A Night in Paso Canoas on the Border with Panama / Ivan Garcia
Ivan Garcia, Costa Rica, 25 November 2015 — When Alex Sigler, 22, landed in the Quito airport in an African heat with thunderclouds that presaged a tropical shower this past November 11, he began his own journey to achieve the American dream.
In five days of passing through the Colombian jungle, Alex encountered hitmen of few words and with twitchy trigger fingers.
“The police, who supposedly are there to preserve citizen order, are the first to rob us. Almost all Cubans have been fleeced at Colombian checkpoints. The coyotes are frightening. They traffic cocaine the same as people. They talk about their criminal exploits like a group of friends in the neighborhood commenting on football and a penalty,” explains Alex, lying on top of some tattered cardboard in an inter-provincial bus terminal in the Costa Rican town of Paso Canoas, a stone’s throw from the border with Panama.
On the platform about 30 Cubans are sleeping, having been robbed or conned by drug traffickers in Colombia. They have lost everything.
They find themselves without money, waiting for some relative or friend in Miami to urgently spin a few hundred dollars their way so they can pay for the rest of the crossing, if the authorities in Nicaragua will finally let them pass through their territory.
They burned all their bridges. On the Island, they sold everything. Or almost everything. The hazardous journey through eight countries to reach the U.S. is much harder than they thought.
But they’re not sorry. “I was already worn out. In Cuba we’re just a number. People count only for voting in the elections or supporting the Government. Maybe things will be bad for me in la Yuma (the US), but at least I’ll be a free man,” says Alex, who in Caibarién, some 350 kilometers east of Havana, left his wife and a four-month-old daughter.
The village of Paso Canoas is a township of one-story houses and ambulatory stalls where they sell every possible commodity. At night it’s deserted. The more than 300 Cubans who arrive in unstoppable dribbles from Panama have several options at hand for lodging. Those who arrive without a cent sleep in the old Canoas bus terminal.
Others pay five dollars a night, the lowest price for lodging, in a sweltering hostel without windows that is run by Pepe Restoi, a Catalán, who says with two raised hands that he is voting for Catalán independence.
“Man, it’s not that I’m uncaring; obviously I’m aware of the drama of the Cuban emigrants. But I’m a businessman. In Paso Canoas, between hotels and guest houses, there are about twenty. What you have to do is keep your property occupied,” says Restoi in the door of the El Azteca pension.
It would be very pretentious to call “hotels” a chain of houses adapted for guests or enlarged to be rented to the more than 3,125 Cubans who, since November 15, have walked through Paso Canoas.
Prices are expensive for a segment of terrestrial balseros (rafters) who, in tune with the closing of the Nicaraguan border, have to dig out bills and scratch their heads to stretch their money after having spent between three and four thousand dollars on their trip through Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.
“You have to be very farsighted with your money. You have to hide it in unsuspected places so that the Colombian hitmen don’t fleece you. You still have to cross four countries before reaching the U.S., and the dough is going to run out,” says Alfredo Ávila, 28, an electrical engineer who lives in the eastern province of Holguín.
Among the island emigrants there are different hierarchies. Those of extreme poverty are the ones who spend the night on the unpolished cement floor in the bus terminal and, for lack of a bathroom, urinate in a garbage dump site.
“This is hard. The majority eat only once a day. They only have their clothing left from their baggage. On the road, to lighten up, they left their belongings or sold them to be able to eat,” indicates Alex.
Gabriel, a young man who recently left military service in Cuba, says that while crossing Colombia a compatriot had to improvise a fishing rod to be able to eat.
The emigrants who have a more substantial economy spend the night in third- or fourth-class hotels, which in Costa Rica rent at first-class prices. The El Descanso hostel doesn’t calculate how many it’s received. A large grocery store is sometimes a restaurant, a bar and, occasionally, the Cubans who wait to cross the border drink beer without too much moderation.
One night, in a monumentally drunken episode in the swimming pool, some Costa Rican guests were wounded.
“They had to call the police. Many Cubans behaved inappropriately. Particularly those from Havana, who believe they deserve everything. They steal the towels, destroy the electrical outlets and are always complaining, even though the hotel management decided to reduce the tariff for them to nine dollars a night,” says Rey Guzmán, the manager of the El Descanso.
The lack of money has caused several girls to prostitute themselves or ask for money from the ticos (Costa Ricans). “In the Peñas Blancas encampment, two or three girls offered me sex in exchange for 20 dollars. Another asked me for two dollars to buy cigarettes,” says Jorge, a Costa Rican taxi driver.
Past midnight, Yadira, a willowy morena (brown-skinned woman) of 22 years, a native of Las Tunas, some 600 kilometers from the capital, was dancing a Dominican merengue surrounded by a chorus of drunken men who were whistling at her.
“She’s happy. If she’s looking for a man to save her (offer her money) she’ll do well. All the Cubans who are here have had trouble crossing, but for women it’s been worse. I have a friend who was raped seven times in Colombia,” says Magda, a blond who, in Cuba, owned a small manicure business.
Among the wandering emigrants from the Island there are those with sufficient money to stay in the best hotel in Paso Canoas, a two-floor building, painted an ivory color, that rents for 50 dollars a night.
Where are some Cubans getting so much money that they can pay between 10 and 12 thousand dollars in a country with an average salary of 23 dollars/month? I asked the engineer, Alfredo, at the entrance of the El Azteca pension.
“Many sold their car, their house or gold. Others earned money thanks to private business. Or they receive enough money from their relatives in the U.S. But most travel with their own money, which a family member abroad sends them, little by little, after a reunion, so they can come. It’s not recommended to travel with so much cash,” he answers.
Gabriel made an agreement with a sister who lives in Miami. “She offered me a loan and when I get to the U.S. I will pay her back,” he confesses, worried. He has spent the three thousand dollars and is still stranded in Paso Canoas.
Even far from Cuba, not a few emigrants are panicked at the thought of talking before the cameras or answering questions from journalists. “If I talk more, in case they send me back, I wouldn’t even be able to belong to the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution),” says a shirtless young man in the bus terminal.
On the contrary, a black man with a rugged complexion unloads his frustration, blaming the government of the Castros. “It’s their fault that people have to leave their country. Not even dead will I return.”
That’s the perception of the Cubans stranded in Puerto Canoas. There’s no way back.
Iván García, from Costa Rica
Translated by Regina Anavy