Doors are closing fast for Cubans seeking to travel
By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban Miguel Palenzuela, 52, and his wife Ania have been waiting for a month outside Colombia’s embassy in Havana in hopes of securing a visa to travel through the South American nation.
Palenzuela, who commutes almost daily from Guanabacoa, outside the capital, says he would prefer an appointment but the website crashes. Other embassies are as bad or worse, he says.
“There are too many barriers,” Palenzuela says, shaded from the summer Caribbean sun beneath a mango tree. “It’s as if they don’t want us Cubans to travel.”
The Colombian embassy told Reuters its systems had been swamped by the “large number” of applicants, and said the country’s upcoming presidential elections had also slowed service.
Reuters this week spoke with nearly two dozen people waiting in lines outside the embassies of Colombia, Mexico, and Panama, countries often used as jumping-off points for irregular migration north to the United States.
The Cubans Reuters spoke with either declined to elaborate on the reason for their travels or said they were shopping or traveling for tourism.
But all expressed frustration as diplomatic and bureaucratic bottlenecks at home and abroad grow for Cubans seeking to leave the island amid a growing economic crisis.
Over 140,000 Cubans have been encountered by authorities at the U.S. border with Mexico since October, U.S. figures show, among the largest migrations off the island in decades.
Cuba blames the United States for priming the pump of illegal migration by maintaining a Cold War-era economic embargo while cutting off consular services in Havana for Cubans.
The United States last week agreed to facilitate “legal pathways” for migrants at the Summit of the Americas, which excluded Cuban government representatives. Washington resumed visa processing in Havana in May and aims to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans a year.
It’s a crack in the door, but still falls short, said Michael Bustamante at the University of Miami.
“We should welcome the long-awaited restoration of consular services at the U.S. embassy in Havana,” he said. “But compared to the demand, 20,000 … seems like a drop in the bucket.”
Outside the embassies of several Latin American countries in Havana, the diplomatic discourse of recent months is lost in a haze of heat, long lines and fast-changing requirements.
With options for legal migration through the United States limited, many opt to fly to Nicaragua, which in November lifted visa requirements for Cubans, then try their luck on the risky overland route north to the U.S. border.
Soaring costs, however, have led many to seek alternate flights through Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, among others.
A range of visa requirements, old and new, in those countries has led to confusion and frustration, said Yaneris Betancourt, 37, who traveled more than four hours on public transport from Matanzas, outside Havana, for her appointment at Panama’s embassy.
Betancourt said she too had struggled to navigate embassy websites – Cubans often have access to the internet only by phone with spotty coverage – and missed two flights because of the delays.
And most recently, a Cuban Central Bank measure prompted some embassies to temporarily halt services or charge for visas in dollars or euros, foreign currencies available to Cubans primarily via remittances or the black market.
“Many people have had to drop everything because they’ve not had the strength to continue,” Betancourt said on Monday as she waited in a park near the embassy with more than 75 others.
Outside the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the only legal avenue available on-island for migration to the United States, the scene was comparatively tranquil.
Odanis Gonzalez on Wednesday sat quietly on a park bench, waiting with her daughter to enter the embassy. She said the U.S. decision to restart consular services on the island was the best way forward.
“We should all have the right to this path, the correct one,” she said, “and not have to risk our lives.”
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV; Editing by Dave Graham)