The doors are closing quickly for Cubans who want to travel

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban Miguel Palenzuela, 52, and his wife, Anya, have been waiting for a month outside the Colombian embassy in Havana, hoping to get a visa to travel through the South American country.

Palenzuela, who commutes almost daily from Guanabaqua outside the capital, says he’d rather make an appointment but the site is down. He says other embassies are as bad or worse.

“There are a lot of roadblocks,” says Palenzuela, shaded from the summer Caribbean sun under a mango tree. It’s as if they don’t want us Cubans to travel.”

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The Colombian embassy told Reuters its systems were overwhelmed by a “large number” of applicants and said the country’s upcoming presidential elections had also slowed service.

Reuters spoke this week with nearly two dozen people waiting in line outside the embassies of Colombia, Mexico and Panama, countries often used as staging points for irregular migration north to the United States.

The Cubans Reuters spoke to either refused to explain why they were traveling or said they were shopping or traveling for tourism.

But all have expressed frustration as diplomatic and bureaucratic jams grow at home and abroad for Cubans seeking to leave the island amid a growing economic crisis.

US figures show that authorities have encountered more than 140,000 Cubans at the US border with Mexico since October, among the largest migrations off the island in decades.

Cuba blames the United States for spurring illegal immigration by maintaining a Cold War-era economic embargo, while cutting consular services in Havana for Cubans.

The United States agreed last week to facilitate “legal pathways” for immigrants at the Summit of the Americas, which excluded representatives of the Cuban government. Washington resumed visa processing in Havana in May and aims to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually. Read more

It’s a crack in the door, but it’s still a minor, said Michael Bustamante of the University of Miami.

“We should welcome the long-awaited restoration of consular services at the US Embassy in Havana,” he said. “But compared to the demand, 20,000… seems like a drop in the sea.”

Politics aside

Outside the embassies of many Latin American countries in Havana, the diplomatic rhetoric has been lost in recent months amid heat haze, long queues and rapidly changing requirements.

With legal immigration options limited through the US, many are choosing to travel to Nicaragua, which in November abolished visa requirements for Cubans, and then try their luck on the perilous overland route north to the US border. Read more

However, the high costs have prompted many to seek alternative flights via Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, among other countries.

Yanris Betancourt, 37, who traveled more than four hours on public transport from Matanzas, outside Havana, to her appointment at the Panama embassy, ​​said the combination of visa requirements, old and new, in those countries has led to confusion and frustration.

Betancourt said she, too, had difficulty navigating embassies sites — Cubans often only have access to the Internet by phone with spotty coverage — and missed two flights due to delays.

More recently, the Cuban Central Bank’s action prompted some embassies to temporarily suspend services or charge visa fees in dollars or euros, the foreign currency available to Cubans mainly via remittances or the black market.

“A lot of people had to give up everything because they didn’t have the strength to go on,” Betancourt said on Monday while waiting in a park near the embassy with more than 75 others.

Outside the US Embassy in Havana, the island’s only legal avenue to immigrate to the US, the scene was relatively calm.

On Wednesday, Odanese Gonzalez sat quietly on a park bench, waiting with her daughter to enter the embassy. She said the US decision to restart consular services on the island was the best way forward.

“We should all have the right to this path, the right path, and not have to risk our lives,” she said.

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Reporting by Dave Sherwood. Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV. Editing by Dave Graham

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