Cuban Couple Prefers to Face the Jungle Rather Than the Law in Cuba

Cuban migrants Yudenny Sao Labrada and her husband Yoendry Batista talk to 14ymedio in Panama City. (El Nuevo Herald)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 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 ration book.

“I liked teaching, but the Ministry of Education pays very little,” she explains. In the bodega she had more opportunities to do business “under the table.”

“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.

Yoendry Batista worked clandestinely in Panama City until he got the resources to continue on his way to the United States. (The New Herald)

“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 Guyana.

“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,” explains Sao.

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 rights.

“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.

Yudenny Sao Labrada and her husband Yoendry Batista in the house where they took refuge in Panama City. (El Nuevo Herald)

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 and hypertensive.

“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 system.”

Note: Our apologies for not having the following video subtitled in English


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.