US policy change on Cuban migrants leaves many stranded

AP PHOTO Cuban migrant Yarisel Isac Wilson, 20, right, cries as she talks about her journey to the U.S. at a migrant shelter in Panama City, Thursday.

PANAMA CITY — It took three months for Gabriel Marin and his wife, Yansiel, to make it from their home in eastern Cuba to this migrant shelter in Panama’s capital. The goal was the United States and now the door that spurred their odyssey has slammed shut.

Hundreds of people like Marin were stranded in transit in South and Central America on Thursday when President Barack Obama ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that since 1995 has created a path to legal residency for thousands of Cubans who touched U.S. soil.

Marin and his wife were among 53 Cuban migrants at the Caritas shelter in Panama’s capital when the decision was announced. Most had arrived in recent weeks after slogging a similar route that involved a flight from Cuba to Guyana followed by traversing the jungles of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and finally a grueling hike across the Darien Gap into Panama.

Journalists arriving at the shelter seeking reaction conveyed the devastating news. Some of the Cubans sat in stunned silence, while others moved anxiously from one floor of the shelter to another with moist eyes.

Asked if they would now return to Cuba, a small group on the shelter’s patio chanted that they would not return dead or alive.

The most animated among them was 26-year-old Yancys Diaz, who left Havana in September with her mother and daughter.

“In Cuba, we were harassed by the authorities. Now we can’t think about going back; someone has to help us get out of this,” Diaz said, smacking the shelter’s wall in frustration.

The “wet foot, dry foot” policy has irritated Cuba’s government for years and its end was negotiated for months. From one day to the next Cubans migrants to the U.S. went from a special class with special privileges to just like everyone else following the dangerous migrant routes through Central America and Mexico.