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.
This gave the gallant Castroites nice targets for their water cannon. WHOOSH! The water cannon was zeroed and the trigger yanked. The water blast shot into the tug, swept the deck and mowed the escapees down, slamming some against bulkheads, blowing others off the deck into the five-foot waves.
"MI HIJO! MI HIJO!" Maria screamed as the water jet slammed into her, ripping half the clothes off her body and ripping Juan's arm from her grasp. "JUANITO! JUANITO!" She fumbled frantically around her, still blinded by the water blast. Juan had gone spinning across the deck and now clung desperately to the tug's railing 10 feet behind Maria as huge waves lapped his legs.
WHACK! Another of the steel patrol boats turned sharply and rammed the tug from the other side. Then - CRACK! another from the front! WHACK! The one from behind slammed them again. The tug was surrounded. It was obvious now: The ramming was NO accident. And in Cuba you don't do something like this without strict orders from WAY above.
"We have women and children aboard!" The men yelled. "We'll turn around! OK?!"
WHACK! the Castroites answered the plea by ramming them again. And this time the blow from the steel prow was followed by a sharp snapping sound from the wooden tug. In seconds the tug started coming apart and sinking. Muffled yells and cries came from below. Turns out the women and children who had scrambled into the hold for safety after the first whack had in fact scrambled into a watery tomb.
With the boat coming apart and the water rushing in around them, some got death grips on their children and managed to scramble or swim out. But not all. The roar from the water cannons and the din from the boat engines muffled most of the screams, but all around people were screaming, coughing, gagging and sinking.
Fortunately, a Greek freighter bound for Havana had happened upon the scene of slaughter and sped to the rescue. NOW one of the Castro boats threw out some life preservers on ropes and started hauling people in, pretending they'd been doing it all along.
Maria Garcia lost her son, Juanito, her husband, brother, sister, two uncles and three cousins in the maritime massacre. In all, 43 people drowned, 11 of them children. Carlos Anaya was 3 when he drowned, Yisel Alvarez 4. Helen Martinez was 6 months old.
And all this death and horror to flee from a nation that experienced net immigration throughout the 20th Century, where boats and planes brought in many more people than they took out - except on vacation. (Despite what you saw in The Godfather, actually, in 1950, more Cubans vacationed in the U.S. than Americans in Cuba, as befit a nation with a bigger middle class than Switzerland.)
Thirty one people were finally plucked from the seas and hauled back to Cuba where all were jailed or put under house arrest. They hadn't been through enough, you see. But a few later escaped Cuba on rafts and reached Miami. Hence we have Maria Garcia's gut-wrenching testimony presented to the UN, the OAS and Amnesty International, who all filed "complaints," reports, "protests.”(with the customary results.)
This was obviously a rogue operation by crazed deviants, you say. No government could possibly condone, much less directly order such a thing! Right?
Wrong. Nothing is random in Stalinist Cuba. One of the gallant water-cannon gunners was even decorated (personally) by Castro. Perhaps for expert marksmanship. A three-year old child presents a pretty small target. A six-month old baby an even smaller one. "Magnificent job defending the glorious revolution, companero!"
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.