Castro's Tugboat Massacre

Por Humberto Fontova

A glorious anniversary has just passed. A ghastly one looms. In the predawn darkness of July 13, 1994 seventy two desperate Cubans-- old and young, male and female-- snuck aboard a decrepit but seaworthy tugboat in Havana harbor and set off for the U.S. and freedom. The tug's name was the 13th of March, a name that will live in infamy for all Cuban-Americans--nay, for all lovers of freedom and decency.

The wind was howling that ugly night. Outside the harbor in the darkness an angry sea awaited. But unlike us on fishing trips, these desperate people didn't have the luxury of cancelling or postponing. This was no pleasure cruise. The planning had taken months. No easy task, considering Castro's pervasive police and assorted snitches. Blow the whistle on an operation like this and you might get a government medal! Even better, extra rations! Maybe TWO eggs a month! Maybe even TWO chicken necks and an extra gizzard!.... Imagine!

The lumbering craft cleared the harbor and sure enough, 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.

Let Jack Nicholson label their captive homeland "a paradise!" Let Bonnie Raitt rasp out her little 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!"

The people boarding that tug knew better. And for a simple reason: the cruel hand of fate had slated them to live under his handiwork. I doubt they'd heard of Eric Burdon and The Animals. But a line from The Animal's 1966 classic might have flown as a banner on that tugboat, "We gotta get outta this place! If it's the last thing we EVER do!"

The last thing indeed, for one in three. According to Cuban-American scholar Dr Armando Lago this hideous arithmetic translates into 83,000 deaths at sea. That's a capacity crowd in New Orlean's Superdome. That's people perishing slowly of sunburn, thirst and exposure. That's people gasping and choking after their arms and legs finally give out and they gulp that last lungfull of seawater, much like the crew in The Perfect Storm. That's others eaten alive--drawn and quartered by the serrated teeth of Hammerheads and Tiger Sharks, much like Captain Quint in Jaws. Perhaps these last perished the most mercifully. As we've all seen on the Discovery Channel, sharks don't dally at a meal.

"In space no one can hear you scream," says the add for the original Aliens. Same for the middle of the Florida straits--except ,of course, for your raft-mates. While clinging to the disintegrating raft, while watching the fins rushing in and water frothing in white--then red-- they hear the screams all too clearly. Elain Gonzalez might know.

I wish I were making this up for dramatic impact. But every year in South Florida the INS and Coast Guard hear scores of such stories. Were the cause of these horrors more politically correct--say if they could somehow pin it on George Bush-- we'd have no end of books, movies and documentaries. We'd never hear the end of it.

With one month of Cuban rafter's stories Hollywood and New York would have enough drama, heroism, treachery and horror to keep us glued to the screen or turning the pages for a decade. Oprah could have her audience dabbing their eyes continuously.

Instead we get the Che Diaries from Robert Redford. Instead we get Comandante from Oliver Stone. Both glorify the very agents of the Cuban slaughter.

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. Let's be clear on this, friends. Don't let Castro's agents (both on his payroll and off) in the media and Academia flummox you. Rather than a nation of suffering and desperation, Cuba was once a land of hope and prosperity. No firing squads, no Gulags, no exodus. No highest suicide rate on earth. Cuba's commercial, political, and cultural ties with the U.S. made it so. In the 1950's Cuba had DOUBLE Spain 's per capita income; Ireland's, even Austria's and Italy's was lower.

Throw that at your Poli Sci professor when he starts yakking about how Castro "liberated" Cuba from "Yankee exploitation" from "rapacious capitalists"... blah...blah...blah. For all the good it'll do. You and I both know we're better off arguing with the flat-earth society, a Moonie, even a Scientologist.

With the 13th of March a few miles into the turbulent sea 30 year-old Maria Garcia felt someone tugging her sleeve. She looked down and it was her ten year-old son, Juan. "Mami look!" and he pointed behind them towards shore. "What's those lights?"

"Looks like a boat following us, son." She stuttered while stroking his hair."Calm down, mi hijo. Try to sleep. When you wake up we'll be with our cousins in a free country. Don't worry."

But little Juan wasn't the only one who saw those lights. Several escapees stood on the tug's stern, pointing, frowning and murmuring. Soon two more sets of lights appeared. "Mami! There's more!" Juan gasped. "And they're getting Closer!...Look!" Little Juan kept tugging at his mother.

"Don't worry son," she stammered again. In fact, Maria suspected the lights belonged to Castro patrol boats coming out to intercept them. And they were closing fast. Soon they had rumbled up even with the lumbering tug.

Castro patrol boats indeed--fire boats technically, armed with powerful water cannons. The gig was up, the escapees figured. Back to Cuba now and probably jail. Some had been through this before.

Instead--WHACK!! With it's steel prow the closest patrol boat rammed the back of the tug. People were knocked around the deck like bowling pins. Much screaming and scrambling as they rubbed their heads, their elbows and knees. But still--it looked like an accident, right? Rough seas and all. Could happen to anyone, right?

Seemed plausible. "Hey WHATCHIT!" 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. WHOOOOSHHH! The water-cannon was zeroed and the trigger yanked. The water-blast shot into the tug, swept the deck and mowed the escapes down, slamming some against bulkheads, blowing others off the deck into the five foot waves.

"MI HIJO!-- MI HIJO!" ( My Son!) 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 ten feet behind Maria as huge waves lapped his legs.

"WHAT THE!!...DIOS MIO!!" Shock, horror, confusion. Complete hysteria broke out on the boat. These people grew up in Cuba. So unlike the New York Times, The Nation, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, and much of Hollywood, they never mistook Fidel Castro for St Francis of Assisi. But still--could it be that women with their infant children were being deliberately targeted?! This was a new low even for so swinish and cowardly a mass-murderer.

