“Compadre, did you see the one that took place at the Embassy of Panama?” Lázaro tells me when I pick him up at Trillo Park, in front of the old Strand cinema, where they used to show films by Fellini and Wajda.
After the crisis of the Special Period, the place became a club called the Palacio de la Rumba and we used to go there on Tuesdays to listen to the Septeto Habanero, a glorious Cuban group that we always asked to sing how is michaelthat anthology are that in its refrain recommends: “If you want to brighten your heart / and reduce sadness in your soul / listen to the Habanero who does not make noise / and then, if you want, you have a rum”.
We had such a good time there so many times with the Habanero, that we got into the habit of meeting up in front of this place in the Key West neighborhood when we went out together to “hunt stories”. Today’s is tremendous and heartbreaking, or at least that’s how we see it, that’s why, to tie up the anguish, we ordered a line of rum before starting for the Panamanian Embassy.
The mission is in the middle of Fifth Avenue, at the height of 24th Street, and when we arrive a police cordon already blocks the way, but we sneak in. In Zapata Park, in front of the Panamanian Consulate, there is a crowd of young people with worried faces. There are hundreds of people, many with documents in hand, and suddenly the group begins to shout as one:
“We want to travel! We want to travel!”
The message is thunderous, and it is addressed to the Panamanian diplomats so that they come out to give explanations. On Wednesday, the Central American nation surprisingly announced that starting this Sunday, all Cubans passing through its airports bound for another country must obtain a transit visa – a procedure that takes at least 15 days and costs $50. The Consulate was immediately surrounded by hundreds of anguished people, who were still camped there on Friday.
The thing has its precedent: in November 2021, the Nicaraguan government eliminated the entry visa for Cuban citizens, and since then thousands of people have left the island for Managua with the purpose of continuing their trip to the United States.
The data from the Department of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the United States speaks for itself. Since last December, more than 20,000 Cubans have entered US territory irregularly through the Mexican border, almost 15 times more than in the same period of the previous year.
”People can’t take it anymore, they go everywhere en masse, even if it costs them dearly and they risk their lives. It’s dramatic,” says Lázaro.
We spoke with some young people from Holguín who are in the riot. They say to our faces that “you cannot live in Cuba” and show us their plane reservation. Since there are few direct flights between Cuba and Nicaragua and they were afraid that the so-called “Central American route” would be closed, they bought a Havana-Panama-San Salvador-Managua ticket. It cost each of them $3,400 (equivalent to four round trips to Spain), which was paid for by their family in Miami.
Their ticket was for March 13, but with the new Panamanian regulation they will no longer be able to fly and it is a non-refundable ticket, they say. Like them, most of the people gathered here ask Panama not to take effect until April, to give time to those who already had the trip in March.
“It’s a stampede,” Lázaro mourns, who has lost friends, neighbors, relatives and two ex-wives in recent years. He says that a friend lives next to his house babalawo, Santeria priest, who has a full consultation. “Many of those who intend to leave do sorcery so that the trip is given to them. Every day there they sacrifice roosters and pigeons so that the orishas protect them and not have problems along the way”.
Lázaro becomes paternalistic with the people of Holguin, explaining that the risk of crossing borders is too high: “Everything is full of mafias and coyotes, and there is also the possibility that they will deport you back to Cuba.” The boys listen, but refute him: “The important thing is to get out of here as soon as possible, then we’ll see.”
At this point, and since the message didn’t get through, Lázaro took me to the nearby El Aljibe restaurant and we ordered two more rums. He wants me to call the writer Leonardo Padura, author of like dust in the wind, the great novel of the Cuban exile after the Revolution. Lázaro considers him his “guru”, more on this fucking issue.
Padura says from the Mantilla neighborhood that he watches the television news whenever he can and that there he hears talk about a country. “But I go out into the streets of my neighborhood, or any neighborhood in Havana, and I see and they talk to me about a different country, as a parallel. That country of the street is a country overwhelmed, on the verge of despair due to the lack of almost everything, ”she points out.
“People have been living in line for two years to buy whatever comes along, and I hear almost everyone complaining that they don’t have enough money to begin with. No one should be surprised then that there are so many people, of any age and condition, looking for a way to leave that real country, to go anywhere, by any means, ”he says.
Lázaro agrees 100% with Padura’s diagnosis, and with an aguardentosa voice he begins to curse the government out loud for “the situation we have reached.” He also takes it with rage against those he calls “the businessmen of Cuban anguish”: here he includes the airlines that are making a killing with the needs of the people and the eagerness to leave ―today a trip to Managua, along the route that that is, it does not go below 3,000 dollars―; to the smugglers who charge per trip to cross the borders; to the lawyers who specialize in removing Cuban emigrants from immigration offices in Mexico when they are captured; and also to embassies such as the one in Panama, “which make life more difficult for Cubans and want to charge them $50 for a transit visa that they do not require from anyone else.”
According to data he has searched on the Internet, leaving Cuba for Nicaragua, paying for transportation and coyotes to cross the various borders to Mexico, plus the corresponding bribes to reach the United States, costs between 8,000 and 10,000 dollars per person. “Unfortunately, Cuban pain is good business for all these people.”
the official newspaper Granma admits that there is a “sustained increase in irregular emigration” and also announces the repatriation of a hundred people. But he blames Washington for stimulating this flow by keeping in force laws such as the Cuban Adjustment, which grants benefits to emigrants from the island who manage to arrive (although with many more restrictions than before), and for not complying with the migratory agreements signed between both countries, which establish that the United States will grant a minimum of 20,000 emigrant visas per year.
We return to Key West and the queue in front of the Embassy of Panama is still on fire. Just as hot is the thing in the store that is in front of Padura’s house. Getting out of the car, in front of the old Strand cinema, Lázaro remembers a bit sparked the glorious sound of the Habanero: “If you want to rejoice your heart / and that in your soul the sadness diminishes…”. And we say goodbye until tomorrow.
At night he calls me. The Embassy of Panama announced that it is postponing the entry into force of the transit visa for Cubans until March 16. “The people of Holguin were saved. Tomorrow we have to toast ”, he exclaims.
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