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A Tragic Tale of Loss

There was one chapter in my last book, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, that was emotionally wrenching for me to write. It related the tragic story of the 13 de Marzo (13th of March) tugboat that 72 desperate Cubans boarded in 1994 hoping to escape to the United States. They got only as far as seven miles off the Cuban coast when their vessel was sunk by a trio of bigger and faster boats the Cuban government had sent in pursuit. The wooden hull of the 13th of March was no match for the stell-hulled Polargo-class boats and in minutes, after being rammed by one of them, the old tug sank. One of the people I wrote about was Maria Victoria Garcia, then a young woman from the town of Guanabacoa, across the harbor from Havana Vieja, who was fleeing with Ernesto, her husband, their ten-year-old son Juan Mario, Maria Victoria's younger brother Joel, and 11 other members of her family.

As the tugboat slipped under the waves, Maria Victoria kept a tight hold on her son. But she, like most Cubans, barely knew how to stay afloat. With Juan Mario clinging to her back, she desperately tried to grab any piece of floating debris, eventually managing to hold onto a bobbing cooler. But when another desperate survivor clawed his way onto the float, she lost her grip and skipped under the water. Somehow she managed to resurface, then went under, then came up again, each agonizing moment worrying about her son as the water, the night and the rising fear all weakened him until eventually she felt his thin arms slip from around her neck and disappear.

She and the other 30 survivors were eventually picked up by government vessels and returned to the island where they were interrogated. She was released to her father's house in Guanabacoa, only there to be hounded by mobs of government supporters sent out to harass her and others who dared to turn their backs on Castro's revolution. In 1999, she and the remaining members of her family, with help from outside, were able to leave Cuba and resettle in Miami.

(photo courtesy of Jorge Garcia)

Yesterday, January 4, Maria Victoria died in hospital following unsuccessful surgery to correct a heart condition. Her father, Jorge Garcia, who I interviewed extensively for my book, and who remains a friend, had gone on social media a few days earlier as he asked friends to pray for her recovery.

While I was researching my book, I interviewed many people in Guanabacoa but few of them knew many details of the sinking because the government-run media limited coverage, and never, as far as I could confirm, even printed the names of the dead. Instead, Maria Victoria and the rest were blamed for stealing the tug and placing the children at risk for attempting to use it to flee Cuba. "A Bitter Lesson for Irresponsible People" was the headline of an editorial that ran in Granma, the Communist party's official mouthpiece. But Amnesty International investigated the incident and cast all the blame on the Castro government, concluding that "those who died as a result of the incident were victims of extrajudicial execution."

I've tried, through my book and other writings, to keep this tragedy from being forgotten. Now, with Maria Victoria's death, the witnesses are fewer. But her father remains passionately committed to remembering, and to demanding justice. I pray that some day he will prevail.


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