Mexico City: Dozens of Cubans crowded outside Ecuador’s Embassy in Havana on Friday, worried and angry about new rules that require Cubans to have a visa to enter Ecuador, which is a vital stepping stone for islanders trying to migrate to the United States.

Until now, Ecuador was the only Latin American country that did not require Cubans to have a visa to enter. Starting Tuesday, it will ask them to apply online, a difficult process in a country with very limited internet access.

Bloggers and passers-by said that a crush of about 200 people formed in the early morning outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in the residential Miramar neighbourhood, brandishing plane tickets and passports.

“Who’s going to pay me back?” one man shouted in a news agency video posted on YouTube. Dozens gathered outside airline offices to try to change their tickets.

Cubans will “always be welcome” in Ecuador, Xavier Lasso, the deputy foreign minister, said in a statement. The measure was necessary, Lasso said, to “prevent violations of human rights and even loss of life.”

Thousands of Cubans travel to Ecuador each year, many to buy goods that they sell in Cuba and many to begin an arduous trek north through Central America to the United States. There, they cross the border and become residents under special regulations intended to give them refuge from persecution.

Their numbers have surged this year because of fears that those privileges will end. About 35,000 Cubans crossed the border from October 2014 to August.

The number of people leaving Cuba is “a reflection of the mess this country is in,” said Regina Coyula, a blogger who passed the Ecuadorean Embassy on Friday morning. Cubans in Miami are sending money to their relatives, Coyula said, “not to invest in the future of Cuba but to pay for these journeys.”

The decision by Ecuador, a close ally of Cuba, appeared intended to ease a crisis involving about 2,000 Cubans who have been stranded between Costa Rica and Nicaragua since Nicaragua closed its border to them on November 15.

The impasse has fixed the region’s attention on the special immigration rules, which many Central American leaders say are unfair, and has drawn calls from Cuba for them to be rescinded.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Texas who used to work for the Cuban intelligence services, said that while Cuba recognised that the special regulations for Cuban migrants were an economic lifeline, the government was unsettled by the numbers travelling through Central America with the help of sophisticated trafficking networks. He said this month’s crisis would send a message that getting to the United States through Central America “was not a cakewalk.”

Holly Ackerman, an academic at Duke University who studies migrant flows, said Cuban migration was “becoming more and more like the European situation,” where migrants cross several countries to reach their destination.

“You have countries brought into it in a new way,” she said. “The US has to deal with it as a transit migration issue. We have to negotiate and coordinate.”