Upwards of 400 Cubans, many holding passports and plane tickets, gathered at Panama's embassy in Havana on Wednesday protesting new visa requirements that hinder those in a growing wave of migrants hoping to pass through the Central American nation and north to the United States.
Several protesters told Reuters they had already booked flights for the coming days, only to awaken this morning to the decision by Panama to require a "transit" visa for any Cuban arriving at the Panama City airport.
Anisley Peña wept beside her 9-year-old son Densel just outside the embassy gates. She told Reuters the two were slated to travel to Panama and then on a connecting flight to Nicaragua Wednesday afternoon. Now their plans were in limbo, she said.
"I'm desperate. I was supposed to be at the airport at 10 in the morning and here I am with no news or anything. It's my boy's birthday," she said.
The crowd chanted "We want a response, we want a response" behind a police cordon. Late in the afternoon, the embassy released a statement on social media clarifying the visa requirement would come into effect beginning Sunday.
The embassy told passengers scheduled on flights to Panama between March 13 and the end of the month to rebook for a later date to allow time to apply for the $50 visa.
Panama's National Migration Service later released a statement saying the measure was adopted to guarantee "security and control" in relation to Cubans who transit through Panama to another destination or to return to their country.
Demand for flights from Havana to cities in Central America has soared after Nicaragua in November lifted visa requirements for Cuban nationals. This opened a new avenue for migration north to Mexico and the United States.
Most direct flights are sold out, leaving multi-stop flights through neighboring countries as the only option for many Cubans.
Cuban Frank Eduardo told Reuters he had booked a flight for March 21 and would not move from the embassy gates until he had clarity on his travel plans.
"Here they say on television that they want orderly migration, and that no one jumps in a boat (to reach the U.S.)," said Eduardo. "That´s what we want, orderly migration, and we need a response. This is not a game."
Most of those Reuters spoke with at the embassy preferred not to specify the reasons for their travel.
A similar decision by neighboring Costa Rica to impose a transit visa requirement on Cubans prompted hundreds to gather at that country´s embassy in Havana late in February.
Cuba's economy has been battered by mounting U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread shortages of food and medicine have spurred the growing wave of migration.
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