Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)

April 12, 2016

The Greatest Mobility Barrier:

   While the news about Offshore Corruption—elsewhere referred to as the “Panama Papers”—dominates the media headlines, there is an immediate migration blockage that is the center of all gossip here in David, Panama. “Did you hear about the Cubans? My brother saw them all swimming in the río Chiriquí Viejo (Old Chiriqui River)!” I overhear this from a couple sharing a shaved ice in el Parque Cervantes (Cervantes Park).  “There is another group of about 4,500 that just passed through the Darién Province. They are moving towards the border.” This is something that my friend Luz Graciela told me during lunch at the Multi-Café 2. The story is that Panama has experienced a significant increase in Cuban migrants passing through on their way to the United States. While we commonly envision Cuban refugees arriving on the shores of Miami via rafts that are better suited for the set of “Cast Away”, the route through Panama and the rest of Central America has become an increasingly popular migratory path for los Isleños (the islanders). Their trek beings with a flight to Ecuador where a loophole in the customs paperwork allows for tourists “passing through” to enter and exit without travel paperwork. From Ecuador, they follow the ferries through Colombia and into the Darien Province of Panama. Once in Darien, they begin their long journey through the harsh jungle via foot, bus, and other forms of public transportation

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On November 15th, 2015 the growing influx of Cubans quickly prompted the Nicaraguan government to close their borders to all Cubans, stating that they could not support the dangerous and “illegal” crossing through their country. Shortly after, the Costa Rican government enforced the same policy. The result—a swelling group of Cubans stranded in the Panamanian border community of Paso Canoas; trapped in the territorial grey area between Panama and Costa Rica. Some sources estimate that as many as 2,000 are left to wait for a resolution in Paso Canoas—more than doubling the population of the border community—while others arrive daily. Images in the local newspapers La Estrella de Panama and La Prensa show Cuban migrants setting up rows of tents…just waiting for the Costa Rican government to lift the ban. With such a massive mobility barrier just about an hour away from where I am staying at the time in David, I had to head to Paso Canoas to experience this situation first hand.

Upon arrival, Paso Canoas appeared no different—bustling with traffic and vendors as usual. But, while walking through the community the implications of the blockage become clear. The town definitely felt more “Cuban”—and I don’t mean this to be ethnocentric. I noticed more people with a Caribbean style; shorts, sandals, and tank tops to show off spectacular tattoos. This is just something that you typically do not see much of in Paso Canoas. Today, it is noticeably abundant. As I headed down the Panamanian side of the Pan-American Highway—towards the Puente Río Chiriquí Viejo (Old Chiriqui River Bridge)—the sound caught my ear before my eyes were able to see it. The muffled cacophony of a large crowd filled with random pockets of discernible chatter echoed down the road as I approached the abandoned Hotel Millennium. There they were. Hundreds of Cubans shacked out in the ruins of a once thriving hotel. A colorful mix of clothing hang out of the windows of the four story building as shirtless men casually smoke cigarettes in the background. Around the corner of the hotel, water splashes off the concrete as women wash their groups’ dishes and fill water jugs. A stream of foot traffic passes between the reanimated hotel and the Center for Health and Sanitation two blocks to the northeast. Outside of the green and white concrete station, another group waits in line to receive water, food, and treatments for random illness and injuries—the Panamanian government stepping up to treat the stranded travelers. The Cubans…they can do nothing, but wait for the local governments to find a solution—killing the boredom by playing games on their cell phones, exploring the community, and chatting with those who share the same unclear future.

Hotel Millennium: March 2015

Hotel Millennium: March 2015

Hotel Millennium: April 2016

   This migration blockage represents one of the greatest mobility barriers of all: the direct refusal of a government to admit people of a certain nationality into their territory. In my work, the mobility barriers that I study are typically ones that highway users experience on an individual or small group level. With the help of one or a few local entrepreneurs, communities and travelers are able to develop creative ways to mitigate the blockages—benefitting the community by providing an opportunity to earn extra income and the traveler by removing the obstacle that slows their movement. What is happening right now in Paso Canoas points to something much larger and will not be resolved through the crafty maneuvering of a few hard working community members. There must be immediate change at the national and transnational levels to resolve this blockage. In Panama, nearby communities are working together to develop possible solutions. “It’s sad. There are people that are stranded and need help. We need to help them. If families take in one or two Cubans, we can provide them with work and try our best to offer relief.” This is a common perspective that I hear from Panamanians discussing the Cuban situation. One of the first communities to step up has been Los Planes de Gualaca.  The community contains a non-functioning hydroelectric facility. Outside of the facility are the remains of worker camps that were used during its construction by the United States. The community of Los Planes has reopened the encampments to accommodate a few thousand of the stranded Cubans. The irony being that the Cubans have found refuge in the ruins of a U.S. infrastructure project—the underbelly of the same system that refuses to accept them. For now, all that these Cubans can do is to wait for nearby governments to decide the future of their mobility.

La Estrella

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