead. That makes no sense.
Solis. I have seen everyone be supportive, without complaints. There are isolated cases of people who have gotten upset. In the cabinet itself, the shock of the first moment was of such magnitude that some came to ask, “How many more are coming, Mr. President?” But it was more the anguish of not knowing.
Escobar. How can future crises like this be avoided?
Solis. First we must understand this as a regional problem and therefore it requires significant international alignment. I have been a convinced integrationist for many years. I believe in Central American integration. In this particular case, integration is to no avail. We knew that, and that’s why we didn’t want to take it to the meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA), because that was not the appropriate forum to discuss this issue. However, we promoted the participation of more countries.
The dimension of this problem obliges us to shine a light on it, it requires that migrants be documented.
Escobar. There has been talk of an airlift. What is the status of that solution?
Solis. We were just discussing that, but as there is no regional agreement, each country decided to announce its own measures on its own time.