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Dates With History

Jorge Garcia, who died June 2, dedicated three decades to finding justice for 14 members of his family and others who died when the 13th of March tugboat was sunk 30 years ago on July 13, 1994.

Jorge Garcia blamed the Cuban government for the loss of his son Joel (in photo he is holding) and 13 other members of his family on July 13, 1994.

            Most nations, even in defeat, landmark their history, commemorating in street names, civic plazas, monuments, schools, and cities the individuals and the incidents of their past. And one of the first things that revolutions do is change those names to reflect their own version of history.

            Cuba is something of an outlier in this hoary tradition. Most of its place names were retained after the 1959 victory. Granma province is a rare change, not the result of a renaming but of a partitioning of a province long established to commemorate the leaky yacht on which the revolution was launched. Neither is there anywhere on the island a single Fidel Castro Street, Avenue or Plaza, in deference to the old commandante’s wishes.

            What Cuba has done instead is to memorialize the revolution itself, preferring to highlight the dates of important events rather than focusing on individuals. The practice began with July 26, the date of the failed Moncada barracks attack in 1953, which became the name of Castro’s insurgency.  January 1, the official day of revolutionary victory in 1959, is hallowed. Another is March 13, marking the dark day in 1957 when student revolutionaries tried to assassinate dictator Fulgencio Batista.

            The Castro government freely applied those same historic date names to artifacts of the revolution, both big and small. The 13th of March was the name given to an old Havana Harbor tugboat, an ancient wooden-hulled workhorse that plied the oily waters of Cuba’s busy port for decades until the morning in 1994 when it might have disappeared from Cuba’s history but for the dogged efforts of one man, Jorge Garcia Mas.

            Garcia died last month. He was almost 80 and reportedly had cancer and heart disease. But friends said he died of a broken heart.

            I met Garcia as I was reporting my book The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times. He was one of a handful of people from the Cuban town of Guanabacoa whose lives I profiled in the book. I included him even though at the time he lived in a self-imposed exile in Miami because of what happened to him and his family that dreary morning aboard the tugboat called the 13th of March.

            In 1994, Cuba was going through the worst part of what is known as the Periodo Especial, years of the most wrenching shortages and deprivations that Cubans had known since the start of the revolution. Facing daily blackouts, the almost complete disappearance from the roads of anything that ran on gasoline, and severe shortages of food and medicine, Cubans were so desperate to flee the island that the little harbor ferry boat that crosses from Regla to Havana Vieja was hijacked several times by groups attempting to sail it to Miami. When the government tightened security on the ferry, a group of Cubans seeking a different way out came up with a plan to take the old 13th of March instead.

            In that group were 15 members of Jorge Garcia’s family, including his son Joel, his daughter Maria Victoria, and his 10-year-old grandson Juan Mario. Garcia himself, then 50, declined to go in order to remain in Cuba with his ailing wife. His brother- in-law, Ramel Prieto Ramos, a captain of the port, agreed to captain the desperate expedition. In all there were 68 people aboard, including ten children. Just as they had planned, without any violence they took over the tug early the morning of July 13, 1994,  and put out to sea. But before they made it past the narrow mouth of the harbor, several newer, faster, boats began following them. A few miles off the coast they surrounded the old tug, then rammed and sank it. Of the 68 aboard, 37 drowned, including Joel, Maria Victoria’s husband, Ernesto, their son Juan Mario, and 11 other members of Jorge Garcia’s family. Instead of the phone call he expected telling him that they had arrived safely in America, he listened to reports on Radio Reloj that a boat had capsized off the coast with an unspecified number of passengers lost.

            Cuban authorities put all blame for the tragedy on the would-be refugees who had stolen government property, endangered the lives of children by bringing them on board, and were foolish enough to attempt to take such an unsafe vessel to open waters. Garcia was buying none of it. He knew his brother-in-law had inspected the tub and deemed it seaworthy. He talked to survivors who told him how the newer tugs had deliberately sunk the old boat. And he understood that the government would never acknowledge what it had done, even after Amnesty International investigated and concluded that those who died were the victims of “extrajudicial execution.”

            For the next 30 years of his life, Garcia relentlessly pursued justice for his family. He tracked down survivors in Cuba and told their stories, as well as finding relatives who could give an accounting of the lives of those who perished so they would be remembered as more than just numbers. (The government made no attempt to recover their bodies). He pursued the men who had commanded the boats that had sunk the 13th of March. He and his family, especially his daughter Maria Victoria, who had miraculously survived, were harassed for speaking out against the government. In 1999, they managed to get out of Cuba and come to the U.S., where they immediately held a news conference to condemn the Cuban government for what had happened.

            Garcia never gave up. He made powerful presentations to the International Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against Humanity of the Cuban Regime and other commissions and committees. He wrote a book about the sinking of the 13th of March and narrated powerful videos depicting the sinking that he put online. He gave interviews to many reporters (including me) about the truth behind the tragedy and denounced the Cuban government for its continued efforts to deny responsibility. Cuban state media never published the names of the victims, and the Cuban government soon refused to even mention the incident. But Garcia held annual commemorations, hoping to someday find a way to hold accountable those responsible.

            Garcia died on June 2. His daughter Maria Victoria, who had to live with the memory of her son Juan Mario slipping from her grip in the dark waters that July morning, never to be seen again, died in January. In the south Florida community, it was widely believed that she too had suffered a broken heart.

            Soon there will be no one left who can talk with certainty about what happened that day. Just last week I received word that another witness, Caridad Guerra, also of Guanabacoa had died. Guerra, who I met and interviewed for my book, lost her brother, son in law and granddaughter. Neither she, nor Jorge Garcia, ever obtained death certificates for their loved ones because the government spuriously contended that without a body recovered, those people had not necessarily died but had just disappeared.

            History can be like that, twisted around to the advantage of the most powerful. Sixty-seven years later, March 13 continues to be honored in Cuba for the attempt on Batista. But thirty years after the “extrajudicial execution” of 37 innocents, July 13, without Jorge Garcia, may end up a forgotten footnote.

            But not here.



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