Cuba: On the 20th aniversary of the tugboat massacre

Maria C. Werlau
Directora Ejecutiva de la organización de derechos humanos sin fines de lucro Cuba Archive
Victimes of the Tugboat. Photo: courtesy of
 Summit, New Jersey.  Among the most flagrant atrocities committed by the Castro regime in its long history of human rights’ abuses, two incidents stand out that took place in the month of July —the Canimar River Massacre of 1980 and the Tugboat Massacre of 1994. Perpetrated by the Cuban regime still in power, they illustrate its profound disregard for human life and fundamental freedoms. On this anniversary, we remember the victims —their tragic loss is compounded by the continued impunity the Cuban dictatorship enjoys for these and many other crimes against humanity.

On July 13, 1994, a group of around seventy family members and friends boarded the tugboat “13 de marzo” in the middle of the night hoping to escape to the United States. As they made their way out of Havana’s harbor, three tugboats that had been waiting in the dark took up a chase. Soon, they began to relentlessly spray the boat with high-pressure water jets, ripping children from their parents’ arms and sweeping passengers off to sea. Finally, the tugboat was rammed to make it sink. Passengers who had taken refuge in the cargo hold were pinned down; they desperately pounded on the walls and the children wailed in horror as the boat sank and they all drowned. The three pursuing tugboats circled around survivors who clung to life, creating wave turbulence to make them drown. The attack stopped suddenly, apparently to conceal the crime, when a merchant ship with a Greek flag approached Havana Harbor. Cuban Navy ships standing by began picking up survivors and took them to shore. The traumatized women and children were interrogated and sent home, the men imprisoned for months and given psychotropic drugs.

Thirty-seven perished, including eleven children. None of the bodies were returned to their families for burial. Survivors and relatives of the dead were denied information and put under surveillance. Many were dismissed from their jobs and systematically harassed by the authorities, most eventually left for exile. It later transpired that an infiltrator had helped plan the operation; the goal was to set them up to serve as example and discourage future escapees. The Cuban government claimed it had been an accident and, as usual, blamed it all on U.S. immigration policies. An international outcry prompted the government to promise an investigation, but instead it awarded the head of the operation, tugboat pilot Jesús González Machín, a "Hero of the Cuban Revolution" medal. Requests by international organizations for information and redress were all disregarded. 

Fourteen years earlier, on July 6th 1980, a similar incident had transpired. Three youngsters had hijacked a recently inaugurated excursion boat navigating inland along the scenic Canimar river flowing into Matanzas Bay. Surprised passengers screamed their approval to go to the U.S. but authorities commanded a chase, Navy boats and an Air Force plane fired freely on the boatful of passengers and an industrial boat was brought to ram and sink the vessel. There were at least 56 reported victims, including four children. The actual number was kept secret, recovered bodies were not handed to the families, and communal funerals were forbidden. Survivors were silenced with the threat of prison and kept under surveillance for years. The Cuban government claimed it had been an accident.

The world community largely ignores that the Castro regime has for decades systematically murdered civilians for trying to escape their country. Even after a new migration law allowing more widespread travel since January 2013, Cuba's Penal Code continues to punish attempts to leave without government authorization with up to twenty years in prison or death and authorities have reportedly shot at civilians trying to leave by sea. In 55 years of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship, hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed by government authorities for attempting to escape by sea, by seeking asylum in foreign embassies, or by trying to cross into the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo. Today the U.S. base remains sealed off by barbed wire and surrounded by mines, with Cuban border guards ready to shoot to kill. Thousands have served prison under very dire conditions over the course of decades for the so-called crime of leaving without government authorization. Today, many are serving long sentences for attempting to escape the country. We highlight the case of five very young men who were part of a plot in 2003 to hijack a boat to escape Cuba. Though no one was harmed, the three main conspirators were executed and five young men remain imprisoned; four are serving life sentences —Harold Alcalá Aramburo, Yoanny Thomas González, Ramón Henry Grillo, and Maikel Delgado Aramburo; one, Wilmer Ledea Pérez, has 19 years to go of a 30-year sentence. 

Cuba Archive calls on world governments, international organizations, and all people of goodwill to hold the Cuban government accountable for its crimes and demand respect for the fundamental rights of Cuba’s citizens to life, personal security, and the right to leave their country at will. We extend an invitation to raise awareness of these crimes and organize or join activities of remembrance worldwide.


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