The Miami Herald
Feb. 18, 2003

Defectors share tale of escape


  When Fidel Castro gave a speech Feb. 6 to an international gathering at a theater named for the father of socialism, four Cuban border patrol guards saw their chance to break for freedom.

  They radioed headquarters, saying they were chasing an intruder near Havana's Karl Marx theater. It was a lie, but they were desperate. They knew the radar operators wouldn't be able to tell whether the blip they were watching was one boat or two.

  ''We spent seven months preparing this,'' said Lt. Edgar Raúl Batista Gamboa, the boat's commanding officer and an 11-year veteran of the Cuban border guard. ``It seemed we were condemned to remain back there.''

  Five hours later, they tied their 30-foot boat behind the Hyatt Key West Resort and Marina -- just a short distance from the U.S. Coast Guard Station -- and were walking down the island's main drag.

  Dressed in camouflage gear, carrying weapons and declaring they were defectors, Batista and his subordinates flagged down a Key West police officer and were soon being taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol for questioning.

  On Friday Batista, 30, 2nd Lt. Ofil Lara Corría, 31, and soldiers Yoandri Rodríguez Tamayo, 20, and Rodisan Segura López, 19, were released from immigration authorities. They were staying in a Miami hotel Monday.

  Segura, the youngest, was unaware of his older colleagues' plan until the last minute, but confessed to a long-held infatuation to escape to ''Yuma,'' slang for the United States of America, and readily agreed.

  The men said they had been interviewed and given lie-detector tests by FBI agents during their weeklong detention.

  The Miami office of the FBI would not confirm how, or even if, the men were questioned by federal agents, FBI spokesman Wayne Russell said Monday.

  The brazen plan -- pulled off just after Castro finished addressing 4,000 international educators -- was inspired by a failed plot to allow a Miami exile to pick up his
  relatives, said Batista.

  The Miami Cuban had offered the guards $10,000 to look the other way as he steered his boat into Cuban waters.

  ''I was supposed to intercept the boat coming from Miami and then let it go, giving our [headquarters] false information about its markings and model,'' Batista said.

  ``That meant $1,000 for two of us and $8,000 for me, plus a modern car my friend had bought from a foreigner.''

  The plan was foiled when Batista got into a car wreck, among several other unfortunate glitches.

  But the idea of escape became an obsession. It was Lara who first decided to leave. ''I had to be brave to tell [Batista] that, because he had been a commander for 11 years,'' Lara said. ``But beginning that day, we became like brothers.''

  Batista, who earned a monthly salary of 620 Cuban pesos -- about $23 -- after more than a decade of service, eventually agreed to a definite plan of departure.

  The final straw, he said, came as he watched a video of Cubans who had recently arrived in Miami.

  ''That opened my mind and made me think,'' he said. ``They were ordinary people, guajiros [peasants] like me, who had left Cuba not long ago and were already leading a normal life, with comforts we couldn't even dream about.''

  He plans to work and send money back to the family he left behind: his wife and their daughter, Catherine de la Caridad, who will celebrate her first birthday Saturday.

  Herald translator Renato Pérez and Herald staff writer Elaine De Valle contributed to this report.