The Miami Herald
Wed, Jul. 14, 2004

Victims of tugboat's sinking by Cuban vessels honored

On the 10th anniversary of the sinking of a tugboat in Havana Harbor, several ceremonies in Miami-Dade memorialized the 37 people who drowned fleeing Cuba.


Gustavo Martinez doesn't really need the memorials.

He still has nightmares about the day -- July 13, 1994 -- that his wife and 5-month-old daughter drowned in Havana Harbor. They were two of at least 37 people killed after Cuban government vessels rammed a tugboat carrying 68 people fleeing the island, then used high-pressure water cannons to flood the compartment, wash people overboard and tear children from their mothers' arms.

It took three minutes to sink the boat, eight miles from land.

Martinez can still hear the screams, the passengers below banging on the ceiling for help -- and his wife's pleas.

``Gustavo! My God! Gustavo! Help me!''

He couldn't help her. Or his baby girl, Hellen. He could only save himself and his 9-year-old son.

Martinez, who came to South Florida recently with his son, doesn't need any help to recall those moments.

But on Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of the deaths, he was joined by thousands of people who paid respects to the victims of the tugboat sinking at several memorial ceremonies.


''This was a massacre,'' said Neri Martínez, 22, coordinator of the Free Cuba Foundation, a student group that organized a vigil at Florida International University. The group marked 10 minutes of silence, one for each year that has passed.

''It's a silent call for justice,'' Martínez said. ``Not only are we remembering the victims, but we are also condemning the crimes committed by the Cuban government on its own people.''

The incident was documented by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which requested an explanation from the Cuban government in 1996. Cuba still has not responded.

Amnesty International also issued a report condemning the act, as well as the harassment of survivors and families of those who died. Relatives were prohibited from having memorial ceremonies on the island.


''We were told to stay quiet, not to tell anyone what had happened. But we did,'' said Mayda Tacoronte, who lost her sister, two nieces and a nephew but was able to hang on to a piece of the boat's wood for an hour -- with her 3-year-old daughter clinging to her neck.

Mylena Labrada, now 13, still sees a psychologist. ''The doctor says to let her talk about it when she's ready, not to press her,'' Tacoronte said, as she tossed sunflowers and daisies into the bay behind the national shrine to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint. Tacoronte and her daughter were among dozens of participants at a memorial organized by the Democracia Movement, which preceded a Mass, officiated by Bishop Agustín Román.

''This is not just a crime against children, women and men,'' said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, founder of the Democracia Movement. ``It's a crime against humanity.''

Behind him, 37 makeshift grave markers -- white, wooden crosses on inner tubes with laminated photos of each known victim -- were lined up on the seawall. While there are some who say there were 41 victims, only 37 have been identified.


The memorials, Sánchez said, are important as a constant reminder to the world.

''It's important to make sure we don't have in the future a government that is capable of committing this crime and still sitting in international forums as if it was a democratic country,'' he said.

Among the victims: 14 from Jorge García's family. The 59-year-old, who has lived in Miami since 1999, said he could have been one of them.

''I gave up my space so that the younger people could go,'' García said Tuesday. ``I thought it was the right thing to do, to get them out of that darkness. They were young. They had their whole lives ahead of them. There was no future in Cuba.

``I was a grandfather already.''

His brother-in-law, chief of operations for the Havana Port Authority, organized the trip and arranged for 17 family members to be on board.

Among those lost: García's son, Joel García Suarez, 20; his grandson, Juan Gutiérrez García, 10; and 12 others, including the brother-in-law who planned the escape.

Only García's daughter -- who was too distraught to attend any ceremonies Tuesday -- and two nephews were spared.


He and Tacoronte and several other survivors insist they would have been dead, too, had it not been for a Greek freighter that appeared after the survivors -- some of them hanging on to debris -- treaded water for about an hour.

At that point, he and others said, the Cuban boats plucked them from the water.

''The government would have let them all drown if there had been no witnesses,'' said García, who wrote a book about the tragedy, published in 2001 and was given a human rights award by the United Nations in 1998 for his efforts to denounce the incident.


''There are those who think that we should be full of rancor and a thirst for vengeance,'' García said. ``But I don't want revenge. I feel sorry for the people who assassinated my family.''

He does, however, want a trial.

''I can never be compensated for my loss. I will never be happy again with my family surrounding me. There will always be a tinge of sadness,'' García said.

``But I do want there to be a trial so that this situation can serve as a lesson and that these people or others like them in other parts of the world, don't do this kind of thing again. Not in Cuba. Not anywhere.''