Like others who have gone abroad, Yoandy Boza Canal was feeling like a stranger in his hometown: businesses and neighbors had closed or moved, the sun was too hot, his prospects were too dim.
When he stepped off the airplane two weeks ago in Havana, freshly deported from Colombia, he said he cried — but not from joy.
“I couldn't believe I was back here,” said Boza, 23, who abandoned Cuba last year in hopes of reaching the United States. “If I could do it all over again I would; leaving wasn't the hard part. What's hard is being back.”
As waves of Cubans continue to flee the economically-depressed island, lured by the American Dream, they've become a hemispheric headache.
Since October, the U.S. Coast Guard has stopped more than 2,300 Cubans from reaching the United States, and the majority were returned to the island.
The U.S. Coast Guard routinely repatriates Cubans interdicted at sea. More than 2,300 Cubans have been interdicted since October and the majority were returned to the island.
In recent months, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have shut their borders to undocumented Cubans. And nations that used to turn a blind-eye to the desperate travelers are clamping down. In Colombia, at least 2,500 Cubans have been caught entering the country illegally so far this year, compared to some 6,200 last year.
In most cases, those who are caught are given a deadline to leave the country or are sent back to their last point of entry. Some, however, are deported to the island they've risked so much to leave.
In some ways Boza was lucky. He wasn't gone long enough to be stripped of his citizenship privileges, which include free allotments of rice, beans, lard and sugar. But he says he lost everything else.
He sold his fruit and vegetable stand to finance a ticket to Ecuador — a starting point for many Cuban migrants. Now, eight months later, he's home with nothing but three changes of clothes and a backpack.
“It's very hard for men to get work in this town,” his mother said. “And the fields are too hard, he's too young for that.”
Alquízar, a small agricultural village, is less than two hours from the capital, but it's far removed from the buzz about warming Washington-Havana relations. There are no well-heeled tourists here helping fuel the economy; most people have to survive on wages of about 250 Cuban pesos a month, or the equivalent of $11.
“This town is worse than it was eight months ago,” Boza said. “It's going backward.”
For other deportees, the homecoming is even more fraught.
Virginia, 19, left Cuba three years ago to join her family in Ecuador. There, she managed to get working papers and found jobs as a waitress at Mexican and Chinese restaurants.
But after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April left more than 600 dead and large swathes of the country destroyed, she said an oppressive nationalism swept the capital.
“Even with my papers I couldn't get a job,” she explained. “People would say 'We're not hiring foreigners, only Ecuadorians’.”
Virginia agreed to speak to the Miami Herald as long her real name or identifying details were not published, for reasons that will be made clear.
Seeing her savings and prospects dwindle in Quito, Virginia decided to follow the rest of her family that had already made the trip overland to the United States — a grueling 3,000-mile journey that plows through seven countries. On May 26, she dyed her blonde hair black to better blend in and jumped on a bus to Colombia.
She and her partner were planning to reach the northern town of Turbo, where more than 200 Cubans have been holed up since May, when Panama closed its border. From there, they hoped to slip across the frontier undetected or wait for a political miracle to happen — like the airlifts that Costa Rica and Panama organized to shuttle Cubans north.
Instead, Virginia and her friend were pulled off a bus near Manizales and hauled before immigration officials. Although Virginia had Ecuadorian residency, she had no relatives there and was considered a minor, so she was put on a plane to Havana.
She'd been gone so long from the island, however, that she'd lost her citizenship rights. Among other things, that means her mother, who is working two jobs in Tampa packing tomatoes and cleaning offices, can't send for her on the grounds of family reunification.
Recovering her rights can take up to six months, and Virginia said she was fearful that if authorities found out she'd talked to the press that the process might be obstructed.
“Now I have to 'repatriate' myself in the country that I was born in,” she said. “I lost all my rights as a Cuban.”
While Boza and Virginia were on the road, they had easy internet access — a novelty for Cubans — so they're aware of the debate raging in the United States about the feasibility of maintaining the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provides a legal path to permanent residence after more than a year for those who make it onto U.S. soil under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Cuban-American himself, has said the law needs to be overhauled to keep it from being gamed. And countries in South and Central America blame the policy for fueling the flow of migrants that have been overwhelming their capacity to provide aid.
Boza called the policy “the sole salvation” for Cubans, but he said he and others aren't opposed to reforms.
“Let them take away the benefits but let us have the [right to work],” he said. “I don't need [monetary] help, I can find my own food; I just need the papers.”
Boza and Virginia said there's no stigma to being a deportee in Cuba. Many people they know have tried, and failed, to get off the island.
In 2014, Boza and some friends built a raft in the underbrush about 7 miles from the coast. They used oxen to drag the boat to the shore in the dead of night, but it broke-down before they ever got off the beach.
Virginia said living abroad opened her eyes to the world of gleaming malls, grocery stores stocked with goods and job prospects.
Asked if she managed to come home with any keepsakes from Ecuador, she shrugged.
“Just the bitter experience that we went through,” she said. “And the memories that I have in my head.”
El Nuevo Herald writer Mario J. Pentón contributed to this report.