The doors close quickly for Cubans who want to travel

HAVANA, June 17 (Reuters) – Cuban Miguel Palenzuela, 52, and his wife Ania have been waiting for a month outside the Colombian embassy in Havana in hopes of obtaining a visa to travel through the South American nation.

Palenzuela, who commutes almost daily from Guanabacoa, outside the capital, says he prefers a deal, but the website crashes. Other embassies are just as bad or worse, he says.

“There are too many barriers,” says Palenzuela, shaded by the Caribbean summer sun under a mango tree. – It is as if they do not want us Cubans to travel.

Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

The Colombian embassy told Reuters that their systems had been flooded by the “large number” of applicants, and said that the country’s upcoming presidential election had also slowed the service.

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

The Cubans with whom Reuters spoke either refused to elaborate on the reason for their trip or said they were shopping or traveling for tourism.

But everyone expressed frustration as diplomatic and bureaucratic bottlenecks at home and abroad grow for Cubans who want to leave the island in the midst of a growing economic crisis.

More than 140,000 Cubans have been met by authorities on the U.S. border with Mexico since October, US figures show, among the largest migrations off the island in decades.

Cuba blames the United States for launching the pump for illegal migration by maintaining an economic embargo from the Cold War while cutting off consular services in Havana for Cubans.

Last week, the United States agreed to pave the way for “legal avenues” for migrants at the US summit, which excluded Cuban government officials. Washington resumed visa processing in Havana in May and aims to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year. read more

There is a crack in the door, but it still falls short, said Michael Bustamante at 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 demand, 20,000 … seems like a drop in the bucket.”

POLITICS SIDE

Outside the embassies of several Latin American countries in Havana, the diplomatic discourse has been lost in recent months in a haze of warm, long lines and rapidly changing demands.

With limited opportunities for legal migration through the United States, many choose to fly to Nicaragua, which in November lifted visa requirements for Cubans, and then try their luck on the risky highway north to the U.S. border. read more

However, high costs have led many to seek alternative flights through Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, among others.

A number of visa requirements, old and new, in these countries have led to confusion and frustration, said Yaneris Betancourt, 37, who traveled more than four hours by public transport from Matanzas, outside Havana, for her appointment at the Panamanian embassy.

Betancourt said she had also struggled to navigate the embassy’s websites – Cubans often have access to the internet only by phone with unstable coverage – and missed two flights due to delays.

And lastly, a Cuban central bank move prompted some embassies to suspend services or charge for visas in dollars or euros, foreign currency available to Cubans, mainly via money transfers or the black market.

“Many people have had to drop everything because they have not had the strength to continue,” Betancourt said on Monday as she waited in a park near the embassy with more than 75 others.

Outside the US Embassy in Havana, the only legal route available on the island for migration to the United States, the scene was relatively calm.

On Wednesday, Odanis Gonzalez sat quietly on a park bench and waited with his daughter to enter the embassy. She said the US decision to resume consular services on the island was the best way forward.

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

Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Further reporting by Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV; Edited by Dave Graham

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.