Stranded for 60 days, Cuban family hopes for U.S. reunion

New deal will allow Cuban migrants to leave Costa Rica
New deal will allow Cuban migrants to leave Costa Rica

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    New deal will allow Cuban migrants to leave Costa Rica

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New deal will allow Cuban migrants to leave Costa Rica 01:50

Story highlights

  • Cubans trapped in Costa Rica as they make arduous journey to U.S.
  • First of 8,000 will be allowed to leave Tuesday after deal between Central American nations
  • After three years apart, son hopes to be reunited soon with family in Miami

Miami (CNN)Jose Raul Gonzalez sits in his South Florida home worried about his 18-year-old son, one of the Cubans caught in the middle of an international refugee crisis.

He hasn't seen the teenager in three years and was preparing for a reunion in November when this dream turned into a 60-day nightmare.
"These two months have felt like a thousand years," Gonzalez says.
    The anguish in his voice indicates the dangers that lie ahead. "I'm very concerned, because this is a journey, where you never know what could happen," he says.
    Now they could be reunited within the next month. But first his son and other family members must complete a treacherous journey.
    They are part of 8,000 Cubans who have been trapped on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border for at least 60 days.
    In Costa Rica, Jose Gonzalez Vidal, his mother and other relatives expected to make another crossing on their trip from their communist homeland to the United States. But they were forced to live in shelters when Nicaragua closed its borders and denied passage.
    On their journey, they have crisscrossed and leapfrogged through Latin America by boarding buses, propeller planes and broken-down boats while also coming face to face with armed military members, rubber bullets and tear gas.
    For weeks, several Central American countries tried to figure out what to do with the thousands in limbo and an international refugee crisis on their hands.
    "It's been very hard. Harder for him than me," Gonzalez says of his son. "He had hoped to get here in a month's time, and look how long it's been. I was never in favor of this trip, but he decided to do it. He was about to turn 18, and I told him, if you decide to do it, you need to know the risks."
    On Tuesday, the first group of 180 was to leave on a flight to El Salvador as part of a pilot program, according to Costa Rica's foreign minister. It won't be a free ride; the migrants paid about $550 to cover travel and visa costs, officials said.
    Gonzalez Vidal won't be a part of this group, but its departure from Costa Rica represents hope that the arduous trip will be worth it and his family will be together soon.

    Buses, boats and rubber bullets

    Gonzalez Vidal's journey for freedom and opportunity began when he and his family left Cuba for Ecuador two years ago. He dreamed he would eventually make it to America. He studied in Ecuador while his mother used her savings to try and make that dream a reality.
    "The first thing we had to do was cross Colombia, which was very stressful, because we were basically illegally in Colombia. We were hiding," Gonzalez Vidal says.
    The small group spent two days going from town to town, from bus to bus, until arriving at Colombia's northern coast.
    Then the group had to jump on a small boat and cut across the Caribbean. "It was, without a doubt, one of the scariest moments of the entire trip," he says.
    At one point, the boat broke down. Another came to pick the passengers up and took them to the tiny Panamanian border town of La Miel.
    After a couple of days, Gonzalez Vidal says the group paid to jump on a twin-prop plane and head for Panama City. Once there, they got back on buses and continued to Costa Rica, eventually arriving on the Nicaragua border.
    That's when Gonzalez Vidal says the real trouble started.
    "The Nicaraguan military was on the border. Then, all of a sudden, it started raining and the Cubans, who had crossed into Nicaragua, started running back," he says. "They yelled that the military had shot at them with rubber bullets and tear gas."
    Nicaragua, a close ally of Havana's, denied the Cubans passage, but a landmark deal in late December between Central American countries would allow the thousands of stranded refugees to continue their trek.
    Gonzalez Vidal and his mother cook while at a camp in Costa Rica.
    The first flight leaving Tuesday is expected to carry only adults, Cuban activist Ramon Saul Sanchez says. There will be no children or pregnant women as a precaution. He tells CNN the Costa Rican government picked the 180 based on who arrived first in the country.
    Once the plane lands in San Salvador, the group will be bused through El Salvador and Guatemala to Mexico's southern border town of Tapachula. Then it's up to each Cuban on how to cross all of Mexico to the northern border with the United States, Sanchez says.

    'I'm anxious to get to the U.S.'

    If all goes well with the initial group, the rest will slowly continue on to the United States.
    "Since we were one of the first ones here, I hope by the 18th or the 20th we'll be on the list to continue our journey," the young Gonzalez Vidal says.
    Jose Raul Gonzalez says he hopes to reunite with his son soon in Miami.
    But the aspiring model and actor, who left his homeland at 16, admits it won't be easy, especially once the group arrives in Mexico and must figure out a way north.
    "That has us all very worried, because everyone knows that Mexico isn't an amusement park. We could run into some dangerous problems," Gonzalez Vidal says, "but I'm anxious to get to the United States."
    His father is also concerned; he says he fears his son and other Cubans could be kidnapped while traveling through Mexico.
    "I just hope the (Mexican) government would focus on this, so they don't run any risks, that I fear may exist," says the elder Gonzalez, who immigrated to America in 2000.

    Dreaming of the reunion

    Gonzalez says he and his son speak via cell phone three or four times a day. Now he can't wait to speak to him in person.
    "I long for the moment, when I'll wake up and he's here next to me. Eating at my table, eating whatever he desires, and not having to worry about anything," says Gonzalez, who also has a 9-year-old son in Miami.
    Gonzalez Vidal says, "I'd love to see my little brother, carry him, hug him and tell him how much I love him."
    He plans to study economics or business administration, with hopes of embarking on a career in the arts. He should be able to do so after crossing into the United States. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans are allowed to stay once they touch American soil.
    And once he does, Gonzalez Vidal has one thing on his mind: "I want to go to a barber shop, cut all this hair and my beard. I've earned the nickname Mufasa from 'The Lion King,' " says the young man, who hasn't shaved since leaving Ecuador.