In the predawn darkness of July 13, 1994, 72 desperate Cubans - old and young, male and female - sneaked aboard a decrepit but seaworthy tugboat in Havana harbor and set off for the U.S. and the prospect of freedom.
Let Jimmy Carter hail the “egalitarian society” fashioned by “his old friend, Fidel Castro,” let Jack Nicholson hail their captive homeland "a paradise!" Let Bonnie Raitt rasp out her ditty calling it a "Happy Little Island!" Let Ted Turner hail their slavemaster as a "Helluva guy!" Let Democratic party honcho Frank Mankiewics proclaim Castro "one of the most charming men I've ever met!" Let Michael Moore hail the glories of Cuba's healthcare in Sicko. Let Barbara Walters add gravitas while soft-soaping Castro during an "interview": "you have brought great health to your country." (In fact pre-Castro Cuba enjoyed lower infant-mortality rates and higher per-capita income than half of Europe.)
The people boarding that tug knew better. And for a simple reason: the cruel hand of fate had slated them to live under Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s handiwork.
The lumbering craft cleared the harbor and five foot waves started buffeting the tug. The men sprung to action as the impromptu crew while mothers, sisters and aunts hushed the terrified children, some as young as one. Turning back was out of the question.
A few miles into the turbulent sea, 30-year-old Maria Garcia felt someone tugging her sleeve. She looked down and it was her 10-year-old son, Juan. "Mami, look!" and he pointed behind them toward shore. "What's those lights?"
"Looks like a boat following us, son," she stuttered while stroking his hair. "Calm down, mi hijo (my son). Try to sleep. When you wake up, we'll be with our cousins in a free country. Don't worry." In fact, Maria suspected the lights belonged to Castro patrol boats coming out to intercept them.
In seconds the patrol boats were alongside the tug and - WHACK!! - with its steel prow, the closest patrol boat rammed the back of the tug. People were knocked around the deck like bowling pins. But it looked like an accident, right? Rough seas and all. Could happen to anyone, right?
Hey, WATCHIT IT!" a man yelled as he rubbed the lump on his forehead. "We have women and children aboard!" Women held up their squalling children to get the point across. If they'd only known.
Humberto Fontova holds an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Tulane University and is the author of four books including his latest, The Longest Romance; The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro. For more information and for video clips of his Television and college speaking appearances please visit www.hfontova.com.
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