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Thousands of Cubans see Nicaragua as springboard to the U.S. or shopping destination

Visa-free announcement raises expectations, but no direct flights to Managua; no buyers in Oriental market since 2020

The island remains in a tense state of calm with a police presence on the streets, four days after huge anti-government protests that shook the country. Plus, the majority of social media and instant messaging platforms continue to be blocked with no access to mobile data. Foto: EFE

Redacción Confidencial

9 de diciembre 2021


On a daily basis, hundreds of Cubans arrive at available airline offices in Havana in search of a ticket to Managua, which they cannot find. In Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, where more than 718,000 Nicaraguans have migrated due to the economic crisis and political repression, are the hopes of people on the island who seek to take advantage of the free visa to this Central American country, to shorten a route to the United States, or to load a shopping list with a round-trip ticket between Managua and Havana. 

Cubans, anxious to travel, see an escape route from the island in Ortega’s decision to eliminate the visa for Cuban citizens, a measure that was announced on November 23 and according to the Ortega administration has “humanitarian” purposes and seeks to “promote commercial exchange, tourism, and family relations”. However, the restrictions imposed by the covid-19 pandemic and the high prices of air tickets prevent travel for many.

The only airline that has resumed its trips to Cuba is Copa Airlines, and for the moment it only offers flights from Havana to Panama, from where it is possible to continue on to Nicaragua. However, tickets are not available on the island and the airline’s website only has availability for non-return flights from Managua to Havana, with a stopover in Panama City. 

More than 900 dollars for a one-way ticket

An executive of the airline assured CONFIDENCIAL that the  “published fare” starts at “668 dollars plus applicable taxes”. However, he stressed that “the final price of tickets between Havana and Managua depends on the type of fare chosen and the availability of space on the travel dates selected by the traveler”. Thus, currently available tickets are quoted on Copa's website for up to 960 dollars in full economy class, and 1081 dollars in business class, one way.

Another airline connecting Havana with Managua was the Venezuelan state-owned Conviasa, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in February 2020 , and suspended its flights between both destinations in January 2021. Currently, this company is not offering trips to the island and has not explained whether it will resume them at some point.

In Havana, the lack of flight connections has provoked the annoyance of many Cubans who have gathered at the headquarters of these airlines in recent days, demanding that they sell them a ticket and rejecting the possibility of a refund among those who had already purchased them.

With an eye on the U.S. 

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, estimates that Ortega's measure will possibly increase the traffic of Cubans to Nicaragua, either to make purchases and sell them on the island, or to move to Mexico to cross the border with the United States.

“There has already been a large flow of Cubans to the U.S. and other countries, aggravated by the health, economic and political crisis in Cuba and this exodus will probably intensify in the coming months,” the academic predicted in statements to Efe Agency.

Duany highlights that many Cubans are looking for alternatives to emigrate without visas, in view of the closure of the consular section of the U.S. embassy in Havana since 2017, when almost thirty of its diplomats suffered mysterious “health incidents” that have not yet been clarified.

“José”,  a Cuban based in Managua who is in the real estate business, tells CONFIDENCIAL that he supported several small hotels in the capital by accommodating several groups of his compatriots there in 2019. At that time, he recalls, the first groups that entered Nicaragua did so in transit to reach the United States. 

“I calculate that out of 100 (Cubans) who arrived, and stayed in some of the hotels, at least 94 came in transit and only four returned to the island with their purchases, but later the flow changed,” he details. 

In the second half of 2019, he noticed that the numbers changed: out of 100 Cubans arriving in Managua, at least 60 were returning to Havana with their purchases. “In December 2019 it reached a point where 98% of the Cubans we were hosting were returning to the island with their purchases,” he says.

The business of “the mules”

Ermis, a Cuban trader of mattresses and fabrics who resides in Havana, confided to CONFIDENCIAL, via telephone, that the free entry to Nicaragua is attractive to him to travel and buy products that are scarce on the island and then he can resell them in his country. He has never traveled to Nicaragua and does not yet have an itinerary, but he is clear about his goal to buy cheap and resell.

“My idea is to go (to Nicaragua) to buy tools for my work, materials, and see how I can make a trade that benefits me and everyone else” the man explains. He complains that the price of the air ticket is “very expensive”, but he is willing to pay it because the profits that this business would leave him “are good”. 

The “trade” that Ermis plans is the traffic of merchandise, which in Cuba is tolerated by the population because it helps to alleviate the shortage of basic necessities. Those who engage in this trade are known on the island as “the mules”, the nickname used in much of Latin America to refer to people who traffic drugs.

The mules, despite not being well regarded by the communist regime of Miguel Díaz-Canel, do “what a commercial company should normally do or what, in the case of Cuba, the Ministry of Foreign Trade should do: import products to sell them in Cuba”, says journalist Reinaldo Escobar, editor-in-chief of the Cuban digital media 14ymedio, in an interview with the Esta Noche program and CONFIDENCIAL.

A source from Nicaragua's formal commerce, who asked not to be quoted for this report, explained that this sector does not have many expectations with the free entry of Cubans into the country, since in the end “mules” are “temporary external agents” and regardless of the amount of products they buy, they are only a “palliative” for the local economy. 

On the Internet, even Cuban portals show tutorials to get the best out of the “mulera” practice: recommendations to spend as little as possible on accommodation, food and transportation in the countries. Cubans use their savings or family remittances, sent by their relatives who have migrated to other countries, mainly the U.S., to travel to visa-friendly destinations.

