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U.S. Journey Stalled, Cubans Stuck In Costa Rica Finally Fly To El Salvador


Early this morning, 180 Cuban migrants arrived by plane in El Salvador. They were loaded onto buses and then headed for the United States. They had been stranded in Costa Rica to the south since last November. That's when Costa Rica's neighbor Nicaragua closed its border to them, blocking the land route north. Thousands of Cuban migrants are still stuck in shelters in Costa Rica, hoping for a way out. Joining us from El Salvador now is NPR's Carrie Kahn.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Just tell us about to scene if you can. I know you were at the airport this morning when these planes arrived. Who was coming off the plane, and what was the mood?

KAHN: Well, there are 180 Cubans, as you said, and they come from all walks of life. Many are engineers, teachers, professionals.

I talked with this one Cuban engineer as he left Costa Rica and again when he landed in El Salvador. We weren't allowed - authorities wouldn't let us talk with them directly. He was on the bus, and I was outside the airport on the sidewalk. He said he's just thrilled to finally be headed to the U.S., and he said when the plane took off in Costa Rica, everyone on board broke into applause.

These Cubans have been following this well-worn path to the U.S. And what they do is they fly to Ecuador, which didn't require visas for Cubans and then they travel north by land through Central America and usually just keep going to the U.S.

But last November, Nicaragua, a close ally of Raul Castro, closed the border to them, and the Cubans, nearly 8,000 of them, have been in these shelters in Costa Rica since then.

GREENE: Well Carrie, you mentioned this is a well-worn path, but a part of that path seemed to be blocked. And these migrants had to be flown to El Salvador to get to this part of the journey. I mean, who coordinated this, and who's paying for it?

KAHN: Well, for months, Costa Rica has been trying to figure out a way to let the Cubans pass and get around Nicaragua somehow. After several months of negotiations with other Central American countries and the help from the International Organization of (ph) Migration, they came up with this plan of letting the Cubans fly over Nicaragua, land in El Salvador and then ride in buses to the Guatemala-Mexico border.

And the migrants paid - each of them - paid $555 for these chartered plane flight, the bus ticket. They get food, all the visas necessary and even medical insurance. And then once they get to the Guatemala-Mexico border, they'll get a 20-day transit visa through Mexico, which they'll have to do on their own, then they just go to the U.S. border, walk across and turn themselves in. And under a long-standing policy, Cubans that make it onto U.S. soil get immediate asylum.

GREENE: Well, what do people in El Salvador think about that? I mean, I know - you know, you've done so much reporting on the surge in migration from countries in Central America. Is there any anger that - you know, a feeling that Cubans are getting special treatment?

KAHN: Definitely. There is a feel about the different ways the Cuban migrants and the Salvadoran migrants are being treated because it's so stark. You know, in the past year, 45,000 Cubans without visas have walked into the U.S. and been let in. And compare that with the average of about 2,000 Salvadorans a month deported from the U.S.

At the airport late last night, the Salvadoran foreign minister addressed this. He said the U.S. has double standards in how it treats migrants. He said the reason why his country is letting the Cubans pass through is to show others what a humane immigration policy looks like and to hopefully get the same treatment.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking to us from El Salvador, the capital of that country San Salvador, where a plane full of Cubans arrived this morning. Those Cuban migrants are on their way to the United States now. Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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