The Panamanian government has a proposal for a group of Cubans stranded in that country: return voluntarily to the island, become self-employed entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas and, in exchange, obtain multiple entry visas and even start-up capital — still to be determined — for investment purposes.
The proposal — which would apply only to the 126 migrants who are in a temporary shelter in Gualaca in western Panama — was revealed by Panama’s Deputy Minister of Public Security Jonathan del Rosario, who said that his country has done “everything possible” to help the undocumented migrants.
The official made clear that there is no possibility that the 126 Cubans in the Gualaca camp or the other dozens of Cuban migrants stranded in Panama following the end of the U.S. Cuban immigration policy — known as “wet foot, dry foot” — can stay in Panamanian territory.
The Cuban migrants were en route to the U.S.-Mexico border when former President Barack Obama on Jan. 14 put an end to the policy, which allowed most Cubans who made it to American soil to stay.
“We have been very frank. Their entry into the country in an irregular manner makes it impossible for them to qualify for any type of immigration status in Panama other than refugee status,” del Rosario said, adding that what the Panamanian government is offering is not a bad choice.
“We are doing the budget consultations and, of course, we have not done it behind the backs of the government of Cuba,” he said. “We did not take them to Gualaca to deceive them. The range of options we have is not very wide and the countries we have consulted are not welcoming migrants.”
Del Rosario said that since the migration crisis in the region began last year, Panama’s government has carried out a “Controlled Flow” operation to ensure that undocumented migrants entering Panamanian territory “are properly controlled and enjoy their fundamental rights.”
According to data released by the General Directorate of Migration in that country, more than 39,000 undocumented Cubans have been living in Panama for the last five years.
Last April, the Panamanian government decided to close a temporary shelter in the capital run by Caritas, a Catholic Church organization. Relocation from Panama City to Gualaca in the western province of Chiriquí was accepted by 126 of the more than 300 migrants who were staying at the shelter.
The proposal for the migrants to return home and become cuentapropistas, unveiled at a recent meeting with migrants in Gualaca, remains on the table and is apparently one of the few solutions left to a government team that committed to resolve the Cuban migrant issue within 90 days.
Under the proposal, Panama would grant a multiple-entry visa to the future entrepreneurs so they could purchase products from Panamanian markets needed for their businesses. It is not a crazy proposition, considering that so far this year about 11,900 Cubans have entered the country with stamped visas that allows for multiple entries for tourism and business purposes.
The offer is limited to the 126 migrants in Gualaca and not those who refused to go to the shelter, designated by the government as a temporary refuge, who will be deported if arrested by the immigration authorities.
“If not Donald Trump, we hope that the Cuban community in Miami will flex its muscle, that someone will help us because none of us left Cuba to stay in Panama or be relocated in Australia,” said Yelisvaris Pargas, one of the Cubans in the Gualaca shelter. “Our goal is to reach the United States.”
Pargas, who is not opposed to returning to the island, said there is hope among some Cuban migrants that the deputy minister’s proposal is implemented.
Others, however, are opposed to the measure.
“All the shops in Cuba belong to the government,” blurted one of the migrants.
“Those visas that are being proposed are of no use to us because everything is illegal in Cuba,” said another of the migrants gathered in a humid hallway at the shelter.
Yosvani López, a young man from Caibarién in the Villa Clara province in central Cuba, said the option of a multiple visa would be the best if there were no other alternative.
“Clearly, we do not want to return,” he said. “But if the choice is between doing it obligatorily or with the option of leaving a door open to return, I will stay with the second one.”
Ivo Torres said Cubans do not migrate because of economic problems, but rather because they are “seeking freedom” and “want to become someone in life.”
“The Cuban government does not value private initiatives because it wants the population to be dependent on them,” said Torres, who also questioned whether Raúl Castro would allow them to become self-employed.
Panama’s vice minister, meanwhile, said most of the Cuban migrants at the shelter would not be able to prove fear of persecution if returned to the island and cited economic woes as the primary reason for having fled, which means they would not be eligible for refugee status.
“A refugee usually seeks refuge in the first country to which he arrives. And since they have been through various countries before getting to Panama, the window for refugee status generally closes,” del Rosario said. “It's not impossible but...that alternative is rarely viable.
“Panama's position on irregular migration has always been to apply strict control measures,” he said. “Before the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy, if there were no outstanding warrants, migrants were simply given an order to leave the country and were allowed to continue their transit across the continent.”
Del Rosario also denied that the Cuban migrants are prohibited from leaving the provisional shelter, essentially serving as a detention center: “Gualaca is not a hotel or a guesthouse. The idea is not to deprive them of their rights, but they must have patience.”
The migrants can only leave the camp accompanied by an escort once a week to collect money transfers at a nearby Western Union and to make purchases.
“We are inviting them to embrace the option of self-employment because it will guarantee them access to Panama and economic support,” del Rosario said.
Following the change of immigration policy in the United States, Panama airlifted some Cuban migrants to the United States but that, too, was brought to a halt. So Panama reached an accord with Cuba, signed in early March, and more than 90 migrants have since been deported.
As a result of intermediation from the Catholic Church, the Panamanian government has agreed to try to resolve the Cuban migrant issue beyond detention. However, they have made it clear that the current situation will not be maintained forever.
“Just as with Cuba there are other countries in the region that threaten to overflow in a migratory crisis and we are only four million inhabitants,” del Rosario said. “We can not welcome everyone.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba
This article is part of the "New Era in Cuban Migration" series, a collaborative project between the Miami Herald, 14ymedio and Radio Ambulante made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.