Friday, January 13, 2017

Obama ends "wet foot, dry foot" (Jan. 13, 2016)

U.S. President Barack Obama announced the end of a two decade immigration policy favoring Cubans yesterday. The so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy has permitted Cubans who reach U.S. soil without visas to remain and gain legal residency, while those intercepted at sea were repatriated.

The surprise move is a "finishing touch" on Obama's efforts to end hostility with Cuba, according to the New York Times. The policy was opposed by Cuba, and, increasingly, by other countries in the region forced to cope with illicit flows of Cubans hoping to take advantage of the policy.

The Cuban government hailed the decision, reports the Associated Press. The change will likely increase pressure for reform on the island, both by eliminating an escape path for the regime's most dissatisfied citizens, and by reducing potential future remittances to families remaining on the island. The policy has been vehemently opposed by Cuba, which says it encouraged citizens to undertake dangerous voyages, and lured away professionals seeking better economic opportunities, reports the Miami Herald.

In fact the 1995 policy was implemented to end the rafter crisis. Previously Cubans picked up at sea were brought to the U.S. 

Since the 2014 announcement of détente between the two Cold War enemies, about 100,000 Cubans have fled the island in anticipation of the end of the favorable immigration policy. While sailing across the Florida Straights remained an option, tens of thousands more crossed the land border with Mexico. And the surge in Cuban migrants taking dangerous routes through transit countries in Latin America created a series of diplomatic problems over the past year or so. (See, for example, post for Nov. 16, 2015.)

In August, nine Latin American countries affected by the surge in Cuban migration across their territories urged the U.S. to change its policy, arguing that it was creating a humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of Cubans chose to transit illegal and dangerous routes in their attempted migration. (See post for Aug. 31, 2016.)

Yesterday's announced change -- effective immediately in order to prevent a potential surge in migration to beat the deadline -- represents months of negotiating between the two governments, reports Reuters. Cuba has committed to permit those turned away from the U.S. to return, including about 2,700 from the 1980 Mariel boatlift excluded by the U.S. because of criminal records. The agreement also ends a program allowing entry to Cuban doctors. However, the Cuban Adjustment Act remains in place, meaning Cubans who arrive legally can become permanent residents after a year.

Obama noted yesterday that "by taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries."

And Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser involved in engineering the Cuba rapprochement, noted the change in reasons spurring Cuban migration over the years. In the past it was related to political reasons, he said, while currently it's mainly people seeking economic opportunities.

Cubans along the migration pipeline, stretching from Ecuador through Mexico expressed dismay yesterday, reports the Miami Herald.

Like many of the détente policies, the decision could be reversed by Donald Trump next week. (See post for Nov. 29, 2016.) The tourist industry is booming, but locals fear that Trump could throw a "monkey wrench" into the U.S. visits, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Trump will have many Obama policies to repeal as he starts his administration. But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration order, shouldn't be one of them, argues a Wall Street Journal editorial. The piece heavily criticizes other immigration reprieve policies. But DACA, which permits children brought illegally to the U.S. before the age of 16 who are attending school or have graduated, to obtain work permits that must be renewed after two years, should be kept. " If DACA is repealed, Homeland Security’s tracking will end as tens of thousands slip into the shadows to avoid deportation to “home” countries where they are strangers."
  • Mexico will use its cooperation on security and immigration issues as leverage for discussions with the U.S. on trade, said President Enrique Peña Nieto yesterday. He spoke to a gathering of Mexican ambassadors on the same day that Trump again threatened to tax Mexican imports in order to force the country to pay for a U.S. planned border wall, reports the Los Angeles Times. But some experts question the utility of these issues as bargaining chips, as U.S. funding is in Mexico's interest, according to the piece. More than 80 percent of Mexico's exports go to the U.S., making the economy vulnerable to Trump's threats. A separate Los Angeles Times piece analyzes the likelihood of how Trump could actually make Mexico pay for the wall -- neither tearing up NAFTA or taxing remittances is as straightforward as it sounds.
  • Mexico named Geronimo Gutierrez, the head of the North American Development Bank, as the new ambassador to the United States, reports Reuters. The bank was set up under the NAFTA trade deal excoriated by Trump. 
  • A priest missing for the past ten days was found dead in northern Mexico, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A DEA operation to apprehend Haitian senator-elect Guy Phillipe, which resulted in his extradition last week, has led to chaos and questioning in Haiti, reports the New York Times. Phillipe has successfully evaded U.S. attempts to detain him on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering for years, thanks to tip-offs. He is something of a populist hero in his local Grande Anse region, where lookouts and difficult access shielded him from law enforcement. Legislators have questioned whether the extradition, which took place without a hearing from a judge is legal, and violence broke out in Jeremié where U.S. citizens were threatened.
  • Venezuelan authorities detained a dissident former general, accusing him of violating parole conditions by conspiring against the government. They also detained two local politicians, reports Reuters. The wave of detentions, related to the government's new "anti-coup" unit, comes a day after a prominent Popular Will activist was detained and goes against an opposition demand to release over 100 political prisoners. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Yesterday marked the seven year anniversary of the massive earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people in Haiti, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Odebrecht agreed to pay the Panamanian government $59 million in reparations for bribes it paid in Panama to win business in the country between 2010 in 2014, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs on Odebrecht corruption in the region.)
  • El Salvador had a rare murder free day on Wednesday, reports the BBC, though about 10 people were murdered per day so far in 2017.
  • About 114 prisoners remain at large after escaping from Amazonas state prisons in Brazil in the midst of a Jan. 1 prison riot that also claimed the lives of 56 inmates, reports the BBC.

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