The couple fled Cuba to avoid the web of corruption and negligence that they say reflects what is normal life on the island.
They got stranded in Panama, but still hope to eventually reach the United States.
Yudenny Sao Labrada was born in eastern Cuba, three years after the government approved a socialist constitution in 1976. Trained by the Castro revolution as a teacher, she holds university degrees in math and physics but left the classroom to administer one of the state-owned grocery stores that sell rationed goods at subsidized prices.
“I liked being a teacher, but the salaries in the Education Ministry are very low,” she said. Running the store in her hometown of Puerto Padre, she added, she had more opportunities to earn money “on the left” — Cuban slang for less-than-legal.
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“I decided to leave Cuba when they discovered a corruption scheme in the retail commerce network in Puerto Padre,” she said. Audits turned up “irregularities.” Top administrators were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for embezzlement.
“I had nothing to do with that,” she said.
Her own business scheme consisted of selling rice, sugar and smuggled cigarettes, which she bought on the black market, instead of selling the products sent by the state for sale at higher prices outside the rationing system.
Although she did not change the price of the goods sold at her store, she was breaking the law because Cuba’s highly centralized economic regulations did not allow her to sell goods not supplied by the government.
“I called the family together and told them what was happening because the big fish always eats the little fish,” she said. Her family includes husband Yoendry Batista, who is a welder, children who are 19, 10 and 7 years old and Sao’s parents. They decided to leave Cuba, and borrowed $10,000 for the trip from relatives in Florida.
“I used the money to go to Havana. I wanted to take a fast boat to the United States,” she said. “But instead of paying a smuggler … I learned that there were people who could sell you the parts to build a boat. I phoned my husband, he went to Havana and we started to build the boat.”
The work took place in a neighborhood in the heart of Havana. Materials cost $7,500, and each person in the group contributed to the labor. Everything was done in secret because building boats with the intent to leave the country is illegal.
“We built the boat with polyethylene and metal sheets. That is illegal. We could have gone to prison for up to 15 years,” said Batista, who had never before built a boat. After three weeks of hard work in the patio of a home, the boat was ready.
“We had to fake a house move to take the boat to the coast. At 3 a.m., we started to load the furniture and parts of the boat into a covered truck” that supplied a chain of state-owned stores in the city, Sao recalled.
They headed for the north coast, near the mouth of the Caimito River. They and 17 others stayed there for eight days, eating little to save their supplies for the trip. After weeks of preparations, they were finally ready to leave for the United States.
“When we started up the motor, we were so happy we shouted ‘goodbye comandante,’ ” Sao said, referring to the late ruler Fidel Castro. But their happiness ended quickly. The outboard motor barely lasted 75 minutes. They threw their $2,000 motor and gasoline cans overboard because possessing them was also illegal.
“The Cuban Coast Guard showed up around noon. My wife had fainted for lack of food and water,” Batista said. “They handcuffed us and kept us under the sun for hours while they picked up other rafters. That day, Aug. 12, 2016, they picked up 32 rafters whose boats had broken down.”
They were taken to the port of Mariel, fined 3,000 Cuban pesos (about $120) and freed.
“You’re lucky because we’re preparing to mark the birthday of the commander in chief,” they were told by one of the officers. Aug. 13 was the 90th birthday of Castro, who died three months later.
They returned to Havana, hoping to build another boat. “We spent many sleepless nights thinking about that debt of $10,000, and still unable to leave,” Batista said. Police were starting to investigate the corruption in Puerto Padre and time was running out.
They decided to bribe a policeman who could erase their arrest records, allowing them to obtain passports and travel legally to Guyana on the northeastern shoulder of South America.
“We paid $100 to a policeman … and obtained our passports. That’s how we traveled to Guyana and from there started our trek to the United States,” Sao said.
They went first by land to Brazil, where Sao worked as a maid for several months. Her husband worked in construction, but was cheated a couple of time by bosses who knew that undocumented Cuban migrants could not complain to the authorities.
“He worked in shopping malls. One time they promised him 100 reales a week and they paid him 40,” said Sao. Batista has some good memories, however. “You get a different image of these countries because it’s not what you’re told in Cuba. There are a lot of people in those countries who have a good heart and help migrants,” he said.
After saving up more money, they joined 60 other Cubans traveling on the Amazon River and over 20 days crossed Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama was the worst part for Sao, who is diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure.
“I didn’t want to go on, but my family sent us $200 from Cuba. Together with what we had saved, that allowed us to pay for the guides who led us through the jungle,” Sao said.
They wound up at a shelter in Panama City run by Caritas, the charity arm of the Catholic Church, where they learned that President Barack Obama had ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that would have allowed them to stay in the United States. They slipped out when the Panama government transferred many of the other Cubans to a temporary shelter in Gualaca, in western Panama, amid fears they would be deported back to the island.
“I don’t care where, even if it’s Haiti, but I can’t go back to Cuba,” she said.
The house where Sao and her husband stayed was owned by one of the Panamanians they met in Caritas. They cleaned it up and even planted some plantains.
“But we won’t be around to harvest them. You can be sure of that,” Batista said.
One week later, they left for Costa Rica, where authorities took away their passports. They continued by land through Central America and are now in Mexico, waiting for a humanitarian permit that would allow them to travel to the U.S. border and apply for political asylum.
“The Cuban government is responsible for everything we have suffered. It forces us to invent all the schemes we have to use to live with dignity. To buy a pair of shoes for your children you have to spend five months without eating,” said Sao, who added that she would not have left Cuba if the corruption investigators had not targeted her.
“It is a macabre system” she said.
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba
This article is part of the “New Era in Cuban Migration” series, a collaborative project between the Miami Herald, 14ymedio and Radio Ambulante made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.