From the Cuba Archive:
On July 13, 1994, at around three in the morning under the cover of darkness, around seventy men, women, and children2 boarded the recently renovated tugboat "13 de Marzo."3 They planned to escape the island by making the ninety-mile journey across the Straits of Florida, hoping to reach freedom in the United States. Many also sought the means to send help back to the family they were leaving behind.
Eduardo Suárez Esquivel (Eddy), a computer engineer who had attempted unsuccessfully to flee on several occasions, came up with the idea. Obsessed with the idea of finding a way out of Cuba, he convinced his brother in law, Fidencio Ramel Prieto, to take the tugboat and serve as skipper. Ramel, who was in charge of operations at the Port of Havana, served as one of its Communist Party secretaries and had twenty-five years of commendable service at the port. This gave him access to the tugboat, which belonged to the state enterprise Empresa de Servicios Marítimos. With all vessels in Cuba under government ownership and tightly controlled to prevent escapes, this access was no small feat. Raúl Muñoz, a friend and fellow port worker who had been harbor pilot of the "13 de Marzo" and was now the pilot for another tugboat, was recruited to pilot the tugboat for the escape. Several more men joined in to develop the plot.
The plan included numerous family members and close friends. Only Ramel had the entire list of the approximately fifty two passengers who were to go on the journey. The organizers were divided into groups and each had a leader. Each leader was in charge of getting his respective group to the pier on the designated day. To keep maximum secrecy, the children were told they were going on an excursion.
On three previous occasions, a date had been chosen, but the escape had been aborted when insiders working at the port announced unexpected security measures deemed unfavorable. Unbeknownst to them, government authorities had been receiving information of the plan, in all probability by infiltrators. The spies are suspected to have been part of the actual planning group -in fact two did not show up for the departure. But, the information may have leaked out to spies through relatives who knew of the plot.
On the designated date, the group quietly boarded the tugboat in the middle of the night and the motors were started. Unexpectedly, people who were not on the list showed up, a few others who were to come did not. It was 3:15 A.M. when they began to make their way out of Havana‟s harbor. Immediately, a tugboat belonging to the same state enterprise initiated a chase.
The pursuing vessel first tried to drive the “13 de Marzo” into a dock. When that proved unsuccessful, it rammed it, attempting to push it towards the reefs by the mouth of the harbor near the Morro Castle.4 As its crew maneuvered skillfully, the “13 de Marzo” avoided the attacks and kept sailing forward. People at nearby piers and at the Malecón, Havana‟s seawall, witnessed the attack and were yelling to let them go.
Just as the “13 de Marzo” cleared the harbor, two other tugboats that had been waiting for them in the dark, joined the chase. With their water cannons, they started spraying high pressure jets at the escaping vessel. The wooden “13 de Marzo” was now being hounded by three modern, larger, and heavier tugboats made of steel –the “Polargo 2,” “Polargo 3,” and “Polargo 5.” They were respectively commandeered by Jesús Martínez Machín, a man named David, and one called Arístides.
As the “13 de Marzo” sailed ahead, the pursuing tugboats kept spraying high-pressure water and getting in its way to make it stop. After around forty-five minutes, when the “13 de Marzo” had reached approximately seven miles out to sea, the pursuing tugboats began ramming it. Although the “13 de Marzo” had stopped and signaled its willingness to surrender and turn back, the relentless attack continued. The pilot of the “13 de Marzo” attempted to radio an SOS, but the pounding water had damaged the electrical equipment. A vessel belonging to the Cuban Coast Guard had arrived on the scene, a Soviet-built cutter referred to as "Griffin."5 But, it stayed back, simply observing the spectacle.
The adults brought out the children on deck to see if this would deter the incessant jet streams and collisions. In desperation, parents held their children up in the air and pleaded for their lives, putting them in front of the powerful reflector lights pointed at them. But, the attackers disregarded their cries and continued to bombard the powerless passengers with the high pressure water. The mighty streams scattered them all over deck, ripped clothing off, and tore children from their parents‟ arms. Some were swept into the ocean immediately.
In a frantic attempt to find safety, some passengers went below deck to the cargo hold and the machine room, many carrying children. The "13 de Marzo" was now taking in water from the incessant ramming.
Although it had stopped its engine, the “Polargo 5” rammed it decisively one last time and it began to sink. The doors to the machine room and cargo hold were blocked by the water. With the passengers pinned down, they desperately pounded on the walls and ceilings as the children wailed in horror. Frantically, Raúl, the pilot, tried unsuccessfully to open the trap door on deck as it was quickly filling up with water. Unable to make it budge, silence soon took over. Those trapped below had all drowned.
