Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
April 23, 2016
It begins with a few heavy drops crashing onto the Pan-American Highway. Their moisture is immediately eviscerated by the intense heat that is held within the concrete infrastructure. It’s an alarm to everyone working the streets that the daily afternoon downpour of Paso Canoas is underway. Suddenly, like the release of a valve, the rain smashes down on the bustling world of the border community. The people part from the road and take shelter under the canopies of the endless array of cellphone stores, Chinámos (stalls that sell cheap clothing and other tchotchkies), and bar/restaurants. Within minutes, the roads that carried foot traffic are transformed into canals that now provide passage for discarded plastic bottles and the occasional brave soul who has abandoned all care to remain dry.
Yesterday, I found myself trapped in the middle of the afternoon downpour—or “varado” (stranded) as many would say. I knew that it was a poor decision to head to the center of town with the storm clouds looming overhead, but I needed a new chip (SIM card) for my phone. As the rain crashed down, I followed the trail of foot traffic under the overhang of one of the many bakeries in town—the one simply named “M”. Vendors quickly took advantage of the flood of possible customers as they trolled the covered sidewalks with food, newspapers, and drinks. Here we are again—another mobility barrier creating a financial opportunity. The vendors know that rain typically brings movement to a standstill. The stranded walkers quickly become bored, hungry, thirsty, etc. The opportunity to sneak a quick lunch or read the local newspaper is often a happy relief from the period of waiting created by the afternoon showers. Knowing that I could not start my walk home until the barrage of rain lightened, I decided to purchase the daily copy of La Prensa (Panama’s national newspaper) and a $2 meal in a bag—consisting of chicharrones, a piece of yucca, salad, a slice of sweet plantain, and an accompaniment of chimichurri sauce—that a man was selling out of his red, wheeled cooler. I would give the rain until I finished my meal and newspaper before I would start my journey home.
After about thirty minutes, I could still hear the thunderous pounding of the rain on the metal awnings that protected me. I was fed up with waiting and could not afford to waste any more of my day. Like a giant version of hopscotch, I bounced down the sidewalk while jumping between buildings to stay within the safe zone of their awnings. Once on the corner, I abandoned my plan to walk and flagged down the first taxi that crossed my path; quickly bypassing the bout of immobility created by the weather. The driver made his way through town in the direction of what has become ‘my house’. We drove through the side streets with flooded meat markets, bars bursting with impromptu parties, and a variety of super markets. The taxi came to a halt as we approached the traffic congestion created by the newest group of immigrants that have been refused passage through this territory. I stare out of the vehicle, with the rain streaming down the window, and contemplate the intense disparity of circumstances that is separated by the ½ piece of glass that rests between us.
While the Cuban migrant situation persists in Paso Canoas, a large group of African refugees appeared on the border on April 15th, desperate for help passing through Central America and into the United States. The newspapers say about 250 in total, while other sources estimate the number to be as high as 500. The group is simply referred to as “Los Africanos” (the Africans), but they are a diverse mix of refugees from a variety of countries; primarily, Eritrea, Congo, Somalia, and Guinea. Within the group there are said to be about 20 pregnant women and about 30 children under the age of three. Adding to the tension, only about four members of the large group speak Spanish and have quickly become the local voices of their collective interests.
What are they doing on the border? To put it simply, waiting. They are waiting for the Panamanian and Costa Rican governments to lift the ban that they recently placed on African mobility through these territories. Earlier in the week, the Costa Rican border police detained the group just south of the international border with Nicaragua. They loaded them onto buses and dropped them on the Panamanian side of Paso Canoas—on the Panama/Costa Rica border. The Panamanian government then sent a group of anti-riot police to physically push them up the Pan-American Highway, out of Panama, and back across the border to Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government reacted by sending buses carrying their own anti-riot police to shove the group back to Panama (news reports marked a total of 300 police shuttled in between the two countries). Like a terrifying game of human pong, the immigrants are stranded within the jurisdictional grey area of two territories…the two rows of security personnel armed with shields a stark visualization of the boundaries of the playing field. The refugees are free to move within the part of the border zone that is typically referred by English speakers as “No Man’s Land”. Here in Paso Canoas, it is a range that extends 500 meters into each territory—thus providing 400 stranded Africans with a total area of one kilometer to eat, sleep, bath, escape the heat/rain, and tend to their children while they await their fate.
