Panama Adds Advantages to Its Tourism Card for Cuban Shoppers

In this archive image, Panama’s security minister, Jonathan del Rosario, talks to ’14ymedio’ in his office in Panama City. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 17 March 2019 — The Government of Panama has decided to allow Cubans who have a tourism card for purchases in that country to obtain a stamped visa, according to a statement from Panama’s National Migration Service.

The new measure is established through an Executive Decree signed by the country’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, and the security minister, Jonathan del Rosario.

The stamped visa will allow those interested in visiting Panama multiple entries to the country, not just one, as has been the case to date with the tourist card. In addition, it expedites the paperwork when it is granted by the Panamanian consul in Havana, who determines the validity period of the document.

In a conversation with this newspaper, Del Rosario described the stamped visa and the tourist card as “very positive” tools and expressed the desire of the Panamanian Government to simplify the procedures to increase the visits of Cuban entrepreneurs.

The security minister also stressed that the new measure does not eliminate the sale of the tourist card, an option for tens of thousands of Cubans who travel to the Central American country every year to make purchases for private businesses on the island.

The sale of tourist cards was announced by Panama Migration last October to facilitate shopping tourism, without the need for a visa. It can be purchased by the self-employed and artisans of the Island or by those who present evidence of having traveled previously to any other country. The cards have a cost of 20 dollars, allow a single entry into the country and are valid for 30 days.

Since former Cuban president Raúl Castro expanded self-employment in 2010, the private sector in Cuba has not stopped growing. There are more than 589,000 self-employed workers on the Island, which represents about 12% of the nation’s workforce.

According to a recent report from the The Havana Consulting Group, self-employed Cubans took more than 2.3 billion dollars out of the country last year alone. The consulting group says that Panama is the second largest market for purchases by Cubans after the United States.

Cubans who already have a tourist card and want to obtain a stamped visa must meet four requirements:

  • Fill out the online application form

  • Present a current passport and a copy with the general information and entry to Panama.

  • Show a round trip flight reservation as well as the sum of 50 dollars.

  • Meet an economic solvency test never lower than 500 dollars.

Cubans who have a visa stamped on their passport can also opt to get a new one if they fill out an application form, pay $50 and present their passport, as well as a copy of the previous visa.

“This is a great advantage, I have traveled three times to Panama for purchases in the Free Trade Zone and every time I had to stand in long lines to get the tourist card,” says Ángel Álvarez, a self-employed man from Las Tunas who sells air conditioners, speaking to 14ymedio by phone.

Alvarez is among the more than 17,000 Cubans who have visited Panama so far this year, a number that is increasing. Last year, there were 57,251 Cubans arriving in that country, leaving Panamanian merchants a profit of more than 100 million dollars in the Colon Free Zone, according to figures offered by the authorities of that commercial epicenter.

“Panama is a safe country, the dollar is managed, it is much closer than Peru and you do not have to complicate your life with as many formalities to get a visa as with Mexico,” says Álvarez. Mexico, Peru and Haiti are other destinations popular among Cubans for shopping.

Despite the facilities that Panamanian immigration authorities have granted to Cubans in the last few months, there are still those on the island who are critical of the difficulties in getting an appointment at that country’s consulate in Havana. Achieving an interview via the internet is extremely complicated and in the informal market appointments to request a visa are sold for more than 300 dollars.

“We were lucky that a Panamanian friend interceded for us and they gave us the appointment at the end of last year; this week we have finally managed to obtain the visa,” said a retired Cuban couple who received the good news on Friday. They now have a Panama visa for five years of multiple entries.

“We want it, especially, to bring merchandise home to sell, because the money we receive for our retirement is very low,” says Maria. She still does not know how she will be able to compete in the informal market for clothes, footwear and household appliances, but this 64-year-old Cuban woman is happy because “at least we will be able to breathe twice a year.”

But not all Cubans go to Panama to make purchases, others also use the country as a springboard to reach the southern border of the United States through Central America and Mexico.

Angel, speaking from the city of Acuña, in Mexico, is waiting for a turn to ask for political asylum in the United States. He arrived in Mexico after crossing all of Central America on a journey that started at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama where he arrived with a tourist card for purchases.

“I filled out all my papers as self-employed and, with the money I was able to make selling my possessions in Cuba, I took to the jungle,” he says through WhatsApp. Rodriguez says he lost his job in the media on the island when he dared to criticize the system.

The number of Cubans who show up at the US border to ask for political asylum has increased. A recent report from the Border Patrol reported that, between October 1, 2018 and the end of February of this year, 6,289 Cubans had arrived on the southern border. Through the entire previous fiscal year (October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018) there were 7,079 Cubans who showed up at the border requesting asylum.

Panama is also on the obligatory itinerary of hundreds of Cubans who use the routes of undocumented migration from Chile, Guyana and Uruguay to reach the United States. Recently the country faced a migrant caravan of Cubans that was transfered to the border with Costa Rica through the “Controlled Flow” operation.


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