Tim Rogers

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

In what appears to be another example of Cuban backchanneling, Ecuador on Thursday announced it will start requiring visas for all Cubans who have been using the South American country as a springboard to emigrate to the United States. The new visa requirements are expected to take effect by the end of next week.

Ecuador's announcement comes on the heels of Nicaragua's decision to close its border to northbound Cubans. The move has created a humanitarian and political crisis on Costa Rica's northern border, where more than 3,000 Cubans are stuck in migratory limbo. And thousands more are on their way.

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Since Havana and Washington announced a thawing of diplomatic relations last December, a flood tide of Cubans has left the island in an desperate attempt to make it to U.S. soil before improving ties bring an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act. Most of the Cubans emigrating to the U.S. come by land via Ecuador, whose visa-free immigration policy made it one of the only countries in the hemisphere that allowed Cubans to enter with no questions asked.

As a result, tens of thousands of Cubans saved their remittances and sold their homes to buy a roundtrip ticket to Ecuador to start the long journey to "La Yuma," as Cubans call the United States.

Panamanian border guard reads from list of Cubans whose passports have been processed in Puerto Obaldia

"I used to fly to Ecuador several times a year to buy clothes to sell in Cuba. The flights from Havana to Quito were always full, but on the return flights I could sit anywhere on the plane I wanted; I could even take a whole row to myself," a Cuban man I met in the Panamanian jungle told me, as he made his way north after taking his last flight to Ecuador.

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Cuba was aware of the embarrassing situation and has apparently tried to backchannel a solution with its leftist allies. First it got Nicaragua to twist the garden hose at the border, and now it's getting Ecuador to close the spigot at its source. Ironically, Cuba, which has long complained that the U.S. treats Cubans differently than other foreigners, is apparently now asking Ecuador to do the same thing by making an exception to its visa-free policy for Cubans.

Ecuador's deputy foreign minister Xavier Lasso insists his country is not closing its doors to Cubans. But the new visa requirements will make it harder for them to enter the country in ways that are still not clear.

The move also leaves unknown thousands of Cubans stuck in transit between Ecuador and Nicaragua. There are some 3,600 Cubans currently stuck in Costa Rica, and potentially thousands more still making their way through Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

For the time being, the Costa Rica border crisis will remain an ever-worsening situation as more Cubans continue to pile up against Nicaraguan soldiers. And with the Sandinista government refusing to negotiate a solution with its neighbors, it remains anyone's guess what will happen next.

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