Closed Central America Borders Won't Stop us, Say U.S.-Bound Cubans


Cubans eager to reach the United States will keep leaving the island despite a decision by several Central American countries to close their borders to them, some Cubans in Panama told AFP on Tuesday.

Panama this week became the latest country in the region to slam shut its door to Cubans without visas, following the same policy implemented first by Nicaragua in November then by Costa Rica in December.

The decisions have had a domino effect. As a backlog of Cubans formed in one country, unable to cross to the next, frantic efforts were made to fly them out, then shut the borders so no more came in.

Panama is currently overseeing daily flights to northern Mexico carrying nearly 4,000 Cubans who had become stranded on its territory over the past four months.

"I'm sure that they will keep coming," one Cuban, Guillermo Rolando, told AFP before boarding a plane to Mexico with 200 others.

- Leaving dire conditions -

Cubans are worried that the United States -- which in 2015 restored diplomatic ties with Cuba and plans to resume commercial flights to the Communist-run island -- could soon end its Cold War policy of automatically welcoming them at its land borders.

They also know that Central America's borders are porous frontiers of jungle and corruption.

And so the migrants say the exodus will continue.

After U.S. President Barack Obama's landmark visit to Cuba in March, "the people have lost their fear" of leaving, Rolando said.

"The bad thing is they have to put their lives in the hands of 'coyotes'," or people smugglers.

The conditions many are leaving behind are dire: a monthly state salary of just $20, and few prospects to carve out better lives under a regime that has accepted detente with the U.S. but little social change.

Kendry Portal, another Cuban taking the flight, criticized the border closures.

"This step will cause human lives to be lost because those who want to leave will do so, whether the borders are closed or not," he said.

Costa Rica and Panama are calling for a regional solution to the flow of Cuban migrants, and have lashed out at the U.S. policy of accepting them, saying it acts as a magnet.

US officials, however, say there are no plans to change the welcome for Cubans, even as the obstacles in Latin America against the Cubans accumulate.

- The 'American dream' -

Over the past decade, many flew to Ecuador to begin their overland trek through Colombia, then Panama and the rest of Central America, to Mexico and its border with the U.S.

But Ecuador in December suddenly dropped its visa-free entry policy for Cubans, who then switched their attention to Guyana, from where they crossed to Venezuela and then Colombia and Central America.

"The journey is not easy. But we are going to come no matter what, even if we have to hide," another Cuban, Maikel Basurto, said.

Each Cuban migrant spends around $10,000 for the odyssey, including the fees paid to human traffickers. These amounts have increased because of the need now to slog through remote jungle and marshes to avoid border guards.

"We left Cuba with one aim: to make the American dream happen," said Magda Lopez, a 33-year-old Cuban who worked as an economist and who wants to get to the midwestern U.S. state of Nebraska.

"There are thousands of us who want to leave," she said. "All of Cuba is doing badly."