FREDERICK DOUGLASS observed in an 1850 lecture on slavery:
One of the most telling testimonies against the pretended kindness of slaveholders, is the fact that uncounted numbers of fugitives are now inhabiting the Dismal Swamp, preferring the untamed wilderness to their cultivated homes—choosing rather to encounter hunger and thirst, and to roam with the wild beasts of the forest, running the hazard of being hunted and shot down, than to submit to the authority of their kind masters.
The spiritual need for freedom impelled them to take that perilous course. Virginia legislator James McDowell articulated this natural yearning during Virginia’s 1832 emancipation debates:
Sir, you may place the slave where you please. You may dry up to your utmost the fountains of his feeling, the springs of his thought. You may close his mind to every avenue of knowledge and cloud it over with artificial night. You may yoke him to your labors as the ox which liveth only to work and worketh only to live. You may put him under any process which, without destroying his value as a slave, will debase and crush him as a rational being. You may do all of this, and the idea that he was born to be free will survive it all.
On July 13, 1994, 72 people attempted to escape Cuba’s bondage on a tugboat named the 13 de marzo. One hour later, a massacre had been perpetrated.
The 13 de marzo had traveled approximately seven miles out of Havana when confronted by three fireboats from the Ministry of Transportation, Polargo 2, Polargo 3, and Polargo 5. They assailed the passengers with high-pressure hoses and repeatedly rammed the tugboat, capsizing it. The 13 de marzo sank with numerous passengers inside.
Forty-one people died due to this barrage, many of them children and infants: Helen Martinez Enríquez (6 months old), Sindy Rodriguez Fernández (2 years old), Angel René Abreu Ruiz (3 years old), Caridad Leyva Tacoronte (4 years old), Elio Juan Gutierrez García, (10 years old), Eliecer Suarez García (11 years old), and others.
The Polargo crew was cognizant of the children aboard. María Victoria García Suárez, who lost eight relatives including her husband and son, recounted, “We asked them not to harm us; we showed them the children, but they continued spraying water on us.” (Survivors have affirmed the presence of a fourth vessel belonging to the Cuban Coast Guard—a branch of the Ministry of the Interior—that directed the carnage.)
Torrents of vulgarity and repression followed the massacre. Granma (Cuba’s carbon copy of Pravda) entitled its July 14 story “Capsized Tugboat Robbed by Anti-Social Elements” and blamed the atrocity on the United States and “the nest of maggots in Miami.” Fidel Castro likewise claimed American culpability at a press conference.
Authorities muzzled mourning of the 13 de marzo, arresting individuals such as Aida Rosa Jiminez of the Movement of Cuban Mothers for Solidarity. Authorities have barred memorial efforts in subsequent years. (They threatened Jiminez with arrest in 1996 when she sought a memorial prayer service. Interior Ministry forces arrested prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet and Rolando Illobre prior to a memorial event in 1998.)
A high-ranking member of the regime apprised Cuban author in exile Carlos Alberto Montaner that Fidel Castro ordered the 13 de marzo sunk. Castro is not rushing to hold a truth and reconciliation commission on the matter. (If he did not issue the order, Castro remains culpable for inspiring the institutions and policies that begot the butchery.)
The 13 de marzo was not an isolated atrocity; other refugees have been murdered. In all of these atrocities, Castro’s storm troopers slaughter people for wanting to leave. This is no less heinous than the circumstance described by Douglass where slave-hunters shot runaway slaves.
Seven years later, the victims of the 13 de marzo and their grieving families do not have justice. Cubans filled with anguish over this barbaric crime must suppress their lamentations.
When people soft-pedal Castro’s slave regime, when people claim that Cubans are free to express themselves and are not dehumanized as chattel, ask them about the 13 de marzo. And when they likely give a clueless response, tell them of this day that will live in infamy.