Cubans seek airlift out of Colombia as Central America closes the 'road to freedom'


TURBO, Colombia— In this steamy port near the Panamanian border, dozens of Cuban immigrants sleep in a warehouse that was previously used to store construction materials.

The group of about 150 people eats only twice a day to stretch their supplies. Lunch consists of a communal stew made of potatoes, carrots, and a few bony chunks of meat.

Dozens of Cubans sleep in rough conditions in a Turbo warehouse
Manuel Rueda

“We don’t want to stay here; our goal is to make it to the U.S.,” says Ignacio Leal, a 58-year-old former naval engineer who’s been stuck in Turbo since Panama decided to shut its southern border.

“Even if we manage to cross the jungle, the police will deport us as soon as they find us,” adds Marcel Rojas, another Cuban immigrant who sleeps on a thin mattress with his wife.

Stranded Cuban emigrants dry their clothes in an empty lot

Turbo is not the first place that's become a bottleneck in the endless flow of Cubans bound for the U.S.. The overland route that takes Cubans from South America up through Central America and Mexico has become an increasingly difficult journey since November, when Nicaragua abruptly decided to militarize its border to prevent Cubans from passing.

That created a massive pileup of Cubans in Costa Rica, which eventually organized an airlift to get 8,000 stranded emigrants out of the country. To prevent a repeat of that situation, Costa Rica decided to close its border to undocumented Cubans in April, pushing the problem further south into Panama, which in turn closed its border earlier this month.

Cubans in Turbo post a sign pleading for help

“We have to shut our border to this unregulated flow of people because we can’t constantly handle this situation,” Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela said on May 8. “The policies taken by other countries have forced us to make this difficult decision.”


Now Central America has essentially kicked the Cuban problem into South America, where Colombia is left holding the bag and must decide what to do with the thousands of islanders who will likely pile up on its borders in the coming weeks.

The situation shows that border closures don't necessarily stop immigration. Instead they push migrants to take longer and more dangerous routes where they often fall prey to human-traffickers.

A lost shoe left behind on a jungle trail leading into Panama

"We can't really stop them, but we're here to slow them down" a Panamanian soldier told me at an outpost along a jungle trail. "It's like trying to hold water in your hands."


In Turbo there are already some 300 Cubans milling about town trying to find a new route north. Local officials fear that human trafficking in this area will get worse.

“We don’t want these people to fall into the hands of coyotes,” said William Gonzalez, the local human rights ombudsman. “These people are in a desperate situation and that could lead them to make decisions that are very dangerous for them.”

A representative of the ombudsman's office meets with Cuban migrants to warn them of the dangers ahead

Unlike the previous bottlenecks in Panama and Costa Rica, the Colombian government has done little to help the stranded Cubans. The Central American countries set up shelters for the immigrants in remote border towns, and in some cases provided them with three meals a day while they waited for money transfers from relatives. But the Cubans in Colombia have received no food, medicine or aid from the government.


“All we have here has been donated by the community,” said an immigrant who asked to be identified as Raul, as he pointed at some egg cartons and donated boxes of rice and pasta.

“The conditions here aren’t 100%,” he said. “But I want to thank the residents of Turbo with 200% of my gratitude, for all they’ve done for us.”

A local street vendor gives out free lemonade

The Cubans stranded in Turbo, and elsewhere in Colombia, are asking the Colombian government to arrange flights to Mexico, similar to the previous airlifts organized by Panama and Costa Rica. Once in Mexico, the Cubans can walk across the border to the U.S. and claim refugee status, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act.


“The Cubans in Costa Rica paid for their tickets, those in Panama, too,” said Leal, the former navy engineer. “We are willing to pay as well.”

“We’ve got family members who are waiting for us and will send money for the tickets,” added Maydelin Hernandez, another immigrant staying at the warehouse in Turbo.

Hernandez suffers from skin cancer and is seeking treatment in the U.S.

But Colombia isn't budging. When I asked the country’s director for immigration services about a possible airlift, he said—surprisingly—that he hadn't heard of such a solution. Then he added that helping the stranded Cubans get a flight out of the country would be like “contributing to a crime.”


“These people arrived here in an irregular manner,” Immigration Director Christian Kruger told me. “If we transferred them to another country near their destination, we would be permissive of an irregular situation.”

Kruger added that the government will likely deport the Cubans stranded in Turbo, and said the same goes for anyone else who enters the country illegally. So far this year, Colombia’s migration services reports that it has deported almost 6,000 undocumented immigrants of all nationalities. Most of them were Cubans.

Cubans stranded in Sapzurro Colombia rely on mangos that fall off local trees

Colombian law stipulates that people who have arrived in the country illegally should be sent back to the last place they came from, which for most of the Cubans in Turbo means getting sent back to Ecuador rather than home.


But analysts say Colombia's unwillingness to help the Cuban immigrants might also be influenced by geopolitics. Liduine Zumpolle, a human rights activist who has worked on Cuba since the 1990s, thinks Colombia is hesitant to upset the Castro brothers at a key moment in history.

Colombia is currently negotiating peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana and relies on the support of Cuba’s government to help broker those negotiations.


“I don't think Colombia wants to upset the Cuban government in any way,” Zumpolle said. “Much less by receiving dissidents and letting them pass through.”

Zumpolle works for Dutch Foundation Cuba Futuro and Colombian Corporation Manos Por la Paz Internacional

Over the weekend Zumpolle met with Cubans stranded in Turbo and in the fishing village of Sapzurro, next to the Panamanian border. She helped them draft a letter to embassies and human rights groups explaining their situation and asking for international help.

Most of the Cubans stuck in these border towns say that they will remain in Colombia until the government either deports them or finds a “solution” for them to get to Mexico.


Some say they have contemplated trekking through remote parts of the Panamanian jungle, but military surveillance along those routes is getting tougher and many of the Cubans I spoke with argue that it’s not worth the risk.

Ubernel Cruz and his wife, Odalis Sabates

“It’s like a road leading into hell,” said Ubernel Cruz, a Cuban political dissident who is currently stuck in Sapzurro. Cruz said he got lost in the jungle for four days with his wife and their 11-year-old son. They ran out of food and survived thanks to a lucky encounter with a group of Panamanian policemen, who immediately deported them back to Colombia.

Now they're stuck in limbo with nowhere to go.

“We can’t go back to Ecuador because there’s no work for us there,” said Cruz, who used to direct an organization that helps political prisoners in Cuba. “And going back to Cuba is impossible because of my activism work.”


“We need governments to open their hearts to us, and understand that we are all god’s children,” he said. “I want to take my son to the land of freedom.”

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Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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