As a new wave of Cuban migrants floods Florida and Central America, nine Latin American nations have asked the Obama administration to end the U.S. special immigration privileges for Cuban refugees. And while some of these countries have dubious human rights credentials, they may be partly right.
In an Aug. 29 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru expressed their “deep concern” that the United States’ so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy is creating a regional refugee crisis.
Ecuador — which released the letter — and Nicaragua are ruled by repressive governments with little moral authority to lecture anybody about political or humanitarian issues.
But the letter should draw attention because it comes at a time when Cubans are fleeing the island in record numbers. The euphoria over the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties has faded, and many Cubans have lost faith that there will be a political opening on the island. Others are fleeing now because they fear that the U.S. special status for Cuban refugees will be terminated after the November elections.
At least 46,000 Cuban refugees were admitted by the United States during the first 10 months of the 2016 fiscal year, almost twice the 24,000 who were allowed into the country in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Thousands of others have flocked to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and other countries, hoping to make their way into U.S. territory.
Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and its 1995 revision — known as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy — Cubans are granted residency and eventually citizenship if they set foot on U.S. land. If they are caught at sea, they can be returned to Cuba.
The special U.S. status for Cubans has been significantly abused in recent years. Under a 1980 provision that expedites economic assistance for Cuban refugees, large numbers of Cuban refugees return to Cuba and live the good life there with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group’s Americas department, told me that “Cuba is a unique case in the region, where those who challenge the government are punished harshly. But the United States and all democratic countries already have obligations to offer protection and asylum to Cuban political refugees.”
He added that ending the special status for Cubans “would not amount to a human rights setback, as long as the United States and other democratic countries, including the nine that signed that letter, offer refuge and protection to those who are persecuted in Cuba.”
Others, such as Marcell Felipe, head of the Inspire America Foundation, support changing U.S. laws to end abuses by those who return to Cuba, but without eliminating the overall special status for Cuban refugees.
”Cuba is a special case, because everyone in Cuba who does not actively support the dictatorship is subject to repression,” Felipe says. “If Cubans didn’t have a special U.S. immigration status, most Cubans would not qualify for U.S. asylum.”
My opinion: It’s time to revise the U.S. government’s special status for Cuban refugees. But it should be done as part of a new commitment by all countries in the region to grant asylum to Cuba’s political refugees, and to press Cuba to abide by international human rights laws.
Kerry should meet with the nine foreign ministers who signed the letter and ask them: Are you ready to accept Cuba’s political refugees? Are you ready to press Cuba to free its political prisoners, stop arresting peaceful dissidents, and respect political pluralism, as is Cuba’s duty under the Vina del Mar convention it signed in 1996?
It’s time for all sides to end Cuba policies that are relics of the Cold War. Washington should change its much-abused laws giving special status to all Cuban refugees, and Latin American countries should end their shameful silence on Cuba’s repressive dictatorship, which is at the root of Cuba’s main problems. These are new times that require new policies by all countries.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: [email protected].