The days pass slowly at Los Planes, a camp for undocumented Cuban migrants in the western Panama province of Chiriquí, where Keily Arteaga has lived for nearly one month.
The 29-year-old woman is one of the more than 350 Cubans who are afraid of losing the opportunity to travel to the United States before May 20 — the end of an agreement between Panama and Mexico to allow more than 3,800 Cuban migrants stranded in Panama to travel to the Mexican border with the United States.
Arteaga knows she's lucky in some ways. She's covered by the bilateral agreement that already has allowed 1,985 Cubans to pay $805 to fly to Ciudad Juarez and then cross into the United States.
But she does not have the money for the trip, and she's afraid of ending up alone more than 1,000 miles from her home in Cuba.
On Wednesday, Panamana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announced that the price of the plane ticket to fly to Mexico will be lowered to $575, as per a new agreement with the airline. Children under 11 will travel free.
Monica de Leon, a spokesperson, also said that more Cubans will be admitted to list of travelers who will be allowed to fly to Mexico. Asked what would happen to those who do not have money to pay the fare, the official said: "They should seek support from international aid organizations, because everyone must pay for their passage."
She added that those still in Panama must leave by May 20.
Some $250,000 is needed to buy air tickets for all the Cubans now covered by the agreement, according to a document provided to el Nuevo Herald by a Panama government official who asked for anonymity. Airline companies already have been paid more than $1.5 million for the flights.
The Cuban flow is far from over
Although Panama has closed its borders with Colombia to undocumented Cubans, Xiegdel Candanedo, the head of the Catholic humanitarian organization Cáritas in Chiriquí, reported Tuesday that another 70 Cubans had surrendered to authorities in the city of David and asked to be approved for the flights to Mexico. The Cubans arrived through the Darien jungle, avoiding official border crossings, and are threatening to stage a protest in David because they were denied entry to the Los Planes camp.
Candanedo added that Caritas paid for the plane tickets for two babies, among the 27 minors in the camp.
One Cuban American businessman who has been involved in the humanitarian assistance for the migrants told el Nuevo Herald said that “everything will be resolved” and that he's convinced the U.S. and Panama governments will eventually reach an agreement to allow the Cubans to reach U.S. territory.
After Panama closed its southern border to undocumented migrants, small groups of Cubans have been gathering in northern Colombia, trying to hire coyotes who can smuggle them through Central America and Mexico.
The dangerous maritime crossing from Colombia to Panama has been named the “Lampedusa of the Caribbean” after the Italian island where tens of thousands of migrants have been landing. And the land crossing through the forbidding Darien jungles is just as treacherous.
For one 36-year-old Cuban woman, the migration crisis has another complication. “I just want them to let me have an abortion,” said the woman from Las Tunas, who asked to remain unidentified.
The woman left Cuba for Ecuador — one of the few countries that does not require Cubans to obtain visas prior to arrival — hoping to be able to send back money for her 12-year-old daughter, who is living with her father. She never expected life outside the island would be so hard, she said.
“I had to work in a night club, as a prostitute, because I was not a legal resident in Ecuador and without papers I could not work,” she added. “I never thought I would fall so low and suffer so much.”
Trying to break away, the woman added, she joined a group of 41 Cubans who crossed Colombia after paying several bribes to police. On the border with Panama, the group hired smugglers to lead them through the jungle.
In the middle of the jungle, five more men armed with pistols turned up. They ordered the rest of the group to wait by the side of the trail, then raped her and another woman.
“I only realized I was pregnant in the (Los Planes) camp. I tried to abort in every way, but no doctor wants to help me because abortion is illegal in Panama,” she said, sobbing. “The first thing I want to do when I get to the United States is to have an abortion. I don't want that baby, who only reminds me of the horrors I suffered.”
Her case is not unique. Six out of 10 undocumented women who trek toward the United States are sexually abused by police or people smugglers, according to Amnesty International.
“I have a husband and a daughter in Cuba, so I can't publicly denounce what happened to me,” said the woman. “I can only say the rapist was nicknamed Danger.”