It was around 4:50 A.M. when the tugboat sank seven miles northeast of Havana harbor. Panic gripped the stunned survivors. Mothers tried to hold on to their children to prevent them from drowning, screaming for husbands and other relatives to help. They all clung to life in high seas in the dark of night. Many floated atop a large refrigeration box, others hung onto anything that floated by or simply treaded water.
The three boats then began circling the survivors, creating wave turbulence and eddies for around forty-five minutes. It was obvious they wanted to make sure no one would be left alive to bear witness to the horror. María Victoria García, who lost her ten-year old son, husband, and many other close family members later related: “After nearly an hour of battling in the open sea, the boat circled round the survivors, creating a whirlpool so that we would drown. Many disappeared into the seas... We asked them to save us, but they just laughed." One of the tugboats attempted to run over the floating refrigeration box holding many survivors. Fortunately, it was unsuccessful.
All of a sudden, the attackers stopped and the tugboat crews told survivors to swim toward the Cuban Coast Guard ships on the scene. Once on board, they noticed that a merchant ship with a Greek flag was close by, approaching Havana harbor. Survivors believe this is was what made the attackers stop unexpectedly. Several Coast Guard vessels then moved in to rescue those who were left.
The exhausted groups of rescued passengers were kept at high seas almost until around 11A.M. When the order was received, they were all taken to a Naval Base at Jaimanitas, near Havana, where many high-ranking members of the military had gathered. The men were put into one cell and left there. The women and children were put it another cell, where they were interrogated. Early that evening the women and children were sent home and the men were taken to Villa Marista, Havana‟s State Security headquarters. Some were kept in detention several weeks and released to domiciliary detention. Two were kept for eight months. They were all given psychotropic drugs, visited by psychologists, and subjected to interrogations at all hours with the purpose of making them relay the story as an accident.
Reports of the number of victims varied from the start. Because some who were supposed to make the journey did not show up while many others unexpectedly joined in, the exact number who boarded and of those who perished remains uncertain. Finally, only thirty seven people, individually identified, were confirmed missing by their grieving families and the thirty one survivors. Many were related; most came from four neighborhoods of greater Havana -Cotorro, Guanabacoa, Marianao, and Arroyo Naranjo. Four more persons may have perished if, in fact, seventy-two passengers boarded, but they remain unidentified.
Despite intimidation and harassment, many survivors immediately denounced the premeditated ramming of the “13 de Marzo” and the deliberate aggression against them while they were unarmed and in no position to seriously resist capture. They recounted how the pursuers appeared to be taking orders from the Cuban Coast Guard cutter and that, at one point, a helicopter had flown over the scene.
The escapees never imagined their lives had been in danger. Even Ramel‟s son, who worked for State Security6 and survived, reported never thinking they would suffer more than imprisonment if they were stopped. Unknowingly, however, they were taking a much larger risk than they had bargained for. Earlier that year, on April 28th, the tugboat “Polar 12” had been commandeered in Havana harbor and taken to Key West, Florida, with sixty-eight persons on board. On June 17th another tugboat, "The Mar Azul," had also been taken to Florida with seventy-four persons on board. Reportedly, both tugboats had been pursued by Cuba‟s Coast Guard, rammed by its vessels in international waters, and attacked with machine guns even though they carried many women and children as passengers. Because information in Cuba is tightly controlled and all media is owned by the government, these incidents were unknown on the island.
The Cuban government reported that thirty-two people drowned and thirty one were rescued, but a list of victims was not provided. No bodies were returned to their families for burial and, if any were recovered, their location remains unknown. In fact, the authorities expressly refused to conduct search operations for the bodies. At State Security headquarters, agents mocked desperate relatives seeking bodies and told them that their loved ones were nothing more than “counter-revolutionary dogs.”
When news reached the outside world, Rafael Dausá, the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, declared that survivors‟ accounts were “science fiction” and blamed the incident on the “thieves who stole the boat.” Granma –government newspaper and organ of the Communist Party- published the official version of the events - that the three pursuing vessels “had attempted to intercept the “13 de Marzo” and the maneuvers undertaken to that effect had resulted in a regrettable accident that had made the boat sink.” In a subsequent story titled “Capsized tugboat robbed by anti-social elements,” Granma blamed the "irresponsible act of piracy” on counter-revolutionary radio stations of the “Miami nest of maggots” (referring to Cuban exiles) and on the United States‟ failure to abide by immigration agreements. A Granma editorial of July 23rd 1994 was titled “A bitter lesson for the irresponsible.” In a speech on July 26th, Raúl Castro, the head of Cuba‟s Armed Forces, insisted that the tugboat was destined to sink because it had not been seaworthy and praised the Cuban Coast Guard for trying to prevent that. Cuban radio stations, which are all government owned, repeated similar explanations. Finally, on August 5, 1994, in a three hour speech, Fidel Castro publicly praised the perpetrators for their exemplary behavior and patriotic acts and emphatically declared that they had no intentions to sink the boat.
