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The Ordeal of a Cuban Family Trapped in Panama

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

14ymedio, 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.”

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

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.”

Source: The Ordeal of a Cuban Family Trapped in Panama / 14ymedio, Mario
Penton – Translating Cuba –

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