The Wall Street Journal

April 2, 2007


The Lives of Cubans

WSJ April 2, 2007; Page A16


Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's 2007 Academy Award winning film, "The Lives of Others," recalls the bitterness of East German life under the Stasi. But it is also a reminder of the evils totalitarianism inflicts wherever it lands. When I watched it in a New York cinema recently, I saw Fidel Castro's ruthless Ministry of the Interior -- the Cuban equivalent of the Stasi -- in every frame.

Take, for example, the moment when Stasi police rifle playwright Georg Dreyman's apartment in search of an "illegal" typewriter, after they have broken his fearful girlfriend in a skillful interrogation.

That heart-pounding scene evokes images of Cuba's "black spring," only four years ago, when the ministry's secret police descended on the homes of scores of writers, journalists, peaceful activists and poets, seizing their typewriters, fax machines, paper and ink. Seventy-five were arrested, run through summary trials and handed sentences averaging 20 years.

Today almost all those judged guilty are still rotting in rodent-infested dungeons, largely forgotten by the outside world, while Western audiences recoil in horror at the police state depicted by Mr. Henckel von Donnersmarck. My guess, based on the little we already know, is that when the long tropical totalitarian nightmare finally ends, the cruelty unveiled will make the East Germans look like amateurs.

A report released over the weekend by the Web site Cuba Archive on the murder of 37 civilians who tried to flee the island aboard a tugboat in 1994 suggests just how horrid the the truth is likely to be.

The story of how the "March 13th" was attacked by the Cuban government seven miles offshore has been told in Spanish by Jorge A. García -- who lost his son, grandson and 12 other relatives in the tragedy -- in a 2001 book called "The Sinking of the March 13th Tugboat." But until now the full account, as told by survivors, has not reached English-speakers.

Cuba Archive is an independent research project working to document the deaths of innocents under both the Batista and Castro dictatorships. As part of this work, the project has published an account of that fateful day, drawing heavily from Mr. García's book. Cuba Archive Executive Director Maria Werlau says that she used other sources as well and cross referenced witness claims in order to produce a verifiable document that summarizes the events as they happened.

The tragedy of the March 13th begins at 3 a.m. on July 13, 1994, when 68 civilians boarded the vessel for the final stages of an escape plot that had been hatched months before and promised to land them in freedom 90 miles away. Among the passengers were 15 children, including a 5-month-old infant and five toddlers. Fifty-one-year-old Fidencio Ramel Prieto, the head of operations at the Port of Havana, may have been the most important player in the plan.

[Jose Carlos Nicle Anaya]
Jose Carlos Nicle Anaya, killed by Castro.

According to survivors, the tugboat had only just left the port when another tug began to pursue it, suggesting that the group had been infiltrated. Near the mouth of the harbor the boat giving chase tried to push the March 13th onto the reefs. That effort failed but two other tugs joined the chase and began flooding the March 13th with water cannons. Once out of sight from the shore, the tugs in pursuit began to ram the fleeing vessel and aimed the water cannons at the passengers. Survivors say that from the deck of the boat they signaled that they had children on board and they made their intentions to surrender clear. But the attack continued. Soon a Soviet-built Cuban Coast Guard cutter arrived on the scene.

Many passengers took refuge from the high-pressure water jets by going below deck, a decision that left them trapped when the ramming eventually took its toll and the boat began to sink. Some managed to swim free. But even after the tug sank, government boats made no effort to rescue the survivors who were in the water, clinging to debris and calling for help. When a merchant vessel with Greek flags approached, the Cuban crews finally pulled 31 survivors out of the water, perhaps because foreign witnesses to further deaths were likely to embarrass the regime.

According to Mr. Garcia, all but one of the suvivors have since escaped Cuba. But for the island's brave dissident movement, the event remains a symbol of the hateful system. On July 13, 2005 four activists held a public commemoration in Havana for the victims of the massacre. They were promptly assaulted by Castro's Rapid Response Brigades and later arrested. On Feb. 27 of this year, the four finally went to trial, were found guilty of public disorder and are serving sentences of up to two years.

The intentional sinking of the "March 13th" reveals a government policy of murdering refugees, not unlike the East German practice of shooting those who tried to make it over the Berlin Wall. The only difference is that the Cuban government seems to be running up the score. While there are 227 documented cases of East Germans killed for trying to clear the Wall, Cuba Archive has already documented the deaths of 233 Cubans executed for trying to flee the island. According to Ms. Werlau, there are likely many more. Without a central place to report lost loved ones, there is no way of knowing how many Cubans are missing, let alone killed. Should family members one day be free to come forward, Ms. Werlau says, the total of disappeared will almost certainly climb, even if their fates may never be known. For now that number is Fidel's dirty little secret.

In opening East German archives, researchers have found that the Castro regime worked closely with the Stasi in the 1970s to perfect surveillance and interrogation techniques and on other methods of enhancing fear. Let's remember that the fall of the Wall was not the end of all that. The Stasi's ideals, so grimly portrayed in Mr. Henckel von Donnersmarck's film, live on in Cuba today.

Write to O'Grady@wsj.com1.

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