Uncertainty whittles away hope for Cuban migrants stranded in Panama
BY MARIO J. PENTÓN
The color green seems to fill everything in Chiriqui, the western
province of Panama where the government is holding 124 undocumented
Cuban migrants. The morning’s quiet amid huge pine trees is broken only
by the hum of insects that torture at dawn and dusk.
“This place is beautiful, but everything gets tiresome. Being in limbo
is tiresome,” said Yosvani López, 30, who arrived in the Gualaca camp
after spending three months at a shelter for Cuban migrants in Panama
City run by the Catholic Church’s Caritas agency.
“Sometimes we start to talk about what we would do if we can get out of
here and go to another country. Some relatives tell us that a shelter in
Canada is being prepared to take us in. Others tell us that they have
everything ready to deport us,” López said. “That’s how we live, between
dreams and fears.”
The complex where the Cubans are being held was built by Swiss workers
in the 1970s who built the nearby La Fortuna dam. The 103-acre complex
is mostly forest, with a stream running through it. Located one hour
from the nearest city, the humidity here is so high that mushrooms and
other plants grow even on the fiberglass roof tiles.
The wood structures, worn with the passage of time, remain next to old
satellite antennas and electric heaters. The migrants say foreign coins
are sometimes found buried in the dirt.
López was born in Caibarién, on Cuba’s northern coast. He said he had
the chance to leave the island on a fast boat for Florida, but preferred
to try to reach the United States through Central America to sidestep
the Cuban regulation that migrants who leave illegally cannot return for
“I wanted to be able to return before the seven years,” he said. “I have
my mother and my sisters in Cuba.”
In his homeland, he worked as a chef at a Meliá hotel in the keys north
of Villa Clara, earning about $25 per month. With the money from the
sale of his mother’s house, he traveled to Guyana and from there to
Panama, where he was stranded when President Barack Obama ended the
so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy.
“We spend our time here chatting with our relatives in Cuba and the
United States, and looking for hints in news reports that will tell us
what’s going to happen to us,” López said.
The Cubans in the Gualaca camp not only are banned from working but
cannot leave the shelter except for one day a week to go to a nearby
Western Union office, accompanied by officers that run the camp. Some
are making a little extra money by selling coffee or cutting hair. Local
residents also run a store that sells food and personal hygiene
products, paid for with money sent by relatives in the United States.
Authorities initially set a 90-day deadline for deciding what will
happen to the 124 Cubans who agreed to wait in Gualaca. But two months
later, their patience is running out. At least six have fled the shelter
since it opened. Most recently, four Cubans fled. Two returned and the
other two managed to cross the northern border into Costa Rica.
Alejandro Larrinaga, 13, and his parents have been waiting for weeks for
news of their fate. There is only one other child he can play with,
Christian Estrada, 11. They have not been to school since they left
Havana 18 months ago.
Alejandro said he spent more than 50 days in the jungle before he got to
Panama. He became dehydrated several times and suffered from
convulsions. “That was quite a trip. It’s not easy to tell the story.
One thing is to live it, and another is to tell it,” he said, the
seriousness in his voice making him sound like an adult.
“We had to see dead people, a lot of skulls. I was afraid of losing my
mother and father,” he recalled. His mother, Addis Torres, cried as the
recounted the tale, but he said that he feels safe in Gualaca and spends
his days playing chess.
“I want to be a chess master,” he said. “Some day I’ll get there.”
The family does not want to return to Cuba, because they sold everything
they owned there in order to pay for the trek to join the boy’s
grandfather in the United States. Although they applied for family
reunification visas at the U.S. embassy in Havana, the family doesn’t
want to even think about the possibility of returning to Cuba.
They get three meals a day at the shelter, but Torres said “that’s no
way to live.”
“Detained, with no future, afraid of returning to Cuba,” she said “We
need someone to take pity on us, even if we have to stay here.”
Liuber Pérez Expósito is a farmer from the town of Velasco in the
eastern province of Holguin, where he grew garlic and corn. After Cuban
ruler Raúl Castro opened the doors to more private economic enterprises,
he started to buy and sell products and eventually decided to head to
the United States to “improve” his life.
Pérez said he feels “desperate” to leave Gualaca and return to his farm,
but has put his hopes on a proposal recently offered by Panamanian
authorities that would allow them to return voluntarily to the island,
become self-employed entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas and, in
exchange, obtain multiple entry visas and even start-up capital — still
to be determined — for investment purposes.
“I am here against the wishes of my family. I have my wife, a 9-year-old
son and my parents in Cuba. They want me to return, and they are pushing
me to do that,” he said. “But I am waiting for the opportunity to
recover at least part of the $5,000 I spent” getting to Panama.
His mother-in-law, and ophthalmologist who worked in Venezuela, loaned
him part of the money he needed for the trip. In debt, without money or
hope, he now spends his days thinking about when he might be able to
“During the day, we have nothing to do. Sometimes we play dominoes for a
while or we take a walk or we go to the stream, but we have 24 hours to
think about this difficult situation and the failure we’re facing,” he
Pérez chats with his relatives in Cuba on Imo, a video chat app popular
on the island. “A little while ago they installed wifi in Velasco and
they call me as much as they can,” he said.
“I hope this nightmare that we are living ends soon,” he said. “That
whatever has to happen happens, but that it ends now.”
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Source: Cuban migrants stranded in Panama are losing hope | Miami Herald