How Ecuador became the bizarre trailhead for Cubans hiking to the U.S.

(Part II in Fusion’s special series on Cubans’ 5,000-mile trek to freedom. Full series at bottom.)

QUITO, Ecuador— For many Cubans, the road to “freedom” starts high in the Andes mountains, 1,600 miles south of their island.

Ecuador is one of just two countries on the American mainland that doesn’t ask Cubans for a visa upon arrival. And there are regular flights connecting Quito to Havana, which makes it about the easiest place in the world for Cubans to go as “tourists.”

Final map

Since Ecuador lifted visa restrictions on Cubans in 2008, thousands of islanders have used this South American nation as a starting point for the treacherous, 3,000 mile land route to the U.S.

“Once you get here, everything else is by land,” said Junior Pardo, a 35-year-old Cuban butcher who flew to Quito in September in anticipation of making the long journey north.

Junior says he previously tried to make it to the U.S. by sea—a relatively short 90 mile boat ride across the Florida Straits— but failed when Cuban police intercepted his raft before it left the beach. Now he’s trying again by land.

“Ecuador is not a bad place,” Junior told me over an instant coffee in a noisy Quito restaurant. “But several years ago I set the goal for myself of going to the U.S, and when you have goals in life, you need to achieve them.”

While in Cuba, Junior tattooed a U.S. flag on his right bicep, in order to remind himself of his longtime goal.Manuel Rueda

Junior refused to show his face online, fearing reprisals against his family in Cuba

Emigrating to the United States is an expensive proposition for most Cubans. Junior, who was making around $10 a month as a butcher in Havana, said he had to illegally sell meat in the black market to save up for his $700 roundtrip airfare to Ecuador. And he got the ticket at a bargain price—some Cubans say they spend nearly twice that much to fly to Ecuador.

Junior and his brother-in-law, Yokiro, first tried to make the land trek in early September, but were quickly turned back by bribe-seeking Colombian soldiers just north of Ecuador’s border.

Undeterred, the two men said they were planning to try again after saving another $1,000 doing odd jobs in Ecuador. The first hurdle they’ll face is the illegal crossing of Colombia—one of the hardest legs of the journey, according to the Cubans who make it all the way—followed by six more countries before reaching Texas.

“We know it’s hard. Many people have died or had their money stolen in Colombia,” Junior said. “But if you complete this journey, you can help your family and send for them. You can get reunited,” says the burly butcher, who left three kids back in Havana.

_MG_0858Manuel Rueda

While in Cuba, Junior tattooed a U.S. flag on his right bicep, in order to remind himself of his longtime goal.

It’s hard to tell how many Cubans are using Ecuador as a trailhead to get to the U.S. According to Ecuadorean government statistics, 41,000 Cubans entered the country on commercial flights last year, up 70% from 2013.

Some are legitimate tourists or merchants who stock up on clothes they can fit in a suitcase and sell back on the island for a small profit. Others try to make a few hundred dollars in Ecuador’s informal economy before using their return flight home. A smaller group of Cubans remains in Ecuador scraping together a modest living on a minimum wage of $350 a month—more than most Cubans make in an entire year on their communist-led island.

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A restaurant in La Florida, A cuban neighborhood in Quito

But as relations continue to normalize between the U.S. and Cuba, a growing number of islanders are using Ecuador as a springboard to the United States. The fear in Cuba is that a normalization of relations will bring an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a cold war-era law that makes it almost impossible for U.S. immigration agents to reject Cuban immigrants who step onto U.S. soil.

“The conversations between Cuba and the U.S. have some people fearing that Cubans will lose their [immigration] benefits,” said Daniel Seculis, a Cuban pizza vendor who’s been tossing pies in Ecuador for eight months.

Daniel Seculis chats with a local customerManuel Rueda/Fusion

Daniel Seculis chats with a local customer

Seculis says he’s noticed a sharp decline in the number of Cubans hanging around Ecuador, as folks decamp to start the long journey north. His pizza shop, which used to be a popular stop for Cuban emigres in Ecuador, now only gets a handful of islanders each day.

Business is slow at the Orishas pizza shop

Business is slow at the Orishas pizza shop

“People are leaving before the benefits end,” says Seculis, who’s applying for a work visa in Ecuador but hasn’t ruled out a journey to the U.S. “Ecuador is better than Cuba, almost anything is. But I don’t make enough here to send money to my family.”

In neighboring Colombia, officials are reporting a similar spike in the numbers of Cubans arriving at their borders.

In an interview in Bogota, Colombian immigration officials told me they had detained 3,194 Cubans who entered their country illegally in the first nine months of this year. That’s a 300% increase from 2013.

Cubans who are detained in Colombia generally get deported back to Ecuador, because Colombian laws make it hard for them to get a visa or a permit that will allow them to just stay there for a few days.

“It’s a growing problem,” said Christian Kruger, director for Colombia’s national immigration agency. “But our goal is not to treat them as criminals. Our objective is to dismantle the human-trafficking networks that are trying to take advantage of these people.”

Junior, however, has a different assessment. He says Colombian soldiers tried to shake him down for $200 to let him and his brother-in-law into Colombia. And the Cubans who make it through to Panama claim that they get repeatedly robbed and extorted every step of the way through Colombia.

“They treated us like dogs,” Junior said. “What does it cost them to let us pass through their country?” the Cuban emigre wonders.

Next: Can Nicaraguan soldiers stop the surge of Cubans heading to the U.S.?

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