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‘Wash Basins’ Drain Cubans to Panama, But Not to America

January 18, 1990

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Hector Higueras paid $9,000 to come to the United States, but he ended up in Panama and now he can’t leave.

Higueras is one of thousands of Cubans who arrived in Panama the last four years as part of an underground ″human trafficking ring″ allegedly involving Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and members of Fidel Castro’s government.

″Just as everyone knows there’s drug trafficking in Colombia, everybody here knows Noriega was trafficking Cubans,″ said Higueras, 26, a computer programmer.

″Noriega profited financially, and Castro benefited by provoking illegal migration to the United States″ and getting rid of malcontents, he said.

Since the U.S. invasion Dec. 20, Noriega’s henchmen have either been captured or are hiding, and the Cubans who arrived here illegally are stuck.

The refugees are asking for visas to the United States but don’t qualify under U.S. ″immediate family″ quotas, which means they have to have parents or siblings living in the United States.

Many of the Cubans are young, in their 20s, and have not known anything but a Communist system. By Cuban standards, they are a privileged lot, many having worked in the government bureaucracy as secretaries, accountants and engineers.

″We are not Marielitos,″ Higueres said, referring to the 1980 Cuban boatlift off the Miami coast. ″We are not prisoners. There’s a lot of professionals.″

He said the Cubans left their homeland because of the economic situation there and events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

″If you live in a cave but see a ray of light far away, you know there’s something else there,″ said Higueras. ″But you don’t know how dark it’s been until you get to the light.″

Higueras, who helped form the new Cuban Refugees Commission, says the smuggling ring shipped about 40,000 Cubans to Panama. Although the exact number of Cubans in Panama now is not known, it is much lower than 40,000, he says.

The U.S. invasion brought the issue to light because Cuban refugees say they did not feel free to speak up under Noriega’s military regime.

The Cubans describe an intricate network that spanned South America, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and the Mexican border.

A lawyer familiar with the cases said relatives of the Cubans would have to give U.S. dollars, in cash, to an attorney in Panama.

The Panamanian attorney would then contact officers in the Panamanian Defense Forces to get permission for the Cuban to enter the country. Sometimes Noriega himself would have to give his approval.

Then the Panamanians would bribe contacts in the Cuban government, who would authorize an exit permit. The total cost could go as high as $20,000 in a difficult case, said the attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity.

″Everybody got a cut,″ said the attorney.

The final cost varied depending on the passport, papers and route provided by the ″palanganas,″ or wash basins, as the people who traffic Cubans are called in Panama.

The Cuban ambassador in Panama said he didn’t know anything about the smuggling ring.

″If it happened, it didn’t have anything to do with the embassy or the consulate,″ Ambassador Lazaro Mora said Wednesday.

As the Cubans arrived in Panama City, they were led through a ″tunnel″ at the airport where immigration officials would take their passports; for $20, they would get an identication card specifying, ″Can’t work.″

″I wanted to be a free person. But right away you felt like a slave,″ said Jorge Reyes Barcelo, 23, whose family in Miami paid $3,500 for him to leave Cuba.

He said a ″palangana″ told him when arrived in Panama he had to come up with another $3,500 to get to the United States.

″I saw very quickly what price you had to pay for freedom,″ said Reyes. ″I saw we were being moved like animals for a lot of money. I thought until then everything was legal, because I didn’t know what my family had paid.″

From the airport, the Cubans were driven to safe houses in apartments and houses where up to 20 other Cubans were staying. They said they were charged about $200 a month rent.

Reyes said he was offered a trip to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, where he would swim across to the United States.

Instead, he left the safe house and joined other disillusioned Cubans in Panama City.

Higueras said he had received word he would be leaving for the United States on Dec. 20, the day of the invasion.

″I didn’t know how I would be leaving, but I was told to be ready. I never heard from the man again. I lost all that money,″ said Higueras. ″But I felt happy. I knew it was a historic moment that was ending something bad.″

The new government of President Guillermo Endara is conducting a census and is filing charges against Belgica del Castillo, the director of immigration under Noriega, for allegedly running the smuggling operation.

Ms. Del Castillo sought asylum with Noriega at the Vatican Embassy after the invasion. She surrendered last week.

In Miami on Tuesday, a deputy U.S. attorney told a magistrate the government has evidence of a Noriega-led ring that smuggled illegal aliens into the United States. That raised the possibility he could face charges in the United States in addition to the drug trafficking charges.

″We believe we deserve refuge in the United States because of the conditions we’ve had to live with and because Panama is devastated and cannot absorb us,″ said Higueras.

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