Staring out of that taxi window, I see the group huddled in the middle of the Pan-American Highway, just beyond the Panamanian aduana station—their temporary housing a mix of cardboard tents, umbrellas, and safety stations that the Costa Rica Cruz Roja (Red Cross) erected earlier this week. This encampment has quickly become the base for all peaceful protests during their time of uncertainty. On Monday it was a hunger strike. Today it is a picket line that is held together by collective chants declaring the absurdity of their mistreatment…a drum beat on the bottom of upturned water containers keeping the rhythm. During the today’s afternoon downpour many forego the option to remain dry and continue the peaceful protest as they stand in the streets holding their signs of discontent. They each contain bold statements outlining the seemingly impossible position that these travelers face: “Somos imigrantes. Solo queremos passa mas adelante (We are immigrants. We only want to pass through)”. “Costa Rica no es nos destinacion (Costa Rica is not our destination)”. “No a la centro de detención (No to the detention center)”.
While they all speak to the truth of their predicament, one sign catches my attention. It reads “Costa Rica viola la ley internacional de los imigrantes (Costa Rica violates the international immigration law)”. But, it’s not the message itself that stands out to me. What stands out is the way that the writer corrected his misspelling of the Spanish word “internacional”; initially using the English form “international”, but transforming the “t” into a “c”. While both the African and Cuban immigrant situations are vicious reminders of the violence of global mobility and geopolitics, the mobility barrier that the African refugees face in Paso Canoas feels much different. Neither Panama nor Costa Rica wants to accept them into their countries. So, here they are…varados (stranded) on a one kilometer piece of Paso Canoas’ Pan-American Highway…fighting with two governments in a language that is not their own. At least the Cubans speak Spanish. At least nearby Panamanian communities have stepped up to provide groups of Cubans with temporary housing. The town of Gualaca has even gone as far as to turn on electricity in the abandoned worker camps so that 1,000 trapped Cubans can take care of their everyday needs. This is by no means an attempt to downplay the humanitarian crisis of the Cuban immigrants, but, for the Africans, their fate has been much different. The mortifying word “deportation” has been circulating through the media as a viable option for the Costa Rican government. This news has sent tremors through the group as they refuse any attempt at relocation. Government groups have offered to move them into nearby albergues (hostels), but representatives for the group do not trust the gesture out of fear that any relocation will lead to their eventual deportation. Spokespeople for the group express that it is in their best interest to keep the group intact and to avoid forced relocation. Wilson Cámara, one of their lead representatives, has explained to the news reporters that when they hear the word “deportation” they “fear that it will be their death”. He reiterated that any return to their home countries could be their ultimate demise. They must remain intact in order to secure their survival. His words are raw: Move or die. This group is willing to wait in the middle of the Pan-American Highway until they find a resolution.
As my taxi drove by this group, I was flooded by all of this information as I stared at the words on their cardboard signs of protest withering in the afternoon rain. Fortunately, it is clear to me that the will of the African immigrants in Paso Canoas—the Somalians, the Congolese, the Eritreans, etc.—will not be so easily deteriorated by the precipitation of geopolitical violence. Varados (stranded)—we often use this term to explain the feeling of being stuck in one place without knowing how we will get home. But, as my taxi rolled by the refugees in their highway encampment, the intense disparity of our situations was clear. The scene is an uncomfortable reminder of what it means to be a white, American male in this world. I have no idea what it means to be varado (stranded) and many of you who are reading this never will as well. With a simple wave of my white hand, I can overcome my immobility as easily as I can hop into a taxi. I can stroll back and forth between Costa Rica and Panama without question because of the color of my skin and the country on the front of my passport. The ban on African mobility in this region is devastating for a group of people whose only desire is to extend their life expectancy and ensure a secure environment for their children. But, here we are. Both pounding the same piece of concrete…separated by the thin glass of the taxi window. Our lives could not be further apart.