Hundreds of angry Cubans confronted police and Ecuadoran embassy officials in an unusual display of public discontent on Friday after the surprise announcement of a new visa requirement aimed at choking off this year’s historic overland emigration of Cubans across more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) of South and Central America to the U.S. border with Mexico.
Chanting “Visa! Visa!” as dozens of uniformed and plainclothes security agents looked on, Cubans with tickets booked for Ecuador in coming days complained that they would lose years of savings because of the change announced by the Ecuadoran government Thursday evening, which left them less than two business days to get their hands on a visa.
Deputy Foreign Minister Xavier Lasso said Ecuador would require visas of Cubans starting Dec. 1 in order to curb migration that he said “puts at risk men, women and children.”
Ecuador had been one of the few countries in the hemisphere that doesn’t require visas for Cuban visitors, making it the chief starting point for tens of thousands of Cubans who have flown there this year and then made an overland trek across seven borders to reach the U.S., where they receive automatic legal residency. The flow has surged in 2015 due largely to fears that the detente between the U.S. and Cuba announced last Dec. 17 would lead to the end of special Cold War-era privileges for Cuban migrants.
Two leftist Latin American countries allied with Cuba have begun to crack down on the northbound flood.
Nicaragua closed its southern border to Cuban migrants this month, leaving more than 2,000 stranded inside northern Costa Rica. Ecuador, another Cuban ally, said Thursday that it was committed to what it called efforts by the Latin American community to prevent migration without authorization.
Cubans who learned that they would suddenly need visas for flights as early as Tuesday massed in front of the Ecuadoran embassy early Friday as security agents closed off the surrounding streets with yellow police tape.
Street gatherings that aren’t explicitly pro-government are extremely rare in Cuba and the crowd in front of the Ecuadoran embassy on Friday expressed a degree of anger at President Raul Castro’s government that is rarely seen in public.
“This is Raul Castro’s fault, nobody else’s,” said one member of the crowd, as security agents and members of the international media recorded the events. .
“I’m desperate,” said Carmen Lopez, a 62-year-old homemaker who spent $800 on a ticket for a Wednesday flight to visit her two sons in Ecuador. “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to save my money to be able to go see them.”
Ecuadoran embassy officials outraged the crowd when they announced through a loudspeaker than Cubans traveling next week would have to apply online for tourists visas.
Most Cubans have almost no internet access.
“They haven’t told us anything,” said Yasell Zayas Salinas, a 25-year-old self-employed candy seller, who had been planning to fly to Ecuador with his brother. “They changed it all from one day to the next.”