A Cuban’s Odyssey Part II: Dramatic Days in Panama

By Vicente Morin Aguado

Leonel Ramos Castillo

HAVANA TIMES — Leonel Ramos Castillo didn’t know he would soon be risking his life. He ran into extortion attempts everywhere he went. A niece of his had sent him money from Texas through Western Union. He had to pay someone to collect the money for him because he couldn’t do it personally. Below is an almost word-for-word reproduction of his account:

“The speedboat approached. It looked like a big canoe fitted with two outboard motors. The operator, a tall black man, had a large silver pistol tucked into his pants for everyone to see. The women boarded first. I sat at the front, in a slot for life-vests. We left at low speed. It was four fifty in the morning and the sea was a bit choppy. Suddenly, the boat sped up. Only the back of the boat touched the water. Many were praying. A huge wave crashed into us and the panga (as they call these canoes) leapt. When it hit the water, bow first, something hit me in the back so hard it knocked the air out of me and made me see stars. This happened again and again and I couldn’t breathe. Sagua got up, risking his life (as those who fall overboard aren’t picked up), signaling towards the pilot. He slowed down, I got out of the infernal hole, thinking I’d broken a rib. They laid me down. A young man held me by the shirt and said to me: “Old man, we’re not gonna ditch you.

“We continued to crash into the waves for nearly an hour until the boat slowed down. I was lying on my back. The pilot signaled at me to sit up straight. Ten minutes later, he cranked up the speed and I started feeling the blows against my spine again. One time the boat plunged, I lost my balance and split open my forehead. A young woman yelled: “Go on, don’t stop!” I couldn’t believe it, but the young man came over, took off his shirt and covered my wound. The blood was gushing out and only gradually let up. An hour and forty-five minutes later, we had covered the seventy-two kilometers that separate Necocli from a dubious destination known as Loma de la Miel.

“When we reached a beach lined with many coconut trees, I got off with my few belongings. We were still in Colombian territory. We had to walk up a damn hill to reach Panama. Tall black men wielding machetes and with guns tucked in their belts were waiting for us. I waded into the water to wash my face and wipe off the clotted blood, which was even on my pants. They all looked at me but continued. The wound opened up again and I covered it up with a shirt. One of the tall black men said to me: “Come over.” He was speaking to the group. “It’s 20 dollars to cross the mountain. Be careful with the poisonous snakes and frogs, I’ll take you down a safe path.

“The mountain was extremely steep. One had to hold on to jutting stones. I said to Sagua: “I won’t go up!” He replied: “I’ll help you,” while the guide said: “People in worse shape than you have done it.” Of course, he wanted my 20 dollars.

“I sat on a fallen coconut tree. Sagua said to me: “I have to keep going!” “Go on, then!” I replied. He turned around and began climbing the steep incline. That’s when I heard the sound of a motor. More Cubans were arriving. I lifted my feet to avoid being bitten by snake. That’s when a man who was collecting coconuts showed up with his dog. He saw me and called over someone. I heard him say loudly: “With the amount of money these Cubans are paying, we can’t have this!” The man brought me water, I managed to get up. They struck up a deal and I was led to a canoe with several pregnant women and children. I didn’t want to get on but they insisted it was safe – small, but steady. Ten minutes later, I was at Playa Miel, on the other side of the mountain, in Panama.”

The army was waiting for them there. A soldier gave him two pills. They took him to a medical post where they closed up the wound with four stitches and gave him an injection, for a total of 45 dollars. Then, it was back to the boats, bound for Puerto Obaldia, on the border with Costa Rica.

“I wasn’t the worst off. A poor woman had lost her baby. It had slipped from her grasp because of the cursed waves. I later found out she put her neck in a noose, she couldn’t overcome the remorse. When I arrived, they used me as an example to frighten the others straight: “This one learned his lesson,” they said, saying that my injuries were the work of the thuggish guides, for refusing to climb the hill. The days went by and I realized that the trip across the jungle was unnecessary.”

The border guards took their passports, asking for an additional 25 dollars. Then, it was back to waiting. It was a small town with very few accommodations, where food cost five dollars and a bottle of water 2 dollars. There were Internet locales, WiFi video-calling services and travel agencies offering flights to Panama. At this point, Leo had a mere 100 dollars on him. He still had hope, as the Panamanian dreams vanished.

Cubans near Puerto Obaldia. Photo: telemetro.com

“Many Cubans were sleeping out on porches. I recall a place called Villa Oneida, which had plenty of “Oneida” but no “villa” to it. There, I ended up sleeping on the floor, on a mat a family from Jaimanitas I’d met in Nococli gave me.

“When we arrived at the post, the guard who had treated me at La Miel showed up and said: “Don’t buy any more food. After the officers are done eating, they hand out the food to the refugees.” I waited till one and snatched the food ration, when I heard the cook say to me: “Come early tomorrow, to help me. Bring someone else to wash the dishes.” That night, more Cubans arrived. I met Tata, a fisherman from Las Tunas. He had no money. I spoke to him of breakfast and “work” in the kitchen and he agreed to help me.”

They were literally trapped in Obaldia. At the post, they were frying patties with the 5 liters of oil they had. A former coffee shop manager, Leo knew how to “save up” on such a precious item. The boss doesn’t give a damn about this. The Cuban took the oil and gave it to the owner of the hostal where he was spending his nights. He was unable to keep up, however, because of the many bruises on his back. Tata removed the stitches, and the man from Sagua replaced him in the kitchen.

“I ended up becoming an assistant to Oneida, the woman who ran the shelter as I waited for another life-saver from Texas and a bit of mercy. The owner’s brother got two tickets for Panama City at 108 dollars each. The dream was within reach.”

To be continued…