The Ortega government has relaxed the entry of Cubans in the midst of an economic crisis caused by police and paramilitary repression, unleashed as of 2018. However, there are no statistics on their impact on the local economy.

Few expectations in Managua

In Managua's Mercado Oriental, the presence of Cuban buyers has been nil for more than a year, when the covid-19 pandemic began. In 2019, on the other hand, the presence of these groups of foreigners was evident, although they bought only “the cheapest things”. 

“María”, a furniture merchant in the Gancho de Camino area, remembers that at the end of 2019 she used to see Cubans “buying by the boatload” at this location. She longs for those days of many sales, but the announcement of the free entry of Cubans to Nicaragua does not generate great expectations for her.

“I was one of the ones who sold them the most. I remember that once I sold them up to 25 single beds for 3800 córdobas, which were the cheapest at the time, because they weren't looking for quality, they were looking for low prices”, she said. 

In another section of Nicaragua's largest market is “Juan”, a merchant of household appliances. He says he hasn't seen foreign buyers, let alone the groups of Cubans who were buying fans, blenders, irons and small talking radios from him two years ago. 

“We saw them more frequently between the end of 2018 and 2019. They walked around in groups of six or four, they were all buying, but they were always looking for the cheapest, they didn't care about brand names at all. They were just looking for the cheapest to take away,” he says. 

“José” the Cuban real estate agent based in Nicaragua, also agrees that his compatriots take good care of their expenses. They stay in hostels that cost no more than 20 dollars a night and the hoteliers themselves give them tours of the Oriental Market, Plaza Inter, Walmart or PriceSmart.

“For an additional cost of five dollars per person, there would be a minibus that brought them and waited for them until they finished their shopping,” recalls “José”. He estimates that most brought between $3,000 and $6,000, mainly to purchase clothes, shoes, slippers, small appliances, personal hygiene and cleaning items, in addition to canned food products.

The migration crisis of 2015

The free entry of Cubans to Nicaragua is intended to “promote commercial exchange, tourism, and humanitarian family relations,” as communicated by the Ortega government, one of Cuba's allies in the region. Ironically, in 2015 the same regime closed its border with Costa Rica and thousands of Cubans, who intended to continue on to the U.S., were stranded creating an unprecedented crisis.

At that time, the wave of Cuban immigrants to North America increased exponentially due to the fear that the rapprochement between Washington and Havana - known as “deshielo” or “thaw”- would diminish the migratory advantages of Cubans. 

Two years later, then President Barack Obama (2009-2017) cancelled the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, adopted by former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), with an executive order. It allowed Cubans who touched land (dry feet) to obtain permanent residency one year after arriving, even if they did so illegally, while those intercepted at sea (wet feet) were returned to the island.

So far in 2021, 1,255 Cubans have been deported to the island on 55 occasions: 46 from the United States, 5 from the Bahamas, 3 from Mexico and one from the Cayman Islands, the second chief of the Directorate of Identification, Immigration and Foreigners, Colonel Lazaro Delgado, told the official daily Granma.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1.8 million Cubans migrated until mid-2020, out of a total of 11.3 million inhabitants, that is, the equivalent to 15.9% of the population. However, that number may be higher, the agency does not record irregular migration.

Ortega's reasons and Cuba's silence

The regime of Miguel Diaz Canel has not pronounced itself on Ortega's announcement on the establishment of a visa-free for Cuban citizens. “No one has said: 'we have made an agreement with Nicaragua”, so “it would seem” that the Cuban regime had not been consulted, estimates 14ymedio's editor-in-chief, Reinaldo Escobar.

“This is very significant because obviously the government of Mr. Daniel Ortega, which is a close friend of the Cuban government, could not make a hostile act of this nature without having consulted (with their counterparts on the island) and the fact that the government (of Cuba) hides or does not disclose this bilateral relationship, is very striking”, the journalist points out. 

Escobar considers that the visa free to Nicaragua “is not something that came from heaven” or that “Nicaragua came up with this measure by chance”. This “is programmed, it is studied, and has an intention on the part of the government,” he says. 

In his opinion, Nicaragua's announcement and Cuba's silence “is a compromise that the two governments have agreed upon,” which is done with several intentions. Among them, to provoke an increase in the migratory crisis on the southern border of the United States and thus force Joe Biden’s Administration to open a negotiation channel with Cuba. 

Another reason, he believes, is that the unprecedented mass protests that took place in Cuba last July 11 - when hundreds of people took to the streets demanding rights, freedom and even the end of the dictatorship - caused “a trauma for the cuban rulers”, and they could be attempting to release political pressure. 

“They (the island’s administration) needs for those people with the capacity to lead a protest to decide, instead of exercising that will, that self-esteem, in leading a protest, to use it to leave the country and look for a place where they can feel happy and in a competitive place, which is not Cuba, to be honest,” underlines Escobar. 

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff


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Redacción Confidencial

Redacción Confidencial

Confidencial es un diario digital nicaragüense, de formato multimedia, fundado por Carlos F. Chamorro en junio de 1996. Inició como un semanario impreso y hoy es un medio de referencia regional con información, análisis, entrevistas, perfiles, reportajes e investigaciones sobre Nicaragua, informando desde el exilio por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.