14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 29 April 2016 — The Panamanian Foreign Ministry has begun to take a census of more than 670 Cuban migrants in the hostel of Los Planes in the province of Chiriqui, in anticipation of their transfer to Mexico in the coming days. Another three thousand Cubans, most stranded on the border with Costa Rica, will also benefit from this operation, the last of its type, according to the Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela on Thursday.
“Starting from the completion of transfer operation of the Cubans counted in the census, those who enter later will have to make a decision about what country they want to return to; we can’t become a permanent logistical support for the trafficking of migrants,” warned the Panamanian president.
According to the regional director of migration, commissioner Alfredo Cordoba, the transfer of more than 200 migrants in various shelters to the Los Planes encampment began yesterday afternoon. “This mainly involved pregnant women and families with children, who need to be brought to a place with the attentions they deserve,” he said.
The official told this newspaper that the purpose of this measure is to “concentrate all the migrants in one area where their basic needs can be met, taking into account their rights as people.”
Cordoba said that right now there are 3,704 Cuban migrants in the Republic of Panama, who should be gradually transferred to Gualaca, where a joint task force–which includes the National Civil Protection System (SINAPROC), the Panama National Migration Service, the State Border Service (SENAFRONT), and the National Police–have mobilized to address the humanitarian crisis.
“I believe we are in the final stretch, at least they are already making photocopies of our passports, and that’s something,” said Angel Chale, one of the stranded who came through Ecuador. Chale decided to abandon the old Bond warehouse, in San Isidro, a mile from the Costa Rican frontier, where she shared the floor with 400 other Cubans in the most precarious conditions.
Both Angel and Leslie Jesus Barrera have spent a week at the Los Planes shelter. “This place where we are now is pretty fun. Usually we play baseball, dominoes or we dance,” says Barrera. “We help when they ask us to collaborate with some chore and for the rest, it’s like camping.” He added that he is very grateful for the treatment he has received from the Panama government, which right now includes free medical care.
The godmother of Cubans
Angela Buendia is the director of community organizing for SINAPROC, but migrants have dubbed her “the godmother.” As she herself says, “They call me that because I identify with their needs and all the pain they have gone through.”
Buendia says she learned to deal with migrants from the island in the last crisis and since then sympathizes with the plight of “these thousands of people who have to leave their land and often go through very intense trauma.” She stresses that, even after spending weeks in Panama, many still live in fear.
According to her, the migratory flow does not seem to stop, although official statistics indicate a decline. “Every day we receive between 20 and 60 Cuban migrants in Chiriqui. This is why we decided to prepare this camp.”
Buendia explained that Los Planes was originally built to shelter Swiss workers who worked on a local dam. “It’s a ten acre site with a fresh landscape and all amenities,” she added. She also stressed that “the only prohibition is not to leave at night, and this is for their own security.” She said they will have free WiFi, but right now they can use data connections on a local network.
“The biggest problem I’ve had with the Cuban people is that when they come here, having come from a place without freedom, they feel completely free and clear, sometimes confusing liberty with license,” she said.
Not everyone wants to be in the shelter
But not everyone wants to go to the shelter in Los Planes. “The problem that I see to this place is that it is very far away. From the Milennium one can at least work ‘under the table’ and earn a few bucks,” said Dariel, who prefers to omit his last name for fear of discovery. His work as a carpenter, a trade he learned in Cuba, allows him to cover his expenses and at the same time, he confesses, save something “for the end of the journey.”
“Here there were even Cubans who were whoring and charge less than the Panamanians. Those were the smart ones, because in the end, they managed to get together the money and now they’re in the [United States],” says the migrant.
In overcrowded rooms, hallways, or simply in tents put up at dusk in the doorways of neighboring houses, hundreds of Cubans have preferred to stay near the Costa Rican border.
“It’s a problem that affects communities that often find themselves overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving,” says Commissioner Cordoba.
Many of the local inhabitants, from Puerto Obaldia to Paso Canoas, have seen a business opportunity in the Cubans. With the flow of migrants, businesses have flourished from hostels to simple restaurants where the prices are usually double for inhabitants of the island.
“I don’t want to go to the Gualaca shelter because it’s very far away, I prefer to stay here because I’m in a village and at least I can fend for myself,” says Yanieris, a 35-year-old Cuban woman who arrived in Panama from Guyana. “It’s hard, sure, but if I want to go with a coyote tomorrow, there will be no one to stop me.”
The coyotes prowl…
Juan Ramon is one of those Cubans stranded in Panama who decided not to wait any longer to reach the United States. After collecting $1,400 from family and friends in Miami, he left one night sneaking across the Costa Rican border, along with six other companions under the guidance of a coyote. “In each country a coyote handed us off to another, and we have gone all the way: through the jungles, rivers, lakes… it is very hard,” he said.
The worst thing for the young man was the moment they ran into a military checkpoint in Nicaragua, where “a thug assaulted us, sent by the same guide, who robbed us of everything we had. He even took our cellphone. It was a terrible experience because it could have cost our lives and nobody would have known about it,” he told this newspaper.
After more than 12 days on the road, Juan Ramon found himself at the border crossing station of El Paso, Texas, hoping they would process his documents to enter the United States under the “parole” program.
To try to circumvent the army and police control on the borders of Costa Rica and Nicaragua the migrants use unique measures such as hiding themselves in a water pipe or hiding in a boat to pass through the dangerous coastal regions of the Pacific Ocean.
In November of last year, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government closed the borders of his country to Cuban migrants using Central America as a path to the United States.
The measure worked like a plug, leaving 8,000 people stranded in Costa Rica, which in turn also closed its border transferring the problem to Panama. Following an agreement with Mexico, both countries managed to build a humanitarian bridge that allowed the orderly exit of a great part of the migrants.
The coyotes, or human traffickers, have turned the migration to the north into a huge business that generates millions of dollars. From October of 2014, almost 132,000 Central Americans and around 75,000 Cubans reached the southern border of the United States.
The Cuban government has reiterated that all the migrants have left Cuba legally and so can return to the country.