New Cuban migrant bottleneck hits Panama during US détente
Cuban migrant, Darieika Voizan, a psychologist, works in a shop in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I have someone who is helping me out in the U.S., they transfer me money if I need it," Voizan said. "But I like to work because in Cuba I always worked. I left my country to give me a chance and a new adventure. I want to be independent." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Maria Rodriguez, 42, who ran out of money, works as a kitchen assistant in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. Rodriguez earns $140 dollars a week and is saving to continue her journey to the U.S. One of her big dreams when she arrives there is to find a job and work very hard so she can buy a television and a a refrigerator for her mother back in Cuba. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Ismael Diaz, 46, an agricultural worker, (L) is pictured with Carlos Perez, 45, an economist, as they work on a private property in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I left Cuba with $2,500 and arrived in Ecuador. From Ecuador to Panama I lost all my money after the Colombian mafia tried to kidnap my wife and they stole all my money," said Diaz, who has been in Panama for seven months. "All I want to do is complete the American Dream." Diaz makes $20 a day and uses the money to pay for medicine for his wife, who has high blood pressure. "I have a wife and 2 children travelling with me," said Perez. "We left Cuba with $2,400, we worked a bit in Ecuador. We have just enough money for the plane tickets for all 4 of us to travel from Panama to Mexico. I work for $20 a day which covers our daily needs. The only thing I want is to reach to Miami to give my children a better future." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Barbaro Rodriguez, 43, who run out of money, works painting a private business in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I left with $700 from Cuba and arrived in Ecuador. From Ecuador to Colombia I had spent all my money on the coyote or trafficker. I have been travelling with my wife and my daughter," said Rodriguez. "Another Cuban in the group lent us $1,200 as she saw our desperation, (money) which we will repay in the U.S.A. I am presently earning $20 a day painting this building. Hopefully I can make enough money to continue our journey." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Isbel Loriete, 45, a welder who ran out of money, works on a construction site in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I know it's going to work out in the States," said Loriete. "I know there is a lot of work over there. There are employers waiting for me. I have always been grateful that in Cuba there is a high level of education, but that's the only thing I liked. I didn't like the system. Every change is good. With the visit of Obama this is the beginning of a good change. All of us here are afraid that they will abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act. That is why we are trying to get there." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Yunia Alvarez, a nurse who ran out of money, works selling coffee on the street in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. Alvarez sells a cup a of coffee for 50 cents. Alvarez said that she has the exact amount of money to pay for the ticket of her two daughters, her husband and herself to reach the U.S. The extra money she makes selling coffee is for everday living costs. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Megela Pages, 39, a baker, who ran out of money, works as an cleaning lady in a hotel in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. Pages, mother of a 15-year-old girl, says her dream is to get to the U.S., work in a bakery and go back for her daughter to take her to the U.S. She earns $20 a day at the hotel. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Erenia Gonzalez, 22, who ran out of money, works as cleaning lady at a hotel in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "Since I was young I have always wanted to go to the U.S. to accomplish the American Dream," said Gonzalez. "I am a trained IT technician and I am travelling with my husband. When I get to the US I hope to study nursing like my cousin." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Lisandro Matos, 42, with a degree in sports, ran out of money and now works as a barber in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. Matos saves money and helps others with the money that he makes cutting hair and shaving beards. He charges $2 per cut. His goal is to continue his journey to the U.S. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant Halena Leiva, 31, who ran out of money, works as a cleaning lady in an auto store in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I am a qualified IT engineer. If I hadn't left Cuba I would have ended up in prison as I love freedom and having options. I don't like the Cuban system. I am not the kind of person to confront the government. That's why I joined this mass migration as all of us want a change. I believe this is a symbol of protest. I am really excited to get to Las Vegas in the U.S. where my brother lives. One of my dreams is to study gastronomy and have my own business. I can travel the world. The only thing I am afraid of is the health system as I know it is expensive, knowing that in Cuba it is free for everyone." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Cuban migrant, Taiker Vasquez, 30, a physiotherapist who run a out of money, works as a welder on a construction site in Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica March 22, 2016. "I left with $6,000 with my wife and all of that was stolen in Colombia by the Colombian mafia. Now look at me earning $150 weekly, welding. I am a physiotherapist back in Cuba, I hope I can work in that in the USA. I also hope I can return to Cuba to bring my son to the USA." (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
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PASO CANOAS, PANAMA, March 23 (Reuters) - A new bottleneck of Cuban migrants bound for the United States has formed this month in Panama, threatening a fresh diplomatic headache in Central America after thousands were flown out of the region earlier this year.
Just as Barack Obama was making the first visit to Cuba in 88 years by a U.S. president, some 1,500 migrants from the Communist island were bunched on Panama's border with Costa Rica, struggling to reach the United States to start a new life.
The build-up follows the airlift of around 6,000 Cubans from Costa Rica and Panama, which ended last week.
However, another knot of migrants has grouped in western Panama since Costa Rica stopped issuing Cubans transit visas in December to try and stem the human tide that clogged up its border with Nicaragua last year.
"If I hadn't left Cuba, I would have ended up in prison because I love freedom and having options," said Halena Leiva, 31, who has worked as a cleaning lady in the Panamanian border town of Paso Canoas since she ran out of money on her way north.
"If I hadn't left Cuba, I would have ended up in prison because I love freedom and having options."
Halena Leiva, Cuban migrant
During his 48 hour visit this week, Obama challenged Cuba's government with calls for democracy and new economic reforms.
Cuba has loosened restrictions on private enterprise in recent years, creating a growing middle-class, but most people still earn tiny wages and many of the young wish to work abroad.
"With the visit of Obama, this is the beginning of a good change," said 45-year-old Cuban welder Isbel Loriete, who was confident he would find plenty of work in the United States once he got out of Panama. "Every change is good."
Last year Cubans took advantage of an open-door policy in Ecuador to head northward, fearful that decades of preferential U.S. policy toward them could be coming to an end.
Running the gauntlet of corrupt police and people smugglers, Cuban migrants young and old made the long trek before Cuba stepped up pressure on its allies in the region, such as Nicaragua and Ecuador, to halt the surge.
Nicaragua sealed its border in late November and Ecuador imposed visa requirements on the Cubans from December. By then, many of the migrants were already in South America.
Over 7,000 were trapped on the Nicaraguan border, and only after much diplomatic wrangling did Central American nations in late December agree to airlift most of the stranded Cubans out. Costa Rica said a final group of migrants left just last week.
Still, an average of 7-10 migrants are still turning up at the Panamanian border every day, local officials say.
Luis Hincapie, Panama's deputy foreign minister, said on Wednesday that Central American countries, as well as others including Ecuador, Colombia, the United States and maybe Cuba, aimed to schedule a summit to discuss the issue in Guatemala.