STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
More than 70,000 Cubans have fled to the United states this year. It's one of the largest waves of Cuban migration in decades. This time, the majority of them are not braving the Florida Straits, as they've famously done in the past. They're taking a treacherous land journey. They get across to South America. Then they move up through nation after nation after nation, all the way to the U.S. border. Recently, that route has been cut by local allies of Cuba's Raul Castro. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Central America, that has left thousands of Cubans stranded along the way.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Liannis Rodriguez rests in a corner on the concrete patio of the dusty Costa Rican border station with Nicaragua. Like the dozens of other Cubans here, she's been sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes under metal awnings or a cover of plastic bags. Rodriguez left her small town in eastern Cuba late last month and flew to Ecuador. It's the closest place that didn't require a visa. She says nearly everyone on her plane was Cuban. And once on the ground, all headed north using every kind of transportation possible.
LIANNIS RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We took buses, cars, boats - you name it," she says. She paid bribes to Colombian police, hundreds of dollars for a clandestine boat ride to Panama. Then, still more payoffs until she arrived here at the Nicaraguan border. Rodriguez, a fourth-year engineering student, says she had no future in Cuba.
RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Yes, I was about to graduate, and I would get a job. But I'd be forced into one that pays $12 a month. What kind of a life is that?"
Prompting the current migration rush is a fear the U.S. may soon close its doors to Cubans now that relations with Havana are better. Since the 1960s, nearly all Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are granted residency. U.S. officials deny there will be any changes to those special privileges. Cuba complains the policy entices illegal migration. And last month, Nicaragua's president, a close ally of Cuba's Castro, closed his border, shutting down the path to the north. In the northern border town of La Cruz, Costa Rica, local churches and the Red Cross have set up shelters for the growing number of Cubans stuck here, now about 2,000. At one of the largest shelters in the school, more than 500 sleep in the tiny classrooms. Women wash clothes in outdoor sinks. Men played Dominoes while others watch TV. Fernando Pacheco, an orthopedic surgeon, says he had to leave Cuba.
FERNANDO PACHECO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "You can't say what's on your mind, go where you want or do anything freely," he says. As a doctor, Pacheco earned one of the highest salaries on the island, still only about $65 a month. He says he can't provide for his wife and two small children at that meager of a wage. Last week, Cuba reinstated rules prohibiting doctors from leaving the island without permission. Julio Vargas of Costa Rica's national emergency commission says his agency is running out of money. What's going to happen to all the Cubans, I ask.
JULIO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "That's the million-dollar question," Vargas says. With an estimated 200 Cubans arriving in Costa Rica each day, he says he hopes a solution is worked out soon. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, La Cruz, Costa Rica.
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