Panama's migration chief says the country is not closing the door to
Cubans but to illegal migration
BY MARIO J. PENTÓN
PANAMA CITY, PANAMA
Javier Carrillo Silvestri, Panama's head of migration services, is
accustomed to order and hierarchy. So he is matter-of-fact when he says
that his nation has nothing against Cuban migrants, but that those who
enter the country without the legal documents will be returned to the
"The Cuban who wants to come is welcome, but we ask that you do it in an
orderly manner, legally, to avoid dealing with traffickers and the
trafficking of people," he says.
Panama grants 500 visas per month at its consulate in Havana. In a few
weeks, the number of visas will be doubled to 1,000. That is a much
higher number of legal entry permits issued to Cubans than other
citizens from Caribbean countries.
"These people enter and leave the country without any problem. Panama is
not closing the door to Cubans," Carrillo said. "Panama is closing the
door to irregular migration, no matter who it is. There is no distinction."
Carrillo, who has been in charge of migration since 2011, has been
dealing with a huge spike in the number of migrants crossing through
Central America to try reach the United States by crossing the border in
Mexico. The number of Cubans passing through escalated to the thousands.
"The crisis [of Cuban migrants] began in November 2015 when Nicaragua
closed its border. Since then, more than 40,000 undocumented Cubans have
passed through Panama," said Carrillo, who is known as "the bad cop"
among Cuban migrants because of his strong stance on deportations.
Following two organized airlifts to Mexico in which more than 4,400
Cubans were evacuated from Panama, Carrillo said that his country
fulfilled its obligation in an effort to resolve a brewing crisis.
"We decided to make a humanitarian gesture and that was done in an
orderly fashion, but we saw that in a few days there were more Cubans,"
he said. "After the second airlift it was decided that we could not be
the traveling agent for Cuban migrants, because that is not the role of
a state. We closed the border and began negotiating a deportation
agreement with the Cuban government because at that time we did not have
For months, the Panamanian government provided food and shelter for the
thousands of Cubans who were stranded in the country following border
closures at various Central American nations. It also paid air fare for
almost 300 migrants who did not have the money to pay for the tickets on
planes that flew them took them to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We have many needs here, we have many humble people who also need
humanitarian aid. We can't be using our resources solely on this
migratory issue," Carrillo said.
The deportation agreement was signed on March 1 in Havana, during the IV
Round of Migration Talks between both countries.
"The Cuban government did not ask us for anything," said Carrillo. "That
deportation agreement was an absolute initiative of the Panamanian
government to alleviate a crisis that we were living through with the
passage of undocumented migrants."
Since March 2017, 87 Cubans have been expelled or deported from Panama,
while 23 have returned voluntarily to the island, according to official
Panamanian statistics. Cubans are the second highest number of
deportees, surpassed only by Colombian nationals.
Following the deportation agreement with Havana, any Cuban national
discovered in Panama without documents who is recognized by the Cuban
government as its citizen is subject to deportation. Cubans who spend
more than 24 months abroad, are officially deemed as "emigrants" and
lose their rights in Cuba.
"The Cuban authorities explained that they did not retaliate against the
deportees. In fact, when we have sent Cubans, they always go with two
custodians and they are asked if there was any kind of problem, and they
always say that nothing happened," Carrillo said.
The Panama Embassy in Havana also has not received any allegations of
mistreatment or human rights violations of the deportees: "Many have
returned voluntarily and nothing has happened," he said.
Following the Jan. 12 termination of the so-called "wet foot, dry foot"
policy, which allowed most Cubans who made it onto U.S. soil to stay,
more than 300 Cubans en route to the U.S.-Mexico border became stranded
in Panama. Some 128 were transferred to a shelter in the province of
Chiriquí and dozens more are living and working as undocumented migrants
in the country.
"Cuban migrants did not come to stay in Panama, but rather to apply
pressure on the government to take them to their final destination,"
Carrillo said. "Panama can't be doing that on a permanent basis, much
less now that wet foot, dry foot no longer exists."
Panama's Deputy Minister of Security, Jonathan del Rosario, recently
made a final offer to the Cuban migrants in Gualaca: $1,650, a one-way
ticket to Havana and a multiple-entry visa to return to Panama as
visitors. The money is intended to help them launch a private enterprise
and become cuentapropistas or self-employed. Almost a dozen have since
left the shelter to continue their journey to the United States. The
others have until July 31 to decide whether to return to Cuba or remain
as undocumented migrants.
For Carrillo, the only viable option is for them to return to their
"Like I said, Panama is fulfilling it's obligation. We have no issues
with Cubans coming here," he said. "But they need to do it correctly. We
can't foment disorder."
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Source: Cubans are welcome if they enter legally, Panama's migration
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