Attempting to feed the cover-up, some of the imprisoned survivors were paraded in front of cameras to tout the government line and insist that the tragedy was their entire fault. Manipulated into apologizing publicly, they had, among other things, been told that the populace was ready to lynch them for killing so many children.
Apparently, the international community‟s reaction soon tempered the Cuban government‟s defiant tone. World leaders, including the Pope, made statements denouncing the deplorable incident and expressed condolences to the victims. Cuba‟s Ministries of Interior and of Foreign Relations promised an investigation. Unsurprisingly, it has never been heard of again. Subsequent attempts by family members of victims and human rights activists on the island to open judicial processes via official legal channels have been ignored. In fact, the head of the operation, tugboat pilot Jesús González Machín, is said to have received a "Hero of the Cuban Revolution" award from the government. Numerous reports by international organizations have condemned the massacre. On July of 1994, Amnesty International had called on the Cuban government to carry out an investigation of the incident and to bring justice if any government affiliate was involved. In 1997, Amnesty reported that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that it had been an official operation and that, if events occurred in the way described by several of the survivors, those who died were victims of extrajudicial execution. In June of 1995 the United Nations‟ Special Rapporteur on Cuba requested from the Cuban government an investigation and called for those responsible to be processed and the families of victims to be compensated. On October of 1996, the United Nations denounced the absence of an investigation. That same month, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) released a Special Report declaring that the Cuban state was responsible for premeditated murder.
Numerous reports by international organizations have condemned the massacre. On July of 1994, Amnesty International had called on the Cuban government to carry out an investigation of the incident and to bring justice if any government affiliate was involved. In 1997, Amnesty reported that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that it had been an official operation and that, if events occurred in the way described by several of the survivors, those who died were victims of extrajudicial execution. In June of 1995 the United Nations‟ Special Rapporteur on Cuba requested from the Cuban government an investigation and called for those responsible to be processed and the families of victims to be compensated. On October of 1996, the United Nations denounced the absence of an investigation. That same month, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) released a Special Report declaring that the Cuban state was responsible for premeditated murder.
Over time, as more survivors and witnesses left the island and their accounts were pieced together, it became apparent that the Cuban government had planned the murder. It was evident that spied had been infiltrated who offered early and detailed knowledge of the preparations. Reportedly, once the plot was known, the decision had been made at the highest levels of government to not foil it by arresting the organizers or closing the entrance to Havana harbor. Instead, they would be allowed to steal the tugboat, so it could be sunk and an enduring lesson could be delivered to prevent further escapes from the island.
To cover up government involvement, only civilian vessels were employed in the attack and while only Coast Guard vessels rescued survivors. The O.A.S. report indicates that while this type of manipulation has been common Cuban government practice, “the attack against defenseless civilians was planned, orchestrated, and directed by the Communist Party and State Security with the direct participation of both.”
On the island, survivors and family members of those who died were initially denied information and put under constant surveillance. Many were dismissed from their jobs. They have continued to endure systematic harassment by the authorities. Over the years, all survivors except one have managed to go into exile, some in voyages by raft. All bear the marks of deep trauma, feelings of senseless loss, and a sense of outrageous injustice.
On the island, the Cuban government continues to imprison, threaten, and intimidate those who seek to peacefully protest the sinking and remember those who died, usually in small ceremonies on the anniversary of the attack. Government-organized mobs, the Rapid Response Brigades, habitually scream insults and hit participants.7 To prevent commemorative activities, members of political and human rights groups are arrested, mobs harass them and even intrude in their homes, and extensive police operations are mounted. Just this past February 27th 2007, five peaceful activists kept under arrest since the July 13, 2005 memorial were tried for public disorder. René Montes de Oca, Emilio Leiva, Lázaro Alonso, and Manuel Pérez Oria were sentenced to two years imprisonment and Roberto Guerra Pérez to one year and eight months. The defendants declared that they had merely attempted to render tribute to the tugboat victims and only screamed at attackers of the Rapid Response Brigade to not hit them while they formed a human chain to protect themselves.
What is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this tragedy is that, as with similar cases in the past,8 it has been largely ignored by world media. As a result, international public opinion remains essentially unaware of the systematic attacks perpetrated by the Cuban government on defenseless civilians trying to flee Cuba. Sadly, many world governments, leaders, and celebrities shamelessly disregard the most basic standards of accountability for the Cuban government. The Castro regime continues to enjoy a free pass to trample on the most fundamental rights of its citizens, including the most precious -the right to life.
♣ By Maria C. Werlau, March 2007. (Christina Werlau conducted extensive research and contributed to this report).