Cuban Couple Prefers to Face the Jungle Rather Than the Law in Cuba
14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Panama City, 2 July 2017 – They managed to
escape Cuba to leave behind traces of corruption and negligence that,
according to Yudenny Sao Labrado and her husband Yoendry Batista,
reflect the prevailing system on the island. From a neighborhood on the
outskirts of Panama City, the couple relates the story of their journey,
a long trek that they hope will end with their arrival in the United States.
Yudenny Sao (born in Puerto Padre in 1979) was born just three years
after the promulgation of Cuba’s Socialist Constitution. Born under the
Revolution, she trained as a teacher and graduated from the University
of Mathematics and Physics. She left the classroom to administer one of
the thousands of bodegas spread across the island, in which the state
subsidizes some of the products of the basic market basket through the
“I liked teaching, but the Ministry of Education pays very little,” she
explains. In the bodega she had more opportunities to do business “under
“I made the decision to leave Cuba when they discovered a corruption
plot in Puerto Padre’s retail network,” said Sao. In 2016, a series of
audits revealed that several of the bodegas in Puerto Padre, where she
worked, had irregularities in their accounts. Although there were
invoices covering the sales, the money was never deposited in the bank.
The directors of the institution are serving sentences of up to eight
years for misappropriating state funds.
“I had nothing to do with that,” said the woman from Las Tunas province,
defending herself. According to her, her business was to sell rice,
sugar, and contraband cigarettes she bought on the black market, instead
of the products sent by the state for “free” – that is unregulated –
sales, which covered articles outside the rationing system.
Although basically she did not alter the prices of the products, she
committed a crime because the rigid centralized economic system did not
allow her to market articles that were not sent through the channels
authorized by the authorities.
“I gathered my people and I told them about the situation, because the
big fish always eats the little one,” she says. Sao’s family includes
her husband, Yoendry Batista, a welder by profession, her three children
ages 19, 10 and 7 years, and her parents. They made the decision that
she should leave Cuba and asked relatives in Florida for $10,000.
“With that money I went to Havana. I wanted to go by boat to the United
States, but instead of paying a ticket on the speedboats that traffic
people to Miami, I learned that there were people who sold parts to
build a boat, and after a phone call my husband came to Havana and we
began to build the boat,” she says.
In the heart of Havana, a few blocks from the Sanctuary of the Virgin of
Charity, they began the construction of the boat that would take them to
the United States. The materials cost $7,500 and each of those
interested in emigrating did their bit. All under strict secrecy, as the
construction of boats to leave the country is punishable by law.
“We made the boat with polyethylene and sheets of platinum [an alloy
so-called in popular slang] and iron. That’s illegal, it could cost us
up to 15 years in jail,” says Yoendry Batista, Yudenny’s husband, who
had never built a boat in his life. After weeks of working under the
summer sun in a Havana courtyard the boat was ready.
“To take it to the coast we had to pretend we were moving. At three
o’clock in the morning we started to assemble furniture and parts of the
disassembled boat in a closed truck that carried supplies to the foreign
exchange stores,” recalls Sao.
They headed towards the north coast, to the mouth of Arroyo
Caimito. There they spent eight days together with another 17 people
eating the bare minimum to conserve food for the trip. After weeks of
preparation they were finally about to leave for the United States.
“When we heard the sound of the engine we were happy, we shouted ‘Adios,
comandante [Fidel]’ and we embraced,” recalls Sao. However, the
happiness was short-lived. The engine barely lasted 1 hour and 15
minutes. The swell flooded the electrical system and they were
adrift. They had to get rid of the engine that cost them $2,000 and the
gas drums they had for the trip. If the Coast Guard found them with that
equipment they could be in serious legal trouble.
“The Cuban Coast Guard appeared around noon. My wife had fainted from
lack of food and dehydration. They had us handcuffed and in the sun
picking up other rafters for hours. That August 12 they collected 32
rafters whose boats had broken down,” explains Batista.
Dehydrated and hungry they were exposed to the sun all afternoon on the
deck of the boat and were taken to the port of Mariel. After being fined
3,000 pesos, they were released. “What saved you is that we are making
preparations for the Commander-in-Chief’s birthday celebration,” the
head of the military unit told them. August 13, 2016 was the culmination
of a program of celebrations to commemorate the 90 years of the old
ex-president Fidel Castro, who died three months later.
Without money, they returned to Havana to try to build a new boat. “We
spent sleepless nights thinking what to do with a debt of $10,000
without even having left the country. In Puerto Padre the investigations
began and Yudenny’s time was running out. It occurred to them to bribe a
policeman to “throw them through the system.” Because they had no
criminal records they could apply for a passport and travel legally to
“We paid $100 to the police and because we had no priors we got our
passports (which cost $100 per person). That’s how we traveled to Guyana
and from there we embarked on the journey to the United States,”
From Guyana they went to Brazil, where she was employed domestically
for some months. Her husband worked as a builder, not without being
cheated by those who saw undocumented migrants as cheap labor with no
“He worked in malls. On one occasion they promised 100 reals a week and
in the end they paid him 40,” says Sao. Her husband, on the other hand,
has good memories of the towns where he spent the time. “You get another
image of these countries because it is not what they tell you in
Cuba. In these countries there are many people with good hearts and they
help the migrant,” he says.
After collecting some money they left with another 60 Cubans via the
Amazon river and after more than 20 days of travel crossed Peru, Ecuador
and Colombia. The Darien jungle was the most difficult for Sao, diabetic
“I did not want to continue, but my family sent us 200 dollars from
Cuba. That, together with what we had earned, allowed us to pay the
guides who guided us through the jungle,” explains Cao.
In Panama they took refuge with the Catholic charity Caritas, where they
received the news of the end of the wet foot/dry foot policy. They
stayed with Caritas until they were forced to leave for the eventual
transfer to the holding camp at Gualaca. “I don’t care where, it can be
Haiti, but I cannot go back to Cuba,” she says with regret.
The house where Sao and her husband took refuge in Panama City, after
escaping from Gualaca, belonged to some Panamanians they met through
Cáritas. During the weeks they stayed in it they refurbished, cleaned up
the gardens and planted bananas.
“We are not going to pick the crop. Of that you can be sure,” says Batista.
A week after telling their story to this newspaper they left for Costa
Rica, where the authorities seized their passports. They continued their
journey and are now in Mexico, waiting for a humanitarian visa to
continue their way to the United States and seek political refuge.
“The Cuban government is responsible for everything we’ve been
through. Everything you have to do to have a decent life depends on
them. To buy a pair of shoes for your children you have go without
eating for five months,” says Sao, adding that she never would have left
her village if it weren’t for the crime imputed to her. “It’s a macabre
This article is part of the series “A New Era in Cuban Migration”
produced by 14ymedio, Nuevo Herald and Radio Ambulante under the
auspices of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Source: Cuban Couple Prefers to Face the Jungle Rather Than the Law in
Cuba – Translating Cuba –