LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Warmer relations between Cuba and the U.S. have led to an unexpected immigration crisis in Latin America, tens of thousands of Cubans worried that a long-standing U.S. policy that made it easier for Cubans to immigrate to this country have fled the communist nation in the past year. Many have embarked on an arduous overland route through South America. But left-leaning allies of Cuban President Raul Castro are restricting the migrants travels, leaving thousands of Cubans stranded along the route. NPR's Carrie Kahn just got back from the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border and joins us from her base in Mexico City. Thanks for being with us, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: You're welcome.
NEARY: Can you just tell us and explain why these Cubans are traveling so far around to get to the United States, going through South America?
KAHN: The main reason is that Ecuador, in South America, lifted visa requirements for Cubans a while back. The president, Rafael Correa, is a left-leaning ally of Raul Castro, so Cubans can buy a plane ticket from Havana straight to Quito. And they've been doing so in great numbers. From Ecuador, then they take this series of buses, boats, small planes, everything and head north to Colombia, into Panama, Costa Rica and through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border. The problem began last month when Nicaragua, whose president, Daniel Ortega, also another ideological ally of Castro, closed the border to Cuban immigrants. And there was a confrontation at the border, and they forced the Cubans back into Costa Rica. And that's where they've been since last month. I was just at that border crossing. Hundreds are sleeping right there at the station. They're sleeping everywhere they can find a space with a little cover. And there are also at least 2000 more sleeping in shelters set up in towns nearby the border.
NEARY: It seems counterintuitive that they're doing this now when relations between the U.S. and Cuba are getting better. I would think that that would mean that things would get better on Cuba for people living there.
KAHN: Exactly, I was thinking the same thing, and that's exactly what I - I said, why now? Why - when I talked to Cubans in Costa Rica - why are you leaving now? And they say that conditions are not better in Cuba and are getting worse, same complaints - the scarcity of goods, food shortages, miserable salaries, lack of personal freedoms. They say that's as bad as ever. But adding to that fear is that the better relations with the U.S. may be that the U.S. will close an end to this program that dates back to the '60s, and it essentially grants U.S. residency and welfare benefits to any Cubans that actually make it onto U.S. soil. And Cuban officials have long complained about this program. They say it entices and lures Cubans to leave the island and embark on these dangerous journeys. And it's become a sticking point in these recent detente talks between the U.S. and Cuba. But U.S. authorities have repeatedly said in public there are no plans to repeal the program.
NEARY: So what happens to these Cubans who are stranded in Costa Rica now? What's going on there?
KAHN: Well, it's a terrible situation. There's just hundreds of them, thousands of them. And they're in 12 shelters that have been provided for them. It's very overcrowded. I went to the largest one about 15 miles from the border there. It's this adult night school, and it's just packed full of Cubans. The basketball court is filled with rows after rows of foam beds. Every classroom is filled with 30 people in it - women and children of all ages, entire families. It's really unsustainable and costing a lot to the Cuban government, which is not a rich country at all.
NEARY: Is anybody working on coming up with a solution to this?
KAHN: Well, under pressure, Ecuador has reinstated that visa policy requirement for Cubans, hoping to stop that entry point. But they've relented and said anyone who already bought their plane ticket could still get a visa. And I heard from Cubans in Costa Rica that tickets have been sold through March. Nicaragua says it won't budge. Costa Rica is talking with police about maybe allowing a boatload of Cubans to come over there, but it's just a difficult situation. And officials say everyday 200 more Cubans keep arriving to Costa Rica.
NEARY: NPR's Carrie Kahn, joining us from her base in Mexico City. Thanks, Carrie.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.