Nov 15, 2015

Chaos for Cubans in Canoas

Photo taken from Reuters internet posting.
A Cuban migrant woman receives her passport with the visa granted by the immigration office at the border post with Panama in Paso Canoas, Costa Rica November 14, 2015.  Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate

Even before traveling back and forth between Panama and the US, I always considered myself to be a culturally sensitive person and have always expended effort trying to behave in a manner that wouldn't create negative feelings about North Americans in foreign countries.  I was born in Germany and have always been critical of "ugly American" stereotypes. In fact, I even did a post some time ago about people I had observed acting in an offensive manner here...

For the most part, I think  I've done a good job of being a positive representative for my country and culture.  I've worked long and hard at speaking intelligent Spanish,  I've made wonderful strides in relaxing what used to be an  uptight, perfectionist nature, and  I get along well with "regular people" in my tight knit, lower-middle class Panamanian neighborhood.  

However, over the past month I've been particularly remiss in following local news and national current events. There's been a lot of unpleasant online bickering in the expat forums and especially related to the quasi-hostile takeover of Ning by some really unbelievable web administrators.  I became frustrated  reading  it all and took a respite from all social and news media for several weeks. This escapism is responsible for my insensitive blooper last night.

I had no idea, for example, that due to the unfreezing of US -Cuban relations, there has been a mass exodus of Cubans heading to the United States to join friends and relatives.  Costa Rica reports it has processed more than 12,000 undocumented Cubans in just the first 9 months of 2015. Honduran numbers are even higher. Cubans are able to fly to Ecuador from their homeland without a visa requirement, and from there they travel over land and water routes through Central America  on their way to the US.  They are traveling undocumented, and apparently have better chances of being received in the US via land than by sea...

The countries though which these people are traveling  have been liberal about their lack of documentation.  They allow detainees to declare they are seeking political asylum in the destination countries, then release them and allow up to 20 days to move on to the next country's border, as they travel via  Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.  Many of the migrants utilize "coyotes" to guide them and interact on their behalf with local immigration officials. These coyotes, allegedly, are part of a large Mafia-based human smuggling ring.

Moving on to the current situation.  Apparently on Nov 11th, Costa Rican officials broke up regional operations of this smuggling ring and arrested 12 Costa Ricans involved at the PeƱas Blancas border near Nicaragua.  In doing so, hundreds of illegals were left to their own devices in Costa Rica without documentation or the know how to get around.  These people were re-routed to San Jose, Costa Rica and  detained by immigration officials there.   However, hundreds more kept coming into Costa Rica via Panama, and the 11/11/15 raid created a quagmire that overwhelmed operations at the Paso Canoas border.  So, Costa Rica closed it's borders to Cubans on November 13th, the day I chose to do my routine border hop. 

According to accounts, the Cubans were arriving in Panama via boat from Columbia, and Panama was following their policy of treating them as political refugees seeking asylum in the destination country.  (United States)  Costa Rican authorities are miffed at Panama for continuing to allow them to exit Panama into Costa Rica in light of the problem Costa Rica generated by breaking up the illicit operations. Costa Rica attempted to return the Cubans to Panama, however Panama refused to allow it on the premise the people had already exited the country.   Apparently the numbers of Cubans trying to traverse Costa Rica into Nicaragua via Paso Canoas reached nearly 1600, which is a huge number of people to accommodate in the few lodging facilities the town has.  Nicaragua allegedly was denying entry of the Cubans into their country, which compounded matters.  Many of the "refugees" hadn't funds to pay for lodging, and that's why they were hanging around the immigration offices and sleeping on cardboard cartons and benches.  At one point they also closed down the Interamerican Highway, demanding to be allowed to freely pass through Costa Rica, and created quite a news stir in Costa Rica .  Of course, I don't follow the Costa Rican news stations, and even though there was some Panamanian coverage, I failed to turn that on, either.  

So, enter this clueless gringa who has established residency in Panama.  She walks up to the immigration entry point in Costa Rica and encounters a stressed border agent who was nearing the end of his shift. Instead of just accepting his instructions to go buy a bus ticket to meet heightened immigration security requirements established by all the extra "big guns" who had moved into the office to scrutinize the rank and file's handling of the situation,  she challenges the agent and criticizes the administration's policy of requiring documentation of an entrant's ability and intention of leaving the country.  Wow...hindsight is always 20/20, is it not?    Given what I know now, I'm just thankful they handled me as well as they did while I continued to complain as they walked me back to Panama.   I feel very guilty about it all.    Here Costa Rica was actually working to address a problem that eventually would fall upon the United States after Panama evaded it. And I was a US citizen with residency in Panama, who in all her stupidity was demanding special treatment and criticizing Costa Rica for following appropriate immigration procedures.  If I had been that border agent I probably would have done the same thing.   I guess I win the ugly American award this week. 

Upon my return to Boquete on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Costa Rica had finally developed some type of procedure for issuing temporary 7-day travel visas allowing the Cubans to  pass through their country.  A few hundred people were being deported, however.  I still am not clear on what is going to happen when they reach the Nicaraguan border.  Apparently no one else is either. 

My driving privileges expire tomorrow, so I will be without wheels until I can find the time to take local transportation from Boquete back to the border to try once again to exit and re-enter Panama for an extended 90 day driving privilege.  I intend to wait a minimum of 7 days until the Cubans clear out, and would recommend to others they consider this as well.  For their own peace of mind.  And whatever else,  maintain your calm and keep your opinions to yourself !   I consider this a lesson learned.   It's probably a good idea to proceed with purchasing a bus ticket from San Jose to David before approaching border agents for the next few weeks.

I eagerly await the opportunity to apply for my Panama drivers license!

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