Nicaraguan Exiles Amid the COVID 19 Crisis in Panama

By Arielka Juarez

Coalition of Nicaraguan Movements in Panama.

HAVANA TIMES – Since the Ortega government’s bloody crackdown began in April 2018, more than 6,041 Nicaraguans have requested asylum in Panama, according to data confirmed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), in a report prepared by its Nicaraguan monitoring arm (MESENI) during its visit in September 2019.

A month later, in October 2019, the Coalition of Exiled Nicaraguan Movements was formed in Panama. “It was first called the Coalition of Nicaraguan Movements in Panama. Then, in a show of solidarity, the peasant movement endorsed our social and political work. This movement witnessed and participated in our formation and the appointment of a new board of directors. This was carried out transparently. All movements were invited to be part of this work,” said coalition representative Daniela Orozco. She told us how the Nicaraguan exiles in Panama are coping with the COVID 19 pandemic.

How do you view the measures taken by the Panamanian government to prevent and control the coronavirus?

The Panamanian government has taken effective measures, since they were implemented in a timely manner to prevent deaths, not only here, but in many parts of the world. Since a lot of people travel between Panama and many other countries, closing the airport early has been very successful. The strict constraints they have placed on the population, with very limited daily departure times allowed and with alternating days designated for men or women, is very effective for everyone. We can only leave our homes for two hours a day, every other day, to go out in search of food or medicine.

What has your personal experience been?

It has affected me deeply, since our whole way of life has changed. We don’t know when this will end or when we will be able to mobilize again without these restrictions.

Nicaraguan exiles in Panama.  File photo.

Have Nicaraguan exiles and asylum seekers been included in government aid during this quarantine period?

Asylum applicants have not been included in the Panamanian authorities’ assistance efforts, and  ONPAR (National Office for Refugee Assistance) has also been silent. None of the NGOs are at the forefront of providing a humanitarian response to Nicaraguan exiles. We are alone and subject to God’s mercy. Even those with residency are excluded. The Panama Solidarity plan is just that, a plan. Many low-income Panamanians are complaining because help is not reaching them.

What about the loss of formal and informal jobs and the payment of rent and basic services?

There is a decree that offers a temporary respite from rent payments. As many know, asylum seekers in Panama have no job rights or rights other than to stay in the country. Many people depend on charity, and others are able to find informal work. Right now a worker can legally be sent home without pay due to the current worldwide crisis, so people survive thanks to each other’s generosity, sharing what little they have. Remember the Nicaraguan saying: Where one eats, two eat; and where five eat, six eat.

It should be noted that we are aware of cases in which our countrymen have been evicted from their homes. We are a community that survives on informal jobs because of our immigration status; being an asylum seeker does NOT equate to having a work permit. The loss of informal jobs is causing uncertainty for us, because we don’t know what will happen to us during this crisis. Some people are desperate enough to consider returning to our homeland without any guarantee of safety once they are back.

Are there any other sources of assistance?

Nicaraguan exiles in Panama distributing assistance to compatriots in the most precarious situations.

Yes, some. The coalition is virtually the only entity that has sought help for our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters. At first, we tried to collect money from Panamanian allies, residents, and those who wanted to support our cause, but it didn’t work; then several board members raised money on their own. They raised enough to make food packages for 20 needy people who had no resources or support.

Later, a group of nuns also helped; they want to remain anonymous. With their help, we were able to deliver more than 60 family packages. (enough to feed a family of four for approximately fifteen days).

Due to this situation, we decided to create a database of the neediest Nicaraguan families. We compiled the database according to peoples’ needs, giving priority to families with children and the elderly. There are currently 270 family groups on the waiting list.

We also requested assistance from Hogar Luisa, which is a shelter. We have received no response.

What have you read and discussed with your contacts and family, and what is their opinion of the way Nicaragua has dealt with the coronavirus threat?

The great danger to which all citizens are exposed is not being taken seriously in Nicaragua. It is evident that the government does not care about its people. There is also a lack of commitment from businesses, and there are reports that they do not value their human resources.

It is also alarming that the opposition has not called on the international community and the Nicaraguan public to take matters into their own hands. No one is taking responsibility or go beyond politics. They don’t seem to realize that peoples’ lives are at stake. The authorities must implement campaigns to raise awareness and emphasize that the virus is not a myth, it is not a game, and it cannot be covered up. This is a global reality, and we must do what is necessary for the good of all.

Honestly, the government’s negligence is alarming, as is the healthcare system’s lack of credibility. Personally, my family in Nicaragua is taking every precaution. Unfortunately, we are the second poorest country in the continent and there is a lack of knowledge about the pandemic, despite the fact that the population is doing its part. What can we expect?

What are your concerns?

The main one: what will happen to us, since no NGOs have offered to help us either as asylum seekers or as a coalition. We are working as a team to try to take care of each other.

Do you think that COVID19 has weakened or strengthened the Ortega regime?

I don’t think it has weakened it. Rather, I think he is using the pandemic as a macabre strategy, promoting the spread of the virus, and classifying positive cases as simple pneumonia. What the regime wants is for us to ask for the lifting of sanctions against its high officials when our country is in collapse.

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