CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — Nearly 200 Cuban migrants traveled by air and across land through Central America and into southern Mexico on Wednesday, resuming their long-delayed journey toward the United States after several months stranded in Costa Rica amid a diplomatic tiff with Nicaragua.
One by one the 180 Cubans descended from chartered buses and were processed by Mexican authorities, who issued transit visas granting them 20 days to leave the country.
Sergei Acosta, a 35-year-old farmer, was the first to set foot on Mexican soil. He said he was elated despite a long night of travel by plane from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and from there by bus through Guatemala to Ciudad Hidalgo in Mexico.
"I'm not too tired. I'm very excited to have arrived," Acosta told The Associated Press. He said he left Cuba in search of economic opportunity, and was optimistic about landing a job in the United States and then sending for his wife and daughter to join him. "It's the need to have a better life."
The air and bus bridge is the first stage of a pilot program to relieve a logjam of some 8,000 Cubans who have been trapped at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua, which closed its frontier to them in November.
The first flight took off from the northern Costa Rican city of Liberia late Tuesday as part of a regional agreement to overcome Nicaragua's refusal to let them through by land.
The migrants appeared to get special treatment along the way: They were greeted by El Salvador's foreign minister upon arrival in that country even as, when they got to the Guatemalan border, they saw a busload of Salvadoran migrants headed the other way after being deported back from the United States.
The Cubans won't have to worry about that due to a U.S. immigration policy that lets them stay if they reach the United States. That special status initially raised some resentment in Central America nations whose citizens are often deported from the U.S. if they enter without visas.
But the Cubans' trip was smooth so far. Private chartered transportation and transit visas had already been arranged for them.
Ruben Chil Cruz, who left his wife and two children behind in Cuba, said he first flew to Ecuador and entered as a tourist. From there, a smuggler helped him reach Costa Rica by boat and by foot.
"I saw the opportunity and I took it," said Chil, who aims to reach Miami, a large Cuban enclave. "I think I will get to the United States by Sunday at the latest."
But Chil said he wasn't sure exactly how he would cross Mexico, known for vicious attacks on and kidnappings of migrants, especially those from Central America. He said he didn't plan to use a smuggler in the country and hoped immigration officials there could give him advice on how to travel to the U.S.
Officials have said that while they arranged the logistics for the first of the Cubans to leapfrog Nicaragua, it was up to the migrants to cover the cost of their passage.
Chil Cruz said the air and bus trip to the Guatemala-Mexico border set him back $555, which he paid out of his savings.
"It has all been very quick, thank God," he said.
For most Central American migrants, the trip takes weeks or sometimes months.
Emigration from Cuba has spiked dramatically in the year since Havana and Washington announced they would restore diplomatic relations. Many Cuban migrants say they're making the journey now for fear that detente could bring an end to the U.S. policies that given them privileged treatment.
Backers of United States' Cuban Adjustment Act say it offers refuge to islanders fleeing Cuba's communist system. Havana argues that the policy encourages Cubans to risk dangerous migratory voyages and causes a brain drain of many the country's youngest and brightest.
Nicaragua, a close ally of Havana, closed its southern frontier to the Cubans on Nov. 13.
Arnobis Tellez also left behind three children and a grandchild in Cuba. Like Chil, he wasn't sure how he would cross through Mexico.
"These last months have been terrifying, because nobody thought this was going to happen," Tellez said. "We thought that by this time we would all be in the United States."
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said he wished all migrants had such a happy story.
"With this action (for the Cubans) we are showing dignified treatment and respect for human rights," he said, "which are things that the administration of El Salvador's president ... is asking for our own migrants."
Associated Press writer Javier Cordoba reported from La Cruz, Costa Rica.