'Unsupported and ignored': Texans stuck in Peru say their government abandoned them
For years, Iqra Beg dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu. But it turned into a nightmare just hours before she was to get on a tour bus to visit the famed Incan ruins in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
Now the Dallas educator is one of an estimated 1,600 people desperate to get out of Peru since President Martín Vizcarra declared a state of emergency last weekend over the coronavirus pandemic. Texans interviewed by The Texas Tribune say they scrambled to find flights or buses out — only to realize virtually none were available. The international airport in Lima has been closed to the public since Tuesday.
The U.S. government is trying to repatriate them. The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that military planes were en route to pick up Americans abroad, including in Peru. But many of the Texans there say that for days, their own embassy has been unable to help them or provide timely and useful updates — and they had not heard from U.S. officials that military aircraft were en route.
“I feel just completely unsupported and ignored by our government,” Beg, 26, told the Tribune over a video chat from her hotel room in Cusco. “I honestly have never felt so abandoned.”
Texans marooned with Beg say the U.S. embassy in Lima and a consulate in mountainous Cusco refused to let them inside and provided no guidance beyond recommendations to book commercial travel and check government websites. At one point, the consulate posted a sign saying so outside its door: “The Embassy will provide ongoing updates on” its website “as this situation develops.”
Americans should “contact their airlines to discuss options for rescheduling,” it said.
Then there was the insult added to the injury Thursday at the White House, when President Donald Trump seemed to suggest the tourists were to blame. “They got caught,” he said. “They were late with their flights. We gave them a period of time; they didn’t make it.”
Beg said Trump’s comments were quickly circulated in a WhatsApp group of Americans stuck in Peru, prompting outrage among those who feel their government not only left them in the lurch but now has begun pointing fingers at them. She said if the embassy had notified them in time, they could have gotten out, and she pointed to Trump’s efforts to minimize the crisis until fairly recently.
“I was pretty shocked that someone would blame us for being trapped in this situation,” she said. “No one actually took it seriously in the U.S., and the media is being played down in the U.S. by our president.”
The lockdown in Peru is expected to last until April, though a group of medically vulnerable citizens was repatriated today, along with some Peace Corps volunteers and embassy personnel and family members, according to an email Beg received from the State Department. The embassy has instructed Americans there to consult the tourist-guidance site iPeru and “arrange lodging for the duration of the quarantine period and plan to limit their movements,” according to an alert on its website.
A State Department official said the agency has “no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” and Secretary Mike Pompeo said Friday there is a task force to repatriate Americans stranded abroad amid the pandemic and that “we’re going to work to get people back” from countries including Peru and Morocco.
“We’re urging individuals, when they can get back on their own — they traveled there on their own, when they can get back there on their own, they ought to try to do that,” he said.
On Thursday, the State Department urged Americans to avoid all international travel and encouraged those overseas to return immediately, amid the pandemic.
Those who remain in Peru — frantically calling the consulate and lawmakers for help from Airbnbs and hotels — are under a daily curfew from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. that security forces have been asked to enforce. They can only leave to get food or medicine. Even on a trip to the grocery store, they go prepared with their passports.
Jonathan Du, a student at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, went to the airport around 3 a.m. in desperation and found himself among scores of stranded passengers.
“There was a lot of anxiety in the air, people were getting frustrated, people were calling their loved ones, and there were people that were crying,” Du recalled.
He said the outbreak was at the back of his mind while they were going but that it “was too late to cancel and get a refund.”
“We thought that we would at least have a couple days to adjust and head back should something happen in the country. Peru also had one of the fewest cases of coronavirus in [Latin America], so overall we thought it would be fine,” he said.
Du and other Texans say they’ve spent the last few days on the phone with airlines or fruitlessly trying to book tickets online. They’ve received cancellation notices for successfully booked flights, even those scheduled in April, after the lockdown is scheduled to lift.
That happened to Maggie Vasquez and Ron Longworth, a couple from Dallas whose “bucket list” adventure to visit Machu Picchu has turned into a disaster.
“This idea that the State Department's telling people to just book commercial flights home … what, we're not trying that? Everyone has been trying that for the past four days,” said Longworth, 36. “And meanwhile Israel came and got their people, France is getting their people out, all of these other countries are flying and getting their people.”
The two hope another flight they booked to Miami in April holds.
Sidney Bernal, a registered nurse from Houston, has had several flights canceled and spent “countless hours” trying to rebook them, she said in a WhatsApp message.
Bernal went to Peru for what she thought would be a short trip to Machu Picchu with her 12-year-old son, and she was unable to find any flights or buses out after learning of the decree. She's eager to return to work combating the coronavirus, she said, like other doctors or nurses stuck in the country.
Texas State University student Cristina Rodriguez — one of several Texas college students stranded in the country — was in Peru for spring break with friends when she heard from an Uber driver that the president was planning to close the country’s borders.
They went straight to the Lima airport, she said, and stood in lines for more than eight hours trying to buy new plane tickets. But no matter which airline they spoke to, the group got the same answer: “that they were sold out, canceled or going to countries with closed borders already,” said Rodriguez. “Even when we heard of people being able to buy new flights, they were paying thousands of dollars. I saw one that went up to $10,000.”
The embassy has not returned her near daily phone calls “to this day,” she said. “If we thought that anything like this would happen, we definitely would not have come.”
Rodriguez said before she flew to Peru, she regularly checked to see if the U.S. had issued a travel advisory about the country and if it had reported cases of the virus.
For Beg, the educator from Dallas, the heartburn and paranoia started long before she even flew out. As it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading globally, she said, she and others on the trip tried to get a refund — even a partial one — from Exoticca, their tour operator.
The day Beg left, a customer service representative from Exoticca downplayed the risk of travel restrictions impacting Americans in Peru and said in an email, “Unfortunately at this moment to postpone the trip is not an option.”
Now waiting at a hotel near the airport in Cusco, she said she’s already spent more than twice what the trip was going to cost and could be out a lot more than that if she has to pay for a return flight home.
An email sent to Exoticca’s customer service email address triggered an automatic reply late Friday. A message left with a woman who answered the phone at Exoticca in Barcelona, Spain, was not immediately returned.
Beg had already decided last Sunday, two days after arriving in Peru, that she was going to get a flight back home right after visiting the famed ruins she’d always dreamed of seeing. But instead of going to Machu Picchu on Monday, she found out she had only hours to get out of Peru because of the newly announced travel ban. But she couldn’t get a flight out.
Now she and her fellow travelers are only dreaming of home.
"We just wanted to see Machu Picchu that one day, and now we just don't care. We want to go home," she said. "I would give anything in the world to be home right now."
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