“We Exist Between Illusions And Fears”
14ymedio, Mario Penton, David (Panama), 23 June 2017 — The green seems
to fill everything in Chiriquí, in the western Panamanian province where
the government hosts 126 undocumented Cubans in a camp in the region of
Gualaca. The stillness of the morning in the middle of the huge pines
that grow in the foothills of the mountains is only interrupted by the
bites of insects, a true torture at dawn and dusk.
“This place is beautiful, but everything gets tiring, being in limbo is
exhausting,” says Yosvani López, a 30-year-old Cuban who arrived in
Gualaca in April after spending three months in the hostel set up by
Caritas for Cuban migrants in Panama City.
“Sometimes we sit down and talk about what we would do if we could get
out of here and get to another country. Some relatives tell us that they
are preparing a camp in Canada to welcome us, others tell us that they
have everything prepared to deport us. Illusions and fears,” he laments.
The camp that houses the Cubans was built by the Swiss brigades which,
in the 1970’s, built the La Fortuna dam. It is 104 acres, occupied
mostly by forests and a stream. One hour from the nearest city, the
humidity is such that mushrooms and plants establish themselves even in
the fibrocement roof tiles.
Along with the wooden buildings, deteriorated by the passage of time,
there are still satellite antennas, electric heaters and, according to
the migrants, from time to time they find foreign currencies buried in
the vacant land.
López was born in Caibarién, a city on the north coast of Cuba. Although
he had the opportunity to emigrate using a speed boat to cross the
Florida Straits, he preferred the jungle route to avoid the seven years
moratorium on being able to return to Cuba that the government imposes
on those who leave Cuba illegally.
“I wanted to go back before 7 years was up. I have my mother and my
sisters in Cuba,” he explains.
He worked as a chef specializing in seafood at the Meliá hotel in the
cays north of Villa Clara, earning the equivalent of $25 US a
month. With the money from the sale of his mother’s house he traveled
via Guyana and in Panama he was taken by surprise by the end of the wet
foot/dry foot policy that allowed Cubans who reached American soil to stay.
“Here we pass the hours between chats with our relatives in Cuba and the
United States, and searching the news for clues that will tell us what
is going to happen to us,” he says.
The migrants in Gualaca not only do not have permission to work, but
they can only leave the camp one day a week to go to Western Union, with
prior notice and accompanied by presidential police officers, who are
guarding the site.
Some, however, have improvised coffee sales and even a barbershop. The
locals also set up a small shop to supply the undocumented immigrants
with the personal care products and treats, which they pay for with
remittances sent by relatives from the United States.
The authorities gave themselves 90 days to decide what they would do
with the 126 Cubans who accepted the proposal to go to Gualaca. Two
months later, the patience of the migrants is beginning to wear thin. At
least six escapes have been reported since they were moved there. The
last one, on Monday, was led by four Cubans, two of whom have already
returned to the camp while two crossed the border into Costa Rica.
Since dawn, Alejandro Larrinaga, 13, and his parents have been waiting
for some news about their fate. Surrounded by adults, Alejandro has only
one other child to play in the hostel, Christian Estrada, 11. Neither
has attended school for a year and a half, when they left Havana.
Alejandro spent more than 50 days in the jungle and, as a result of
severe dehydration, he suffered epilepsy and convulsed several
times. “It was difficult to go through it. It’s not easy to explain: it
is one thing to tell it and another to live it,” he says with an
intonation that makes him seem much more adult.
“We had to see dead people, lots of skulls. I was afraid of losing my
mom and dad,” he recalls. But, although tears appear in the eyes of his
mother while he recalls those moments, now he says he feels safe in
Gualaca and spends his days playing chess.
“I want to be a chess master, which is more than a champion. Someday I
will achieve it,” he says.
His mother, Addis Torres, does not want to return to the Island where
she has nothing left because she sold their few belongings to be able to
reunite with Alejandro’s grandfather, who lives in the United
States. Although they have a process of family reunification pending at
the US Embassy in Havana, the family does not want to hear about
returning to Cuba.
They eat three times a day and even have a health program financed by
the Panamanian government, but for Torres “that’s not life.”
“Detained, without a future, afraid to return to Cuba. We need someone
to feel sorry for us and, in the worst case, to let us stay here,” she says.
Liuber Pérez Expósito is a guajiro from Velasco, a town in Holguín where
he grew garlic and corn. After the legalization of self-employment by
the Cuban government, Pérez began to engage in trade and intended to
improve things by going to the US.
In Gualaca he feels “desperate” to return to his homeland, but he has
faith that, at least, he will get the help promised by the Panamanian
Deputy Minister of Security, and leave a door open to engage in trade.
“I am here against what my family’s thinking. There (in Cuba) I have my
wife, my nine-year-old son and my parents, they want me to come back and
pressure me but I am waiting for the opportunity to at least recover
some of the 5,000 dollars I spent,” he says.
His mother-in-law, an ophthalmologist who worked in Venezuela, lent him
part of the money for the trip. Indebted, without money and without
hope, he only thinks of the moment he can return.
“During the day we have nothing to do. Sometimes we play a little
dominoes, we walk or we go to the stream, but we have 24 hours to think
about how difficult this situation is and the failure we are
experiencing,” he says.
Liuber communicates with his family through Imo, a popular videochat
application for smartphones. “They recently installed Wi-Fi in Velasco
and they call me whenever they can,” he adds.
“Hopefully, this nightmare we are living will end soon. Whatever
happens, just let it end,” he says bitterly.
This article is a part of the series “A New Era in Cuban Migration”
produced by this newspaper, 14ymedio, el Nuevo Herald and Radio
Ambulante under the auspices of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Source: “We Exist Between Illusions And Fears” – Translating Cuba –