Cubans Stuck in Colombia Want a “Humanitarian Bridge” to Panama

“Many illegal boats have been leaving, but we don’t have the money to pay for them, so we had to remain on the beach,” says a Cuban migrant in Colombia, waiting to get to Panama.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lorey Saman, Havana, February 4, 2021 — More than a thousand migrants trapped in Necoclí, Colombia, are staying in tents and experiencing hunger and disease due to poor sanitary conditions. On Thursday, a first group managed to leave on a boat for the Panamanian border. When they get to Capurganá, they will try to enlist the support of local authorities to create a “humanitarian bridge” that will allow them to reach Panama, the neighboring country, without having to cross the inhospitable Darien jungle on foot.

“Many illegal boats have been leaving,” Emanuel Novoa, “but we don’t have the money to pay for them, so we had to remain on the beach.” Novoa is a habanero who came from Uruguay to this border point in the Colombian department of Antioquia. He shares a destiny with dozens of Cubans (23, according to official sources, although it’s said in the town that there are actually a lot more).

He was lucky on Thursday, Novoa tells 14ymedio, since he was finally able to get on a boat that will take him to the Panamanian border for 65 dollars, instead of the 400 that the coyotes are charging. From the tourist town of Capurganá, a few hours away, he’ll be just 45 minutes by boat from the Panamanian port of Puerto Obaldia. However, crossing the border could be complicated.

Because of the pandemic, the border between Colombia and Panama was closed on January 15. Hundreds of migrants remained in Necoclí, most of them from Haiti, Cuba and Africa. The growing makeshift camp has alarmed the authorities, and they’re finally making decisions in order to prevent what could be a serious source of COVID contagion.

“It wasn’t until the arrival of the press here in Necoclí that things began to change, especially because of the Telemundo correspondent,” confesses Novoa, who is just 26 years old. “Only then did we see a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the sale of tickets by the government company that is transferring tourists to the other side of the Gulf of Urabá.”

On Tuesday, the Colombian authorities, in coordination with Panama, began to sell tickets, and the legal transit of migrants in boats is scheduled to begin on Thursday.

Daniel Muñoz, the Telemundo reporter who “worked the miracle,” tells 14ymedio about the suffering the migrants have endured. “They’ve spent this time sleeping in crowded tents or outdoors, without water or food for the children. Older people have had diarrhea and vomiting.”

According to the journalist, most have survived through the help of nearby residents. “To cook they gather wood, pieces of trees, papers or garbage. They prepare what the villagers give them, such as ripe and green bananas or used oil, which is a blessing, because the migrants can at least fry an egg,” adds Muñoz.

Necoclí has ​​registered a low level of Covid-19 infections, the reporter explains, but the situation in the settlement is extreme, because, among other factors, the municipality doesn’t have drinking water. “Imagine how easily the virus can be transmitted in this place, when nobody uses a mask and you can’t wash your hands or use any gel.”

The migrants harbor the hope that, due to the pandemic, Colombia and Panama will create a humanitarian bridge, as several legislators have requested, but the authorities haven’t declared anything yet, and this is something that has never happened before.

However, Novoa insists: “The authorities explained to us that we won’t travel through the different camps in Darien. They will take us to a Panamanian city so we don’t have any contact with the residents.”

According to his version, Cuban migrants would be transferred first to Capurganá (in Chocó, Colombia) and from there to other points, “always with the advice and guidance of the Colombian government, which will support us along the way and receive us at each site.”

Novoa was a teacher in Cuba, where he was in the third year of Special Education at the Enrique José Varona Higher Pedagogical Institute, but on January 31, 2020, he decided to leave the island to improve his future. “I got to Suriname and wanted to stay there, but I realized that there was a lot of unemployment in that country and a very low standard of living.”

That took him to Uruguay, his second stop. “I had to go through Guyana and Brazil and ran into very corrupt policemen along the way,” says the young man, who was even swindled by a Cuban posing as a coyote. “When I reached Brazil, with the help of Venezuelan friends I met, I got to Uruguay and spent ten months there.”

His goal, in any case, was to go to the U.S., and he left on December 15 after collecting some money and organizing a caravan with 14 other compatriots. The group followed trails and avoided migratory checkpoints in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador until they reached Ipiales, in southern Colombia. From there, negotiating with “corrupt policemen,” he continued by bus through Cali and Medellín, until he reached Necoclí.

In the makeshift camp of people, there are also pregnant women and small children. Surayma Bosque, one of the members of the group encouraged by Novoa, traveled with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 6.

“I left Cuba due to the lack of opportunities, the economic situation and the repression, but above all to find a better future and freedom,” says Bosque. In Uruguay, where they couldn’t find work, they didn’t do well and embarked on this adventure, which has stopped for the moment.

“It’s a sacrifice for my children and for me, but I think it will be worth it to reach our destination and be able to offer them a better future. That’s why all we Cubans are struggling to get to the U.S.,” she says with certainty.

The 33-year-old habanera knows that she has embarked on a “long journey where many things can happen,” but she is convinced of something: “If I can’t enter the U.S., I will stay in Mexico. Returning to Cuba is not an option for me, and I have faith that we will achieve our goal.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


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