The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As in 1994, Cubans protest against a regime’s mortal threat

Anti-government protesters march in Havana on July 11. (Eliana Aponte/AP)
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Anthony DePalma is the author of “The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times.”

Millions of Cubans had never seen anything like the angry street protests that erupted in Havana and other Cuban cities over the weekend.

Twenty-seven years ago, a similar mix of hunger, frustration and fear pushed thousands into the streets in protest. But there was no social media to illuminate the unrest or preserve a record for posterity; Cubans relied on word of mouth in 1994 as discontent spread. Then as now, a motivating force was the realization that they lived in mortal danger from their own government.

Today, an incompetent pandemic response is killing Cubans. In 1994, the danger was more specific: According to survivors, Fidel Castro’s regime intentionally sank a tugboat carrying Cubans trying to flee to the United States. At least 37 men, women and children, including an infant, were drowned. Tuesday marks the anniversary of the tragedy.

Jorge García lost 14 members of his family, including a son and grandson. The tug they boarded that night, the Trece de Marzo, or 13th of March, was named for the day in 1957 when university students tried, but failed, to assassinate the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

I have interviewed survivors and relatives, including García, and the story they tell is harrowing. Three larger, faster steel-hulled Cuban tugboats pursued the 115-year-old wooden tug and caught up with it seven miles offshore, then turned high-powered firefighting water cannons on the occupants. Then, in the predawn dark, one of the pursuing boats rammed the stern of the Trece de Marzo and sank it.

The names of those who perished have never been published in Cuba, their bodies have never been recovered, and their demise has never been officially acknowledged with death certificates.

Cuban state-controlled media quoted survivors who faulted the adults on board for embarking on an illegal journey with an unsafe vessel that rightfully belonged to the Cuban people. But after they later escaped Cuba, the survivors said the statements had been coerced. Amnesty International called those who died “victims of extrajudicial execution.”

There were 31 survivors — they said the crews of the vessels that stopped them had refused to help, but eventually Cuban navy gunboats arrived and took them aboard.

The tale of what the Cuban government had done to its own people arrived amid the grimmest days of what the Castro government still calls the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union severed Cuba’s economic lifeline. Already desperate from lack of food, fuel and electricity, Cubans seemed to find the Trece de Marzo’s fate the final straw.

“Story of tug’s sinking incited Cubans,” The Post later reported. Unrest broke out in the open. Crowds on the Havana sea wall shouted the once-unthinkable “Down with Fidel.” As enormous pressure grew, Castro threw open the coastline and Cubans by the thousands set off for the United States in rickety boats and rafts.

When I talk to Cubans now, few know much about the sinking or the protests, but nearly all say things are worse than they were in 1994. Inflation is raging; food is again becoming scarce; and the pandemic deprives the economy, already wheezing from U.S. sanctions, of the euros and dollars it needs to survive. With the resignation in April of Raúl Castro as Communist Party leader, the government is run by bland bureaucrats not named Castro.

President Biden’s team has said that Cuba is not now a foreign policy priority. The White House is continuing the Trump administration’s sanctions as well as the six-decade-old economic embargo, which was condemned last month at the United Nations by nearly every country in the world — except the United States and Israel.

On Monday, Biden issued a statement in support of the Cuban people. But more is needed. Cuban security forces have taken back the streets for now, but what happened over the weekend was extraordinary. Marchers shouting “We are not afraid” should frighten a government that has long kept its people terrified of even whispering their complaints.

Ending the U.S. embargo now would deprive the regime of its routine excuse for all its failures. Too much else is wrong in Cuba for ending the embargo to somehow save the regime. It would send a powerful message to the Cuban people that the land of the free has heard their cries for freedom.

For years after the tugboat sinking, Jorge García tried to commemorate the July 13 anniversary, but Cuban authorities always intervened. This year, he has posted a video about the sinking on YouTube. He’s free to do that because, having left Cuba with the help of U.S. diplomats in 1999, he now lives in Florida.

Read more:

Abraham Jiménez Enoa: Cubans are losing their fear. We want change.

Lizette Alvarez: There’s no telling whether the Cuban protesters will prevail, but their courage is undeniable

The Post’s View: For a few hours, the world got to see Cubans’ desire for freedom

Kathleen Parker: The Castros are finally gone. The U.S. should end the Cuba embargo and open the gates.