DARING ESCAPES FROM "PARADISE"
"I had never faced death before nor seen it on other people’s faces. I’ll never forget those children. Or the look in their mothers’ faces," said Eduardo Serrera in Helga Silva’s book The Children of Mariel.
While Cubans did not leave their country before 1959, once Cuba became Castro’s, its history is riddled with massive and daring escapes. There are enough thrilling and dramatic stories to fill entire libraries and entire graveyards.
Serrera recalls the traumatizing event he experienced after leaving the port of Mariel, Cuba in 1980. He was crammed aboard a 24-foot shrimp boat along with 36 men, women and children. He was leaving with his mother, but was forced to travel apart by Castro’s guards. He lost track of her.
"By the third day water started coming into the boat. We used everything at hand – buckets, containers – to bail out." Fortunately, around noon the U.S. Coast Guard spotted the boat. Serrera recalls, "The sailors had to make a human chain to physically lift us from our sinking boat."
Aboard the cutter on their way to the U.S., they encountered other Cubans in distress in the Florida Strait. But not everybody could be saved because the waves prevented the Coast Guard cutter from getting close enough to rescue them. A boat was drifting away and falling apart and Serrera cannot forget the screams for help.
"It was awful." When the women aboard realized that they could not be rescued, they "picked up their children and threw them over the railings over to our side. Eight or nine children were flung in the air. I caught one, a baby – about nine months old – so cold his skin was blue. And his eyes were open wide in terror.
"The women on the boat looked so desperate when their boat began to drift away. They wailed in pain. I could hear their voices trail off in the darkness begging us to look after their children."
According to Helga Silva’s book, of the more than 125,000 refugees who came to the U.S. during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, there were 13,000 to 18,000 minors.
However, the biggest exodus of unaccompanied children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere – which is largely unknown – took place in Cuba from December 26, 1960 through October 22, 1962. At that time 14,048 children between 6 and 18 years old left Cuba for the U.S. in what was called "Operation Peter Pan."
This massive exodus was triggered by the increasing revelation of Castro’s turn to communism. This awakened fears in Cuban parents that they would lose the right to make decisions about raising their children and their education as happened in the Soviet Union, China and other communist regimes.
This fear was well founded. On May 1, 1960, Castro ordered the creation of communist indoctrination schools and private schools were under increasing pressure from the regime to change to Marxist textbooks to indoctrinate the children.
Many private schools closed rather than be taken over by Castro’s regime. Many parents kept their children home instead of sending them to public schools where communist indoctrination had already begun.
The future didn’t look promising for families under Castro in 1960 as well as today, 40 years later.
Painful as it was, in 1960 many parents thought that it was time to get their children out of Cuba even if they had to leave unescorted. And in October of that year, the first unaccompanied Cuban child arrived in Miami.
His parents thought that their relatives and friends would take care of him temporarily until Castro was overthrown - as many Cubans thought at that time. Little did they known that their refugee relatives were almost destitute.
Since no one was able to take responsibility for his welfare, the 15-year-old boy was being passed from one family to another on a daily basis. This psychologically affected him. He was scared and hungry and had lost 20 pounds when, on November 15, 1960, someone took him to the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami pleading for a foster home or boarding school for the boy.
The boy’s name was Pedro (Peter). Later that year, the organized effort to get children safely out of Cuba and properly cared for in the U.S. would be named for him: Operation Peter Pan. This clandestine operation is filled with extraordinary untold stories of human courage and dedication.
On Thanksgiving Day 1999, a 5-year-old boy was found clinging to an inner tube about three miles out at sea off Haulover Inlet, north of Miami. He was found by two American boaters and was taken to a Fort Lauderdale area hospital. The boy was reported weak and in and out of consciousness from his ordeal.
Later it was discovered that he was one of the survivors of a 17-foot boat that left the area of Cárdenas, Cuba with 13 others. He was accompanied by his mother and stepfather. The boy, whose name is Elian Gonzalez, recalls the drowning of his mother and how his stepfather, before he drowned, wedged him into an inner tube so he could hold on.
Two other survivors of that tragedy are a 23-year-old woman and a 33-year-old man found clinging to an inner tube near Key Biscayne. The woman said that Elian’s stepfather was the captain of the boat, which had engine problems and capsized due to rough seas on the evening of November 23. She said that the other passengers clung to several inner tubes until they dropped as they ran out of strength.
The body of an elderly woman was found at sea north of Fort Lauderdale. The U.S. Coast Guard says that, so far, during 1999, 1,261 Cubans have been interdicted at sea. According to a book-in-progress by Dr. Armando Lago, from 1959 until now, 60,000 Cubans have lost their lives escaping Castro in the Florida Strait.
Now Elian’s natural father and grandparents in Cuba, following orders from the Castro regime, are creating an international incident by demanding his 5-year-old son’s return from the U.S. and claiming that he was "kidnapped."