The escapees grabbed beams, rails, arms, legs--anything!- to keep from going over. Finally Maria and crewmate managed to grab Juan and yank the sobbing child aboard. The cannon still swept the deck as men started shoving the women and children into the tug's hold to escape the murderous blast. Soon the other two patrol boats were alongside again.

WHACK! One of the steel patrol boats turned sharply and rammed the tug from the 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. Castro's Patrol boats knew EXACTLY what they were doing. And in Cuba you don't do something like this without strict orders from WAY above.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING!" The enraged men yelled from the battered tug. "Cobardes!" (Cowards!) "Asesinos!" (Assassins!) Oh for some weapons! But in Cuba gun control had proceeded well past the Brady Bill; all the way to where possession of one got you in front of a firing squad. After their savage mauling at the hands of Brigada 2506 and the Escambray Rebels, Castroites still wake up in the middle of the night sweating and whimpering at the thought of armed enemies. "We have women and children aboard!" The men yelled. "We'll turn around!--OKAY!!"

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 scrambled into the hold for safety had in fact scrambled into a watery tomb.

With the boat coming apart and the water rushed in around them, some got death grips on their children and managed to scramble or swim out. But not all.

Soon the water filled the hold completely. "I was completely blind!" recalls Maria. " I was completely underwater, fumbling around, grabbing for anything near me, trying to find Juan. I was submerged, so my screams were like those in a nightmare where you scream in terror but nothing comes out.....Soon I grabbed an arm and I felt some arms and legs wrap around my neck and chest from behind me.....Just then we popped to the surface.

"It was little Juan gripping my body from behind! HOLD TIGHT, mi hijo! Hold TIGHT!" Maria yelled while coughing up pints of sea water. "DON'T LET GO!" she yelled. Juan was coughing and gagging too, but still gripping his mother tightly, almost choking her in fact.

Maria was in the middle of a maelstrom, her husband was out there too, somewhere. She was treading water frantically with her last reserves of strength when she felt a strong hand grab her. She focused through the spray and saw about ten people hanging onto an ice-chest. A man was reaching out from the group and pulled her towards them just as a blast from the water cannon hit them again. By now all three tugs had turned on their water cannons. The escapees might have been under Niagara falls.

Worse, the Castro boats started circling the sinking tug....faster, faster, gunning the engines to a horrendous clattering roar, and creating a a huge whirlpool in the process. They knew EXACTLY what they were doing. "People were screaming all around me," recalls Maria. "A woman on the ice chest had her baby daughter ripped from her arms by the blast and she was screaming, screaming, SCREAMING!

The hysterical woman let go of the ice chest and went under in search of her child. Neither her nor the child reappeared from the swirling waters.

The roar from the water-cannons, the racket from the boat engines creating the deadly whirlpool--this hellish din muffled most of the screams, but all around people were screaming, coughing, gagging and sinking.

Soon Maria was ripped from the ice chest by another blast from the water cannon. "Juanito hadn't been holding on very tightly any more," She sobbed in testimony. "He'd been coughing real bad, coughing up mouthfuls of sea water. Finally I felt him go limp. Then the blast hit us. I went under again. And came up screaming. "GRAB JUAN! Grab my boy! POR FAVOR! But everyone was scrambling, everyone was under the blast of the gun. My son! ...My son!"

This time, ten year-old Juan never resurfaced. Maria Garcia lost her son, husband, brother, sister, two uncles and three cousins in the maritime massacre.

In all, 43 people drowned, 11 of them children. Carlos Anaya was three when he drowned, Yisel Alvarez four. Helen Martinez was six months old. Fortunately, a Greek freighter bound for Havana had happened upon the scene of slaughter and sped in 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, the murderous swine!

Thirty one 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,".... whatever.

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 rogue or random in 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!"

And what about the net result of all the "petitions" "protests," etc. by OAS, United Nations -- by all these revered "multi-lateral" organizations?

Well, barely a year and a half after his pre-meditated massacre Castro received an engraved invitation to address the very United Nations on it's glorious 50th anniversary. Castro was actually the guest of honor. "The Hottest Ticket in Manhattan!" read a Newsweek story that week. "Fidel Takes Manhattan!" crowed Time magazine.

After his 'whoopin, hollering , foot-stomping ovation in the General Assembly ("Castro got, by far, the loudest and warmest reception" Time wrote) Castro plunged into Manhattan's social swirl, hob-nobbing with dozens of gliteratti, pundits and power brokers.

First, over to Mort Zuckerman's 5th Avenue pad as the guest of honor for a glamorous luncheon. A breathless Tina Brown, Mike Wallace, Bernard Shaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters were all on hand, clamoring for autographs and photo-ops. Diane Sawyer simply lost it in child-killers presence. She rushed up, broke into that toothy smile of hers, wrapped her arms around Castro and smooched him warmly on the cheek.

"You people are the cream of the crop!" Beamed the bearded man of the people to the rapt guests.

"Hear-hear!" Chirped the delighted guests while tinkling their wine glasses in appreciation and glee.

According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, on that visit Castro received 250 dinner invitations from American celebrities and power brokers. And who wants to bet a dollar to a donut that today all 250 moan and wail about the "horrors" in Abu Ghraib?

Humberto Fontova is the author of The Hellpig Hunt, described as "Powerful and compelling!" by Publisher's Weekly as "Fascinating and Fun!" by the New Orleans Times Picauyune and as "Just what the doctor ordered!" by Ted Nugent.

You may reach Mr. Fontova by e-mail at

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