The jungle outpost of Puerto Obaldia looked like a giant outdoor boarding gate for the world’s smallest airport.
Everywhere I looked weary Cuban travelers were wheeling suitcases down dusty streets, squatting next to luggage on the curb, or crowding around a flustered airline rep seated at fold-out table on the sidewalk.
Entire families were sleeping in the park while they waited for relatives to wire money so they could book a flight on a single-prop airplane that arrived several times a day to lift a handful of people up and over the jungle to Panama City. The standby list for a fight was weeks long.
Other Cubans haggled with boat captains to hitch a ride on a motorized panga that that occasionally left the dock and chopped six hours up the coastline to the nearest town with a road. The thick malarial jungle surrounding Puerto Obaldia made it impossible to leave by foot. The Cubans, not for the first time in their lives, were stuck on an island.
That was in October, 2015, when I visited visited Puerto Obaldia and found some 800 Cubans hanging out with their bags on the Panamanian border. They were stranded, broke, and thousands of miles from anywhere they wanted to be. Most of them had sold their homes and whatever little they owned back in Cuba to finance their desperate journey to America.
But they were hopeful. They were following the will-o’-the-wisp of the American Dream and knew that once they got to U.S. soil everything would be OK, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which included an immigration policy known as wet-foot/dry-foot. The Cubans also knew that star was fading. The normalization of U.S. and Cuban relations threatened to end that cold war immigration privilege at any moment. Cuban officials were insisting that the U.S. revoke the policy as a condition to continue normalizing relations. The Cubans knew they were racing the clock to reach the U.S. before Obama closed the door.
“That’s why all these people are here,” a Cuban emigrant named Lester told me in Puerto Obaldia 14 months ago. “Cubans are afraid that [Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama] are going to make a deal after their hug, and that the U.S. is going to revoke the Cuban Adjustment Act.”
That fear was warranted. On Thursday afternoon the Obama administration, as part of its 11th hour blitz to safeguard its legacy, baby-proof America, and hit a few extra three-pointers before the game clock expires, finally announced the death of wet-foot/dry-foot.
In doing so, Obama is trying to protect his administration’s efforts to thaw relations with Cuba, which is his single greatest achievement on a short list of accomplishments in Latin America. But he’s snuffing out the guiding star that led tens of thousands of Cubans to the U.S. over the past 20 years, and at an accelerated clip in the past two years.
Obama is also taking a final piss on Trump and his loud Miami-Cuban cheer squad. President Trump would have a hard time reversing the decision and reinstating an antiquated policy that was already decades past it sell-by date when Obama finally trashed yesterday. If Trump tried to reinstate wet-foot/dry-foot he would risk further damaging his image with every other group of Latinx immigrants who resented Cuba’s sweetheart deal in the first place.
The special policy has long been a bone of contention. It created a weird distinction between Cubans and everyone else. But also a distinction between Cubans arriving by land and those coming by sea.
Under wet-foot/dry-foot Cuban migrants intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba, while those who made it to the U.S. and put a “dry foot” on American soil were allowed to stay. It was essentially the codification of playground rules for tag, where if you’re touching base you’re safe.
The strange policy inspired equally strange immigration patterns. It’s why tens of thousands of Cubans risked traveling 5,000 miles overland from Ecuador to the United States each year, rather than taking a 90 mile boat ride across the Florida Straits. All the Cubans I met in the Panamanian jungle were going dry-foot to the U.S.
Other Latin Americans viewed the policy as institutionalized discrimination. They saw it as a VIP treatment that essentially allowed Cubans to cut the line ahead of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and everyone else trying to enter the U.S.
While Cuba has long been known for its solidarity in Latin America, perhaps nothing undermined that goodwill more than the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. Cubans immigrating through South America, Central America and Mexico were viewed by other Latinx as entitled golden-ticket holders who were going to pick up their U.S. residency cards. As a result, the Cubans got very little love on their journey—they were robbed, swindled, and over-charged every step along the way.
It also caused political tensions throughout the region. Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, a close ally of the Castro regime, militarized its border to prevent the Cubans from entering the country as a pressure tactic to get the U.S. to end the Cuban Adjustment Act and lift the embargo. Nicaragua’s border closure caused a humanitarian crisis in Costa Rica as thousands of Cubans piled up on the border. It also started a chain reaction of other countries similarly closing their borders to the Cubans, in an attempt to cut off the flow of migrants.
Now that wet-foot/dry-foot is gone, the Cuban foot traffic through Central America and Mexico will probably come to an end. But there are untold hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Cubans who are now stuck in transit, who have sold their homes and risked their lives to travel to the U.S. only to get put into deportation proceeding like everyone else.
In many ways, wet-foot/dry-foot was a crazy and anachronistic policy that caused all sorts of unintended problems and encouraged lots of people to take crazy risks. The policy had become untenable and needed to be eliminated as part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.
But here’s the rub. Getting rid of that policy doesn’t really fix anything. It doesn’t change any of the reasons why Cubans leave their island in the first place. It only eliminates one of their paths to get here legally. Cubans can still apply for a U.S. visa, and have been allocated 20,000 visas a year, which is generous by U.S. standards and proportionately more than other small countries.
Still, eliminating wet-foot/dry-foot will—if anything—probably increase the number of Cubans fleeing their island on rafts. Now there’s no reason to attempt the 5,000-mile dry-foot route through Latin America if you can take the 90-mile water route instead.
Killing wet-foot/dry-foot also underscores how broken the U.S. immigration system is. Similar to the Republicans’ move to repeal Obamacare without an alternative, the U.S. government has just repealed Cubans’ immigration policy without replacing it with any type of comprehensive immigration reform.
While it may take us a step closer to normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations, it’s not real progress for anyone. We’re still no closer to having an immigration system that works. A border wall isn’t going to stop determined Central Americans from entering the country, and repealing wet-foot/dry-foot isn’t going to stop determined Cubans from coming.
Many Latinx are quietly—and not so quietly—celebrating the Cubans’ loss of immigration privileges. But that’s selfish.
Injustice for all is not the same as justice.
For more of Fusion’s special Cuba coverage:
- Exodus of Cubans walking to the US is quickly becoming the America’s own refugee crisis
- How Ecuador became the bizarre trailhead for Cubans hiking to the U.S.
- Can Nicaraguan soldiers stop the surge of Cubans heading to the U.S.
- Cubans flood Panamanian jungle in desperate overland push to the United States
- Texas welcomes Cubans finishing 5,000 mile hike through the Americas
- Nicaragua’s intransigence prevents regional solution to Cuban migrant crisis on Costa Rican border
- Ecuador imposes new visa requirements in attempt to stop flood tide of Cuban migrants
- Secret deal hatched to airlift 8,000 Cubans out of Costa Rica
- Stranded Cubans must pay $555 for airlift out of Central America
- Cuban traffic jam in Costa Rica has started to flow again