As Panama tightens visa rules, Cubans brace for tough journeys

By the time Natalia and her family were called to enter the Panamanian embassy in Havana, they had been sleeping on the grass outside for nearly a week.

Natalia, who spoke under a pseudonym for security reasons, had travelled to the Cuban capital in early March along with her mother, aunt and cousin – a long trip from their home in the country’s eastern Las Tunas province. Once inside, they would buy a transit visa to enter Panama.

The journey from Las Tunas took two days and cost the family about $200, she said – a significant sum in Cuba, where the average salary is less than $50 a month. Natalia and her mother were planning to fly in April to Panama, and then to Nicaragua, from where they would begin their trek to the United States border to apply for asylum on the grounds of political persecution.

Along with Natalia and her family, more than 400 people gathered in front of Panama’s embassy in Havana on March 9, after a new visa requirement was announced that would make fleeing the island more difficult. It requires all Cubans to buy a transit visa at the embassy 15 days before entering Panama.

Large crowd
Panama is an important hub for passengers travelling anywhere in the Caribbean, Central and North America [Ismael Francisco/AP]
The requirement was to take effect just a few days after the announcement, throwing into chaos the travel plans of many Cubans who had planned to fly out during the last two weeks of March. After angry residents flooded the embassy area, the Panamanian government slightly extended the implementation date until March 15.

Although Panamanian authorities have said the transit visa requirement would be in place for just three months, some Cubans told Al Jazeera they feared more stringent restrictions lay ahead – adding to the constantly evolving hurdles facing Cubans as they attempt to travel beyond their country’s borders.

Planning far in advance
In recent years, Panama has functioned as a middleman between Cuba and the rest of Latin America, as many countries do not offer direct flights to Havana.

“I’m going to Mexico through Panama,” a woman sitting outside the embassy told Al Jazeera in mid-March, noting that her son’s father was already living there. She had come back to Cuba to visit family and was now stuck waiting for a transit visa en route to Panama City.

Another woman waiting to enter the embassy said she had been living in Colombia for years, and was prepared to wait in the hot sun as long as necessary to facilitate her return trip through Panama: “I got here at 8am, and I heard they’ll be processing visas maybe until 9pm, so I’ll stay here all day – and then, maybe I’ll have to change the flight and come again tomorrow.”

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