The Ordeal of a Cuban Family Trapped in Panama / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

A Cuban girl plays among the makeshift shelters in the village of La Miel, Panama. (Courtesy)
A Cuban girl plays among the makeshift shelters in the village of La Miel, Panama. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 1 September 2016 — Fernanda and Fabio do not know why they are far from home. They are six and three, but eleven months ago they left their kindergarten in Holguin, in eastern Cuba. They have suffered the rigors of the altitude of the Andes, and the humidity of the tropical forests. They are two children, like dozens of others, stranded with their parents in Panama, after escaping from a warehouse in the coastal area of Colombia.

“When we arrived at the airport in Panama, with $20 in our pockets, a lady gave the children a chocolate and a peanut candy. I remember she told us, “Some day you have to write down everything you went through to reach freedom,” recounts the children’s father, Johans Tamayo Molina, 38.

Tamayo is one of the more than 500 Cubans who are within Panamanian territory as part of an operation that the government of that country implemented to assist migrants who managed to get through the jungle or to enter informally from the sea. Now they are refugees in the shelters set up for the humanitarian emergency by Caritas Panama, an organization of the Catholic Church.

“We do not divulge the numbers or locations of the Cubans, because we fear for their safety. Several have been arrested by Panama Immigration when they leave the Caritas facilities,” explains Iris, a secretary for Caritas in the country’s capital.

So far, through donations, the NGO offers food, water and clothing to the migrants. In addition, they arrange baths and distribute the people among various churches. The Red Cross and the Panamanian Health Service have also collaborated to assist those stranded. After being in areas prone to tropical diseases some Cubans have become ill, as is the case with Ubernel Cruz, who is hospitalized with malaria. There are also reports of deaths in the jungle crossing, such as that of Carmen Issel Navarro Olazabel, 49, who died on August 20.

According to Tamayo, the journey to the Panamanian city has been one of the most difficult times of his life. “My wife and I came with the children from Ecuador. We arrived in Turbo, where an elderly lady took us into her home. She had nothing of value, even the floor was just dirt. There we shared in her misery, and we ate the little she had. This affected us strongly,” he says.

Following the decision of Columbia’s Foreign Ministry and Immigration to intervene in the warehouse and surroundings, where more than 1,400 Cubans were taking refuge in Turbo, the Tamayo family embarked for Sapzurro, a village on the border from where they though they could enter Panama.

“We crossed by sea, fearing that the Panamanian Coast Guard would shoot us, because those were the rumors we heard. There were moments of great tension in boats crammed with immigrants.” Tamayo remembers how, in the middle of the crossing, the tiny son of Aderelys Ofarril, the baby whose birth in the Turbo shelter made news, was covered by a wave and “miraculously” saved from drowning.

“When we though the worst was over, the Colombian sailors explained to us they couldn’t take us to the beach because it was Panamanian territory. They left us on the reefs, with water up to our chests. We had to carry the children and let the luggage get wet. Everything was soaked, including our documents.”

Yanela Vilche with her husband, Johans Tamayo, and their children, Fernanda and Fabio, in Quito, Ecuador.(Courtesy)
Yanela Vilche with her husband, Johans Tamayo, and their children, Fernanda and Fabio, in Quito, Ecuador.(Courtesy)

Once at the Panamanian border area they had to find the town of La Miel, where Cubans were gathering. “Some told us it was three days away, others that it was right there. We finally found the town and afterwards they let us continue toward Panama,” he explains.

“The problem now is that we have nowhere to go and no way to get there,” he says, troubled by the decision of the countries in the area to not allow the passage of “irregular” migrants, among whom are Cubans.

In an interview with 14ymedio, Costa Rica’s Minister of Communication, Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, explained that his government had not changed its policy toward irregular Cuban migrants. “In essence, the policy continues. We are not going to receive irregular migrants.”

Herrera explained that as of this week 173 Cubans had been administratively rejected and three were apprehended trying to enter the country surreptitiously. “Those who are arrested by the Police have several possibilities, which range from deportation to their country of origin to the granting of asylum, on a case by case basis.”

The minister was emphatic in stressing that his country would not negotiate a new airlift with Mexico. The Costa Rican government has asked the United States to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), and Washington has refused to do so. In response to a question from this newspaper regarding whether his government had discussed with Cuba the conditions that cause thousands of Cubans to try to escape the country every year, the minister said, ”There is no prospect that the existing situation is going to change.”

Panama’s Foreign Ministry declined to answer the same question. Panama Immigration explained that more and more migrants have been coming, but they are being dealt with in a controlled way, with between 100 and 150 taken to the capital. In statements to this newspaper, the director general of Panama Immigration, Javier Carrillo, explained that if migrants enter the country in an irregular manner, the law is clear. “We are not going to allow anyone to remain in our territory without having documents. We will initiate the process for deportation to the country of origin, to Colombia or to the country they came from on leaving their own.”

At the same time, Carrillo explained the Controlled Flow program: “A humanitarian operation for people continue their journey to the north, as the Haitians do. In the case of Cubans they want to stay and exert pressure for an airlift, something that isn’t going to happen.”

With regards to Costa Rica’s policy on returning migrants, the official explained that “this is not Panama’s issue.”

“They have to know how to continue, because when they started this journey they knew they would have to pass through many countries irregularly,” he added.

It is Wednesday. The temperature in the capital of Panama is close to 85 degrees. Fernanda and Fabio are playing on the floor, thousands of miles from home. Along with their parents, they dream of stepping on US soil “to reach freedom.”

“If they refuse to let us pass in Tapachula and return us to Cuba, at least we have done our best so that our children can live in a free world.”