Cuba is a country where parents have taken extraordinary risks to get their children out for 40 years. This desperate exodus has Castro’s finger prints all over it. He often uses a crisis to divert attention from his failing revolution. The Cuban regime is already warning the Clinton Administration with a deterioration of their relations if Elian is not returned "immediately." Will Clinton cave in again?
Hugo Portilla, a Cuban who escaped to the U.S. by raft in 1992, could not live without his wife Lourdes and his 4-year-old daughter Monica.
Lourdes had been caught twice trying to leave the island. Castro’s officials told her that a third attempt would cost her the custody of Monica. Her daughter was stricken with chronic asthma. Castro’s celebrated health care system failed to make available the treatment Monica needed to survive. Hugo felt that he had no choice but to return to Cuba and rescue his wife and daughter.
Hugo departed for Cuba aboard a 32-foot craft owned by U.S. citizen Rick Hoddinott. They found themselves grounded on July 1, 1993 on a coral reef right off the fishing town of Cojimar, east of Havana just before 10 p.m.
Cubans in Cojimar who had heard rumors that boats from the U.S. were to arrive that night easily noticed the craft with the two men in distress. Hoddinott recalls "the next thing I knew, there were around forty people swimming toward the boat."
The Cuban guards noticed the rescue operation from the beach and an official boat was sent to intercept the grounded craft. They suddenly opened fire. Hoddinott was shot twice in the knee and once in the foot by the guards now firing from both the beach and the official boat.
The shooting was so intense it awakened the entire town. Hundreds of people gathered along the beach and witnessed the massacre. They became enraged at Castro’s henchmen, began throwing rocks and bottles at police cars, and chanted anti-government slogans.
The response from Castro’s regime was to dispatch three trucks of specially trained paramilitary thugs to intimidate and control the town.
According to Tim Bower’s book Cuba: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, several Cubans swimming toward the craft were also shot. "Hoddinott remembers hearing the screams of the children and seeing blood-tinted water washing up against the white panels of the boat.
"By the end of the guard’s shooting spree, ten of the Cuban swimmers were seriously wounded and three of them, all young men, were dead."
Bower’s book listed the dead as Loamis Gonzalez-Manzini, 16, Mario Horta, Jr., 19 and Alfredo Evelio-Marín, 26.
Hugo Portilla failed to rescue his wife Laura and his daughter Monica but he "managed to elude the police and sought refuge in a church, where he was discovered by the Cuban police two weeks later. He was then taken to prison, where he was interrogated and tortured.
"Portilla, who had already served time as a political prisoner in Cuba before leaving for Miami, was eventually released.
After being in jail for three months in Cuba, Hoddinott learned first hand about Castro’s violation of human rights.
On July 13, 1994, we have the infamous case of the "13 de Marzo" tugboat, were 72 Cuban men, women and children were trying to escape for the U.S. In this incident, 40 lost their lives, including 23 children – one of them just 6 months old.
According to the testimony of survivors, the Cuban Coast Guard began to pummel the helpless passengers with water cannons. Even though the passengers attempted to surrender and many of them held their children up in the air, the guards were relentless in their savage attack.
Bower’s books recounted the testimony that water cannon were used to "spray children from the arms of their mothers into the ocean waters". Other children were simply swept off the deck into the sea. Desperate to protect the children, the women carried the remaining children down into the boat’s hold.
"The tugboat filled with water and cracked in two by renewed ramming. I saw how they (the fire hoses) were filling the hold with water. Once the boat was sinking, she didn’t see anybody come out of the hold.
"We struggled to stay above water by clinging to a floating body. I held on to him [her son] because I saw he was weakening and he didn’t have the strength to go on. But people fell on me and my son slipped from my grasp."
Bower explains, "The young boy could not fight the huge waves created by the government vessels and his mother was forced to watch helplessly as her baby drowned just five feet away."
Cuba’s Coast Guard, following Castro’s orders, perpetrated this criminal massacre which to this day remains unpunished. Those responsible for this barbaric act received promotions from Castro’s regime. And Castro himself travels the world with proud impunity.
Castro even receives invitations, like the recent one from Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) saying that he would be received in Seattle "respectfully, graciously and warmly." I wonder how his thousands of victims feel about that.
These stories of daring escapes from Castro’s Cuba are just a few grains of salt on the vast sea of the ongoing tragedies taking place for the last 40 years in the Florida Strait.
During this Christmas season and at the end of this millennium, consider all the thousands of lives that have been needlessly lost at sea and the last minute human struggle for survival of men, women and children before they drown or are eaten by sharks. All of it because of the ambition for power of one man shielded behind a failed and inhumane political system.
The fact that Cubans have been risking their lives and would rather die at sea is very eloquent testimony, indeed.
Is it moral to look the other way in order to visit as tourists or for the sake of making some dubious business deals, giving up principles and ideals on behalf of a man and the dehumanized political system he created to violate the human rights of the citizens of his nation? Do we want to give any reverence or conduct business with this criminal?
Agustín Blázquez with the collaboration of Jaums Sutton
Mr. Blazquez is the Producer/Director of the documentaries
COVERING CUBA and CUBA: THE PEARL OF THE ANTILLES