'The Terminal': Latin American travelers stranded as nations shut borders

Marcelo Rochabrun, Reuters

Posted at Mar 18 2020 11:45 AM

Yelitza Morles was in Florida with her 13-year-old daughter when she heard on Saturday that her flight home to Venezuela had been cancelled due to her country's ban on international flights to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

She made it as far as Panama City aboard a Copa Airlines flight, where the pair and at least four other Venezuelans found themselves stranded in the airport, hit by the wave of travel restrictions sweeping Latin America.

Panama will not let any foreigners past the airport gates and Venezuela will not allow any flights from Panama.

"I understand they are taking care of Venezuelans, but they are also leaving some of us stranded," she told Reuters.

In scenes reminiscent of Tom Hank's confinement in an airport in the movie 'The Terminal', an official told them they might be stuck there for 30 days until the restrictions were lifted.

Even worse, the official told them hours later that the airport might close soon, leaving them with nowhere to go, according to a Reuters witness.

The governments of Panama and Venezuela did not return a request for comment.

Venezuela had organized a humanitarian flight on Sunday for passengers stranded in Panama, but the six Venezuelans landed at the airport after that.

Their plight has been repeated across Latin America as nations have slammed borders shut. Stranded passengers have taken to social media to complain.

In Peru, which shut its borders completely, several Brazilians said they had been stranded without a flight home or a bed to sleep in. In Mexico, an Argentine woman said she had made it to the airport only for her flight to Buenos Aires to be canceled as the country shut its borders.

Airline industry group ALTA said Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Panama and El Salvador had also restricted flights into their territories, some completely.

As a result, the continent is experiencing an unprecedented reduction in air connectivity. The region's largest carrier, LATAM Airlines Group, canceled 90% of international flights.


Brayan Groterol was stranded in Panama on Tuesday with his girlfriend on their way back from Mexico to Caracas.

An airport official offered the six Venezuelans the opportunity to travel to Cuba, which still has flights to Caracas. They could get to Havana for free but would have to pay their way to Caracas.

"But I don't have any money, or anyone to buy me a ticket," Groterol said.

The other two Venezuelas, a mother and daughter who declined to give their names, left on a flight to Bogota in the afternoon because they also have Colombian citizenship, although they do not live there.

Morles said the Venezuelan government had forgotten about them. She is asking Panama to let her in on a humanitarian visa, so she can find shelter. The airport offered to return her to Orlando, Florida, but Morles says she does not have the money to survive in the United States.

With no solution in sight, her daughter video-called her father in Venezuela.

"See you in April," she said. (Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Stephen Coates)