Remember the 13 de Marzo
Cuban-Americans mark a grim anniversary.
8:20 AM, Jul 13, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
IT LACKED THE SCALE and profile of Tiananmen Square, but was no less brutal. In the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, Cuban fireboats rammed and attacked a rickety tugboat ferrying more than 70 would-be defectors away from the Port of Havana. Using water cannons, Fidel Castro's ships quickly sank the wooden vessel, leaving its passengers to drown. More than half the Cubans on board plunged to a maritime grave. The survivors were left to tread water for over an hour before being plucked out of the sea and returned to the island.
At the time, the incident was lost amidst news of violent unrest in Cuba and the worst refugee crisis since 1980 (the year of the Mariel boatlift). Less than a month after the tugboat massacre, anti-Castro riots broke out near the famous Malecon boardwalk in Havana. Seeking to deflect widespread anger with Cuba's moribund economy and post-Soviet food shortages, the dictator unleashed an armada of boat people, letting thousands of Cubans set sail for America on homemade rafts and wobbly boats. This ultimately led to the Clinton-Castro migration accord, which established new visa rules and codified the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.
The tugboat sinking was almost forgotten. The Castro regime called it an "accident." Exiles in Miami called it an atrocity. To others it seemed a tragic consequence of the refugee frenzy.
But thanks to a few brave survivors, the picture has become much clearer. In October 1996, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released its final report on the tugboat. It found that two Cuban ships had begun trailing the 13 de Marzo as soon as it left port. Several miles from shore, another pair of Cuban vessels turned up and, "equipped with tanks and water hoses, proceeded to attack the old tug." The pleas of women and children were ignored. So were the drowning passengers. Though precise numbers remain murky to this day, the IACHR report lists the death toll at 41--out of 72 original passengers--including 10 minors.
The report concludes: "The evidence clearly shows that the sinking of the tug 13 de Marzo was not an accident but rather a premeditated, intentional act."
Some years later, Jesus Martinez, captain of one of the Cuban ships that intercepted the 13 de Marzo, affirmed that his mission was indeed planned ahead of time. Cuban state security knew when the tugboat was to be stolen, Martinez claimed, and yet chose to allow its departure. "That's cruelty," he told author Jorge Garcia Mas.
Today the Coalition of Cuban-American Women will hold a ceremony in Miami to honor the victims of the 13 de Marzo. They will dedicate a memorial to the children who perished that day and read a letter from the current U.S. envoy to Cuba, Michael Parmly. The event will be carried out simultaneously in English and Spanish. A handful of 13 de Marzo survivors are expected to attend.
This has become an annual tradition, says Coalition president Laida Carro. "It's a way to remind the world that this crime has gone unpunished." Carro, whose family fled Cuba in 1962, notes that Cubans on the island can be jailed for observing the July 13 anniversary.