Cubans protest outside Havana embassy as Panama tightens visa requirements

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HAVANA, March 9 (Reuters) – More than 400 Cubans, many with passports and plane tickets, gathered at the Panamanian embassy in Havana on Wednesday to protest new visa requirements that hamper the growing wave of migrants hoping to cross the nation from Central America and north to the United States.

Several protesters told Reuters they had already booked flights for the next few days, only to wake up this morning to Panama’s decision to require “transit” visas for any Cuban arriving at Panama City airport.

Anisley Peña cried next to her 9-year-old son, Densel, just outside the embassy gates. She told Reuters the two were due to travel to Panama and then on a connecting flight to Nicaragua on Wednesday afternoon. Now their plans were in limbo, she said.

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“I’m desperate. I was supposed to be at the airport at 10 a.m. and here I am with no news or anything. It’s my boy’s birthday,” she said.

The crowd chanted “We want an answer, we want an answer” behind a police cordon. Late in the afternoon, the embassy issued a statement on social media stating that the visa requirement would come into effect from Sunday.

The embassy told passengers scheduled on flights to Panama between March 13 and the end of the month to book for a later date to allow time to apply for the $50 visa.

Panama’s National Migration Service later issued a statement saying the measure was adopted to ensure “safety and control” of Cubans transiting through Panama to another destination or returning to their country.

Demand for flights from Havana to cities in Central America soared after Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cuban nationals in November. This opened up a new migration route north to Mexico and the United States.

Most direct flights are sold out, leaving multi-stop flights through neighboring countries as the only option for many Cubans.

Cuban Frank Eduardo told Reuters he had booked a flight for March 21 and would not leave the embassy gates until he was clear about his travel plans.

“Here they say on TV that they want an orderly migration, and nobody jumps in a boat (to reach the United States),” Eduardo said. “This is what we want, an orderly migration, and we need an answer. This is not a game.”

Most of the people Reuters spoke to at the embassy preferred not to specify the reasons for their trip.

A similar move by neighboring Costa Rica to impose a transit visa requirement on Cubans prompted hundreds of people to gather at that country’s embassy in Havana in late February. Read more

Cuba’s economy has been hit by mounting US sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread shortages of food and medicine have spurred the growing wave of migration. Read more

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Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City; Editing by David Gregorio, Shri Navaratnam and Chris Reese

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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