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WPTV anchor Janny Rodriguez recounts perilous journey she took with family to escape Cuba

Rodriguez left Cuba at 8 years old on boat
Posted at 9:26 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 01:24:57-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Living in Cuba under a dictatorship. It's something those of us born in the United States can't comprehend.

The poverty, repression, the lack of freedom to think, say and do what you want.

Those are some of the reasons people have risked their lives to escape the island, and that includes WPTV NewsChannel 5 anchor Janny Rodriguez and her family.

"I look at what's happening in Cuba now, and I think had my parents not left, that's where I would be now. What a difference," Rodriguez said.

Her mom and dad decided to escape the communist island in 1998, risking everything to be with family in Miami.

Rodriguez was 8 years old at the time and her sister, Eva, was only 3.

"From what my dad told me, they bought a part of a boat, basically the shell, in secret. It had holes everywhere. My dad says they had to patch it up," Rodriguez said. "It was like a makeshift wooden boat with car parts and whatever else they could find."

Janny Rodriguez as child with family
Janny Rodriguez (bottom) as a child with her younger sister, mother and father.

She and her family departed from the north shore of Cuba and had problems almost immediately.

"Within a couple of hours the engine failed," Rodriguez said.

There were 12 people on the makeshift boat, including four children.

"I do remember my parents put us in an inner tube, lifesaver, my sister and I, in the middle of the night. We could hear the adults having the conversation, 'If we don't make it through the night, they need to be in this,'" Rodriguez said.

"So, all of those tubes were put just on the children?" asked WPTV NewsChannel 5 anchor Kelley Dunn.

"Only for the children," Rodriguez's mom Marianela said.

"We were tied up with ropes so we wouldn't be separated from the inner tube if we would flip over and the boat took on water," Rodriguez said.

They were in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight.

Janny Rodriguez
Rodriguez with her young son.

"You see at the top, then you see the boat it comes straight down," Marianela said referring to the size of the waves.

"It's a big dark big ocean. When you're in it. It's scary," Rodriguez said.

After three days at sea, they were only a couple hundred feet from shore.

But because they had not made it to dry land, Rodriguez and her family were sent back to Cuba under the wet foot/dry foot policy regarding Cuban refugees.

Rodriguez's mom said they were interrogated and threatened. She feared that she would lose custody of her daughters.

However, the family stayed together but was told not to try to leave the island again.

Five months later, they tried again. This time on a motorboat.

"We knew something was strange because we're never at the beach late in the night," Rodriguez said.

"When Janny saw the boat again. Oh my God, I never forgot that face," Rodriguez’s mother said.

They left this time with 25 people on board the vessel.

"That trip got complicated. Water started coming in the boat,” Rodriguez said.

Their engine broke and problems started.

"The boat started taking on water, and literally with our hands, with shoes, caps, people were trying to throw water out," Rodriguez said.

Miraculously, out of nowhere, they found a beacon of hope.

"By the grace of God, there was a lighthouse,” Rodriguez said. "We got off the boat and climbed up that lighthouse to stay and figure out what we were going to do."

Safe for the moment, it took many hours for another boat to arrive and pick them up.

“A few hours later, we left again and we made it to Big Pine Key. It was sandy, so that felt victorious in a way. 'Oh my gosh, we made it,'" Rodriguez recalls the moment she reached the U.S.

This time the wet foot/dry foot policy was on their side.

"The Coast Guard sent the helicopter. They send us up in the basket. Two people in the basket took us into the helicopter," Marianela said.

Janny Rodriguez with family
Janny Rodriguez with her husband, two children, mother and father.

After two days at the Krome Detention Center, they were reunited with their Miami family.

The ordinary for so many of us, became the extraordinary for Rodriguez and her sister.

"McDonald's burger and fries with ketchup. My uncle jokes you guys were going to eat the wrapper. We were starving!" she recalls.

Rodriguez said it took years before she fully understood why her parents were willing to risk everything back then.

"It wasn't until I became a mom and went back to Cuba, and we saw how people lived there," Rodriguez said. "I told her, 'If you left me here, I wouldn't have ever forgiven you.' I would have rather drowned than be without my mom."

"As a mom now, I can only imagine how you feel about what she and your dad did?" Dunn asked.

"I don't see how they did that. I don't think I have the courage to ever do something like that. My mom, you inspire me. She's my superhero," Rodriguez said as she embraced her mother.

Rodriguez said she lives every day thankful for the gift her parents gave her.

"You must have such a different take on life in general and freedom in America and just not taking anything for granted," Dunn said.

"I think that's the most important thing. [I'm] so grateful to live in a country where I went to university, the first in my family to go to college. I can study what I want to study, or I can freely say what I think," Rodriguez said. "I can be with family, where food isn't scarce, where my kids, I get to watch grow up. Oh my gosh, this is life. This is freedom. We didn't have life in Cuba. I just didn't realize that. You’re alive, but you don't have a life."