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Cuban Migrants Heading to the US Can't Make it out of Costa Rica

Over 1,000 Cubans migrants have been stuck in Costa Rica since Sunday when Nicaragua shut the border to them. The numbers keep growing as ever more Cubans arrive at the bottleneck spurred by fears of imminent changes to their special immigration status.

by Jo Tuckman
Nov 17 2015, 9:45pm

Imagen por Esteban Felix/AP

Cuban migrants seeking to reach the United States by land are at the center of a tense standoff between Nicaragua and Costa Rica that is preventing them from continuing their journey.

Over 1,000 Cubans have been stuck in Costa Rica since Sunday when Nicaragua sent in the army to push back about 800 who had crossed the border post at Peñas Blancas. The numbers of stranded Cubans is growing every day following the incident that ratcheted up the existing tension between the two Central American countries.

"The government of Costa Rica has thrown, and continues to throw, thousands of Cuban citizens at Nicaragua's southern frontier in a deliberate and irresponsible act," the Nicaraguan government said in a statement on Sunday. It was, the statement continued, a "violation of our national territory."

Costa Rica's foreign minister, Manuel González, described the Nicaraguan statement as "offensive" and "unjustified" at a press conference on Monday. "The [Nicaraguan] reaction was also completely disproportionate in the use of force and the decision to set the army on a civilian group of peaceful migrants," he said.

The Costa Rican authorities said 67 of the Cubans who were pushed back on Sunday required medical attention for injuries produced by tear gas, though none had been seriously hurt.

Related: Poaching, Drugs, and Murder in Costa Rica: Shell Game (Part 1)

There has been a large increase in the number of Cubans trying to get to the US since the announcement of renewed diplomatic relations last December. Many Cubans fear the new friendliness will soon bring a change to the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" law that currently allows those who reach US soil to remain, while those detained at sea are turned back.

The Cuban migrants heading by land to the US — most frequently Texas — typically fly to Ecuador, a country they can enter without a visa. They then head north through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally Mexico where the authorities have been granting safe-passage visas that allow them to reach the US border.

Cuban migrants arriving in southern Mexico last month told VICE News that they had encountered few problems up to that point, aside from the need to pay bribes so that immigration officials in countries further south turned a blind eye to their passage.

Related: There's a Big Increase of Cubans Heading Through Mexico to the US

The bubbling tension on the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border comes a week after Costa Rica announced it had dismantled a major people smuggling ring focused on moving Cubans into the country from Panama.

The Costa Rican authorities initially threatened to send the hundreds of Cubans who were being transported by the alleged smugglers back to Panama, but later relented as the numbers arriving continued to grow and began issuing seven-day transit visas instead.

A spokeswoman from the foreign ministry told VICE News that 1,790 Cubans had been given visas by the weekend, and hundreds of them had already crossed into Nicaragua by the time of the Nicaraguan army shut the frontier down on Sunday.

Foreign minister González suggested the border standoff could be a "provocation" in the run up to decisions expected soon on two cases involving the two countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Costa Rica has accused Nicaragua of invading a slither of land on its Caribbean coast known as the Isla Portillos. Nicaragua has accused Costa Rica of causing major environmental damage with a road built along their shared border.

There is also long standing tension between the two countries over the flow of Nicaraguan economic migrants seeking jobs in their country's richer neighbor.

Costa Rican news media also carried unconfirmed reports that the border closure followed a request to Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega from Cuban President Raul Castro, with whom he has long-standing ties. Ortega is the former leader of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, and has been Nicaragua's elected president since 2007.

A press officer in Nicaragua's foreign ministry on Tuesday directed VICE News to the earlier statements and said it was unlikely the government would be saying more on the issue today.

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis told reporters that his government was seeking cooperation from all countries along the Cuban migration route to "establish a humanitarian corridor," that recognized that "the objective of the migrants is to get to the United States."

The Costa Rican authorities also said that non-Cuban transit over the border with Nicaragua was being normalized. The Nicaraguan news site 19 Digital reported on Tuesday that commerce and transport was still being seriously affected by "the capriciousness of the Costa Rican government trying to force illegal Cuban migrants into Nicaragua."

Meanwhile, the Cubans stuck on the Costa Rican border are currently being housed in shelters, with dozens and sometimes even hundreds more arriving in the country every day.

"We don't want to stay in any of these countries," 33-year-old Alexei Cabezas told Reuters. "Our aim is to reach the United States."

Related: US and Cuba Announce Plans to Open Embassies in Each Other's Capitals

Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman