He'd be loath to admit it, a Che T-shirt wearer and all, but Eric Burdon of the Animals wrote a song that resounds with many Cubans: "We gotta get outta this place- if it's the LAST thing we EVER do!"
The last thing, indeed, for one in three desperate escapes. According to Cuban-American scholar Dr. Armando Lago this hideous arithmetic translates into 83,000 deaths at sea over the past 46 years. That's people perishing like captives of the Apaches, staked in the sun and dying slowly of sunburn and thirst. That's others gasping and choking after their arms and legs finally give out and they gulp that last lungfull of seawater, much like the crew in The Perfect Storm. Still others are eaten alive-drawn and quartered by the serrated teeth of Hammerheads and Tiger Sharks, much like Captain Quint in Jaws. Perhaps these last perished the most mercifully. As we've all seen on the Discovery Channel, sharks don't dally at a meal.
"In space no one can hear you scream," says the add for the original Aliens. Same for the middle of the Florida straits-except, of course, for your raft-mates. While clinging to the disintegrating raft, while watching the fins rushing in and water frothing in white-then red- they hear the screams all too clearly. Elian Gonzalez might know.
Every year in South Florida the INS and Coast Guard hear scores of such stories. Were the cause of these horrors more politically correct-say if they could somehow pin it on George Bush- we'd have no end of books, movies and documentaries. We'd never hear the end of it.
A consistently hot item on Cuba's black market is used motor oil: poor man's shark-repellant, they say. Perhaps for a few minutes. I suppose when desperate we all cling to false hopes. And people get no more desperate than for a chance to flee from the handiwork of Norman Mailer's and Oliver Stone's hero.
In the predawn darkness of July 13, 1994, 72 desperate Cubans- old and young, male and female- snuck aboard a decrepit but seaworthy tugboat in Havana harbor and set off for the U.S. and freedom. A few miles into the turbulent sea 30 year-old Maria Garcia felt someone tugging her sleeve. She looked down and it was her ten year-old son, Juan. "Mami look!" and he pointed behind them towards shore. "What's those lights?"
"Looks like a boat following us, son." She stuttered while stroking his hair."Calm down, mi hijo. Try to sleep. When you wake up we'll be with our cousins in a free country. Don't worry." In fact, Maria suspected the lights belonged to Castro patrol boats coming out to intercept them.
In seconds the patrol boats were alongside the tug and - WHACK!!-with it's steel prow the closest patrol boat rammed the back of the tug. People were knocked around the deck like bowling pins. But it looked like an accident, right? Rough seas and all. Could happen to anyone, right?
"Hey WATCH IT!" a man yelled as he rubbed the lump on his forehead. "We have women and children aboard!" Women held up their squalling children to get the point across. If they'd only known.
This gave the gallant Castroites nice targets for their water cannon. WHOOSH! The water-cannon was zeroed and the trigger yanked. The water-blast shot into the tug, swept the deck and mowed the escapes down, slamming some against bulkheads, blowing others off the deck into the five foot waves.
"MI HIJO!- MI HIJO!" (My son!) Maria screamed as the water-jet slammed into her, ripping half the clothes off her body and ripping Juan's arm from her grasp. "JUANITO! JUANITO!" She fumbled frantically around her, still blinded by the water-blast. Juan had gone spinning across the deck and now clung desperately to the tug's railing ten feet behind Maria as huge waves lapped his legs.
WHACK! Another of the steel patrol boats turned sharply and rammed the tug from the other side. Then- CRACK! another from the front! WHACK! The one from behind slammed them again. The tug was surrounded. It was obvious now: the ramming was NO accident. And in Cuba you don't do something like this without strict orders from WAY above.
"We have women and children aboard!" The men yelled. "We'll turn around!-OKAY!!"
WHACK! the Castroites answered the plea by ramming them again. And this time the blow from the steel prow was followed by a sharp snapping sound from the wooden tug. In seconds the tug started coming apart and sinking. Muffled yells and cries came from below. Turns out, the women and children who scrambled into the hold for safety after the first whack had in fact scrambled into a watery tomb.
With the boat coming apart and the water rushing in around them, some got death grips on their children and managed to scramble or swim out. But not all. The roar from the water-cannons, and the racket from the boat engines din muffled most of the screams, but all around people were screaming, coughing, gagging and sinking. Fortunately, a Greek freighter bound for Havana had happened upon the scene of slaughter and sped in to the rescue. NOW one of the Castro boats threw out some life-preservers on ropes and started hauling people in, pretending they'd been doing it all along.
Maria Garcia lost her son, Juanito, her husband, brother, sister, two uncles and three cousins in the maritime massacre. In all, 43 people drowned, 11 of them children. Carlos Anaya was three when he drowned, Yisel Alvarez four. Helen Martinez was six months old.
"I Hate The Sea," is the title of a gut-gripping underground essay by Cuban dissident Rafael Contreras. It's about some young men Rafael met on the beach near Havana. They stared out to sea, cursed it and spit into it. "It incarcerates us," they fumed, "worse than jail bars."
Yet mankind has always been drawn to the sea, it soothes, attracts, infatuates. The most expensive real estate faces the sea. "Water is everywhere a protection" writes Anthropologist Lionel Tiger trying to explain the lure, "like a moat. As a species we love it."
Yet Cubans now hate it. Che was right. The Cuban Revolution indeed created a "New Man." But one more psychologically perverse than even Che's fevered brain could conjure. In Cuba, Castro and Che's totalitarian dream gave rise to a psychic cripple beyond the imagination of even Orwell or Huxley: the first specimens in the history of the species to actually hate the sea, the first to regard it not as protection but as the quivalent of jail bars andr barbed wire. .
So what's the alternative if you can't flee Cuba? Well, in 1986 Cuba's suicide rate reached 24 per thousand - making it double Latin America's average and triple Cuba's pre-Castro rate; making Cuban women the most suicidal in the world; and making death by suicide the primary cause of death for Cubans aged 15-48. At that point the Cuban government ceased publishing the statistics on the self-slaughter. The figures became state secrets. The implications horrified even the Castroites.
Yet all we hear about Cuba is about the horrors at Gitmo, where the criminals and terrorists are behind bars. On the rest of the island these run the country.