Cubans in Panama Ask Obama’s Help in the Immigration Crisis / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 22 March 2016 — “If it were not for the many who have died trying, it would be funny: Obama is in Cuba and we Cubans are leaving it.” In his sweaty mestizo face you can see small wrinkles, no doubt accentuated by the days spent in the journey along the dangerous route from Ecuador to Colombia. “I had to, I was desperate, no papers, no money, I had no other option to not go back to Cuba or die,” says the migrant.

For several weeks thousands of Cubans have been flocking to the Panamanian border, both in the east (Puerto Obaldia) and west (Paso Canoas), hoping Costa Rica and Nicaragua will allow the migratory flow to pass and offer them humanitarian safe conduct passes. Costa Rica closed its borders to Cuban migrants after negotiating with Mexico the departure of thousands who were stranded late last year when Nicaragua closed its borders. Something similar is happening now in Panama, only the solution is far off.

Orislandy Diaz Marrero, a young Cuban of 26 who recently managed to cross the jungle through the Darien Gap, in the central area of the country, tells 14ymedio his opinion about the visit of the president of the United States to the island. “I don’t know what Obama’s intentions are, but I am sure that nothing good is going to come of it. Those people (the Cuban government) have nothing good in mind.” He explains that his decision to abandon the country is the same as “everyone else’s.” Orislandy pauses for a long moment, sighs and adds, “It’s because they don’t let us breathe there.”

For Adrian Cedeño, a communications specialist who decided to emigrate to Ecuador, Obama’s visit “marks a before and after,” but he questions, beyond diplomacy and protocol, what the real benefits are to ordinary Cubans. “The Cuban people want to believe that this is a hope,” said Cedeno while pointing out that the issue of emigration on the island goes beyond a purely political matter. “It’s about the dignity they have taken from us. They have left a people, a culture, a country with nothing,” he says and asks that the rulers think “the about common good and not political interests of yesteryear.”

Yordanis Garcia is one of the representatives of the Cuban National Alliance of Ecuador, a civil society group that has recently been formed to defend the rights of migrants from the island in that country. “Actually, I would like to believe that the arrival of Obama in Cuba would be a big change for my Cuba” he says. “His arrival has shocked Cubans on the island as well as those who are not there.” Garcia adds that he feels “proud” that an American president is in Havana because of the powerful message of freedom that gesture sends.

Dozens of Cubans have held vigils, rallies and protests, both in Panama and Ecuador in recent days, asking to be allowed to continue their trip to the United States. On Monday, a group of them sent a letter to President Obama and his wife Michelle asking them to intervene in the current immigration crisis.

A video accompanying the letter was filmed on 19 March, in the middle of a vigil called “Towards Freedom.” The video, just two minutes long, contains the main reasons why they decided to leave Cuba. “We want to make them (the authorities) understand that we are fleeing from Castro’s dictatorship in which for half a century we have never voted, where there are no free elections (…) where we can not speak out as we do here. The only thing we saw for ourselves was fleeing from our country leaving many of our loved ones behind.” The message ends quoting José Martí between shouts of freedom: “When the people flee, the leaders have no purpose.”

In the past fiscal year (between October 2014 and September 2015) more than 43,000 Cubans reached US territory, taking advantage of the so-called Wet foot/Dry Foot law, that allows them to stay legally until, at the end of a year and a day since their arrival, they can submit an application to reside in the United States. Since last October, 2,420 Cubans have been intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard and more than 10,000 have entered through the southern border.