14ymedio, Mario Penton, 17 March 2018 — The website of the Panamanian Government for visa procedures has collapsed due to extremely high demand, especially from Cubans and Venezuelans. Javier Carrillo, the Migration Director General, has confirmed this to 14ymedio.
“We set up this site to offer 50 daily appointments in our Havana consulate, but demand is very high and the system shut down as soon as we ran out of availability,” said Carrillo by telephone from Panama City.
The Panamanian authorities created the website in the middle of last year after doubling the number of visas for Cuban citizens to 1,000 per month. Eight thousand residents of the Island benefited from the new measure in 2017.
“We already have the whole month of May full. We post the dates two or three months in advance so people have time to get their papers,” explains Carillo. “In one hour we ran out of appointments, leaving a lot of people hanging. In April we’ll open up to take care of the next two months.”
When the appointment dates run out, the system automatically eliminates the button “fill in the form” and only the words “reprint appointment” appear.
The electronic system allows someone to ask for an appointment to get a “stamped” visa in the Panamanian consulates in Cuba, Venezuela and China. In the case of Cubans as well as Venezuelans, it’s very difficult to get an appointment because the quota fills up. This doesn’t happen with China, which has much less demand.
On average, by year, more than 10,600 Cubans have visited Panama. In 2017 there were more than 71,700 Cubans who chose Panama as an option for tourism or purchases, while in 2010 there were barely 6,000. Cubans who live in the U.S. or who have European citizenship don’t require a visa to travel to Panama.
Panama was a country of transit for thousands of Cubans who left for the U.S. during the last migratory crisis. After the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy in January 2017, more than 300 Cubans remained stranded there, and they received material support from Panama to return to Cuba.
For Zenia Escalona, the possibility of getting an appointment online to be interviewed in the Embassy of Panama in Havana is a great advantage. Zenia, 52, tried for more than six months to schedule an appointment by telephone, but was unsuccessful.
“On Thursdays, the phone was always busy. Half of Cuba was calling. It was terrible,” explains Escalona, who lives in Trinidad and wants to go to Panama to make purchases in the duty-free zone of Colón. Before the online platform existed, the Embassy of Panama in Havana scheduled appointments only by telephone on Thursdays at a certain time.
Ed. Note: Our apologies for not having subtitles for the two videos in this article.
Escalona got her passport last year to take advantage of the benefits of importing in the national money that Cubans who live on the Island have. “Customs allows you to bring back 100 kg of non-commercial imports by paying the taxes in Cuban pesos. That’s the advantage we who live here have. You leave, you buy clothing, shoes, televisions and air conditioners, and then you can resell them and make a little money,” she explains.
Although connecting to the Internet on the Island is generally complicated, because it’s done in public spots, Escalona says that “it’s worth the trouble” to pay a dollar to try to access the Panama Migration page.
The trips of Cubans to the duty-free zone of the Panama Canal and to other popular destinations like Cancún to buy things has flourished since the Cuban Government, in 2013, passed a law that eliminated the exit permit, which for decades prevented Cubans from traveling freely.
Faced with the absence of a wholesale market for the private sector in Cuba, many entrepreneurs pay the passge for mules to buy merchandise they need for their businesses at an affordable price.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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