José Angel Roque’s days spent languishing in a Costa Rican airport are over. This week, Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio granted refugee status to the 40-year-old Cuban, ending his 53- day stay in JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport. Roque, clean-shaven and carrying his belongings in a duffel bag, left the airport at approximately 5:45 p.m. Monday, accompanied by his lawyer, human rights officials and Costa Rican Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada.
“I’m a free man,” Roque told The Tico Times by phone. “I’m starting a new life.”
In a case reminiscent of the movie “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks, Roque had been living in the airport since Dec. 4, when he attempted to enter the country with false papers and was denied entrance by immigration officials (TT, Jan. 23). He filed a petition of habeas corpus and sought formal refugee status in Costa Rica, alleging that he would face political persecution if he returned to Cuba.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, del Vecchio cited the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which bestows refugee status to someone with a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their homeland.
Officials at the U.N. Refugee Agency in San José had argued that Roque’s case clearly met conditions for political asylum, but his petition for refugee status was denied earlier this month by immigration officials. An administrative appeal was also denied last week, putting his case in the hands of del Vecchio, whose ministry oversees immigration.
Del Vecchio had until Wednesday to make a final decision.
Del Vecchio’s decision came after Costa Rica’s ombudswoman gave notice Monday she would appeal Roque’s habeas corpus petition, saying his rights had been violated.
Roque’s lawyer, Carlos Segura, told The Tico Times on Monday before del Vecchio’s announcement that immigration authorities had been pressuring Roque to drop his asylum request, while the Cuban consulate maintained Roque would face no persecution back home. After the decision, Segura expressed vindication, saying the minister had reached a “correct” and “just” conclusion.
“It was a good result,” Segura said. “However, it was bad that he [Roque] had to live almost two months in the airport in poor, inhumane conditions.”
For now, Roque, an electrician by trade, said he plans to work at his cousin’s Pizzeria El Cruce in San José. He expressed gratitude to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, del Vecchio, his lawyers and everyone at the airport who had been kind to him during his stay.
“And many thanks to Costa Rica,” he added.