Two years ago, Yasiel Puig fled Cuba in the hands of black-market smugglers. This is the story of how the cost of the defection journey – in money and human lives – shadows him still.
by Scott Eden, ESPN The Magazine
Just before dawn one day in late April 2012, four young Cubans stood on an otherwise deserted beach, peering hard into the Caribbean darkness. They were trying to escape their native country, and they were waiting for the boat that would take them away. Thirty minutes passed, then 60. Still no boat. Three men and one woman, the group had arrived at the designated spot close to the appointed hour: 3.a.m. By design, the rendezvous point was located on one of the most isolated coastal stretches in a country famous for nothing if not isolation — so remote it could be reached only by foot.
They had spent the previous 30 hours hiking there, without sleep, and had reached varying levels of emotional distress; the stakes were high. Covert interests in Miami and Cancun had made the arrangements from afar. Their goal was to extract from Cuba a baseball player of extraordinary talent and propitious youth. Just 21 years old at the time, Yasiel Puig already was well-known to both Cuba’s millions of fervid baseball fans as well as officials high in the hierarchy of the Cuban state-security apparatus.
With Puig was Yunior Despaigne, then 24. A former national-level Cuban boxer and a friend of Puig’s from their teens, Despaigne had spent the previous year recruiting Puig to defect, under the direction of a Cuban-born resident of Miami named Raul Pacheco. If caught and found out as an aider and abettor, Despaigne would inevitably face serious prison time. He and Puig had together made four failed attempts to escape the island over the previous year. The authorities were almost certainly wise to their machinations. They needed this trip to work.
According to Despaigne, in the escape party were Puig’s girlfriend and a man who, Despaigne says, served as a padrino, or spirit guide, a kind of lower cleric in the Afro-Catholic religion of Santeria. Sometime before this latest escape attempt, Puig and his girlfriend had sought out the padrino; a vatic ritual had revealed that their voyage would end in good fortune, Despaigne says. The couple decided to take the padrino along so as to improve their chances for safe passage.
Feature continues here: No One Walks Off The Island