CubaBrief: Vigil for Truth and Justice for July’s martyrs

The Center for a Free Cuba reached out to key activists and organized a silent vigil at the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC on July 13 at noon. There were a number of reasons to hold this event today: 1) Dictatorship has engaged in a campaign of denial around the July 13, 1994 attack and sinking of the “13 de Marzo tugboat that killed 37 Cubans; 2) July 13, 2017 is the day Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo died, and the Castro regime has backed Chinese repression for years, and recently led the charge at the UN Human Rights Council to back the end of a free Hong Kong. 3) The Castro regime has also denied its responsibility in the July 22, 2012 killings of  Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante. and 4) The plight of political prisoners needs to be highlighted and the case of Ernesto Borges Pérez who has been in a Cuban prison for 22 years is a case in point.

Twenty six years ago, in the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, 37 men, women, and children were killed by government agents seven miles off the Cuban coast, as they sought to travel to freedom on board the “13 de Marzo” tugboat. Eleven of these Cubans were children, ranging in age from Helen Martínez Enríquez — just five months old — to Mayulis Méndez Tacaronte, aged 17.

The Cuban dictatorship continues to do all it can to rewrite this history and deny this crime, but the survivors, and the families of the victims continue to speak truth to power. Sadly, the years have only further burdened the month of July with crimes and martyrs of the dictatorship.

Eight years ago on July 22, 2012 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante were killed for dedicating their lives to a nonviolent transition to democracy and freedom in Cuba. They had spoken up for those who can no longer speak.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, in El Nuevo Herald, on March 18, 2005 observed about the “13 de marzo” tugboat massacre that “in Cuba there are missing and it is known who has disappeared them, the latter are heroes for the government….There are more than 20 murdered children waiting to be claimed and mothers and grandmothers who were not allowed to look for them when they were killed off the coast of Havana.” 

July 13th also marks three years since Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo died of “multiple organ failure” while still under the custody of the Chinese communists on July 13, 2017. Friends and family had expressed concern that he was not receiving proper medical care.

The failure of the West to back Chinese democrats in 1989 in order to pursue commercial interests with their communist oppressors led to the modernization and empowerment of Communist China into an economic and militarsuper power that has reshaped the international global order.  This is a big part of the reason why human rights have been in decline around the world over the past 14 years.

On July 1, 2020 the Cuban dictatorship introduced a  resolution at the UN Human Rights Council praising China for the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law.  Fifty three governments backed this resolution endorsing the death of a free Hong Kong.

The Chinese Communist Party in a secretive legislative process circumvented Hong Kong’s sovereignty and imposed this new law a day earlier on June 30, 2020, the 23rd anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong. This action is a breach of the agreement made with the British. 

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Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong in a BBC news report explained that “effectively, they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system.” Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, in an interview with the BBC put it more succinctly, “It spells the death knell for Hong Kong.”

The Castro regime works to snuff out freedom around the world in coalitions with the most repressive dictatorships on the planet.

Today, nine Cubans and Cuban Americans gathered outside of the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC in a 13 minute moment of silence for truth and justice for these martyrs. Eleven  years ago on July 13, 2009 Oswaldo challenged Cubans not to be paralyzed by fear but to seek the truth with the hope that all Cubans can live in freedom. He understood that this was the path to peace and freedom, and we who gathered today in peaceful protest share this belief.

Below is an article published in the PANAM POST in 2009 along with its Spanish translation that was published in its Spanish language blog, El Canal.

From the Archives

Panam Post, July 15, 2014

We Will Not Forget Cuba’s 13 de Marzo Massacre

By John Suarez

In the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, 37 men, women, and children were killed by government agents seven miles off the Cuban coast, as they sought to travel to freedom on board the “13 de Marzo” tugboat. Eleven of these Cubans were children, ranging in age from Helen Martínez Enríquez — just five months old — to Mayulis Méndez Tacaronte, aged 17.

International human rights bodies and organizations investigated the incident. The UN Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur on Cuba made the following observation on October 24, 1995, in his report on the human rights situation in Cuba to the UN General Assembly:

Although the Government maintains that the authorities bore no responsibility for what was considered to have been an accident, the Special Rapporteur received testimony from some of the survivors indicating that Government launches from the port of Havana tried to stop the 13 de Marzo with pressurized water jets and then deliberately rammed it, causing it to sink. Non-governmental sources informed the Special Rapporteur that the number of persons who died was not 32, as the Government had stated, but at least 37 and that the families have for a year now been asking for an investigation to be initiated.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a report released on October 16, 1996, concluded that what transpired that early morning “was not an accident but rather a premeditated, intentional act” by agents of the Cuban government. The report held the Cuban State responsible for violating the right to life of all the people who were shipwrecked and perished as a result of the sinking of the tug “13 de Marzo.”

Twenty years later, the men responsible for the mass murder remain at large and protected by the Cuban state. The survivors and family members, on the other hand, have faced persecution, harassment, death threats, and arbitrary detentions for speaking out.

In 2009, one of these family members, Jorge Garcia, agreed to address Florida International University students at a panel organized by the Free Cuba Foundation on the 15th anniversary of the tugboat massacre. Prior to the event, we met, and he sat down and explained on camera what transpired before, during, and after the events of July 13, 1994.

Jorge Garcia is a man who has suffered a loss few can imagine.

In a January 1998 Nightline interview Jorge described how he learned the news. “When I asked my daughter, ‘What about Juan Mario?’ ‘Papa, he’s lost.’ ‘And Joel?’ ‘Papa, he’s lost.’ ‘And Ernesto?’ ‘Papa, he’s lost.’ And then we knew that other members of the family were all lost, 14 in all.” His daughter, María Victoria García, had survived but lost her brother and son that day.

Jorge García was detained and interrogated on several occasions. His longest detention was for 15 days. His daughter survived the massacre and continued to speak out: “They tried on several occasions to kill my daughter, because she was the first to speak out and contradict the regime’s official narrative.”

The father and daughter had previously spoken on camera to Nightline from Havana, Cuba, about the July 13, 1994, massacre. A year later, in 1999, they had to go into exile as political refugees fearing for their lives.

Twenty years later the remains of the 37 victims have not been recovered and returned to their families. Nor has the state provided any compensation to the survivors or the families of the dead.

On Saturday, July 12, Jorge Garcia took part in a flotilla organized by the Democracy Movement to approach near to Cuba and the spot where 20 years later serves as a watery grave for fourteen family members including his son and grandson. This is as close as he can get to pay his respects to his loved ones.

On Sunday, July 13 at 3:00pm I took part in a 20 minute moment of silence to protest these 20 years of injustice and pray that a serious investigation finally be conducted, that the remains of the victims be returned to their families, and that the individuals responsible for this atrocity face justice in a fair trial with their rights respected in a court of law.

Blog Del Panam Post,  22 de julio de 2014

No olvidaremos la masacre del 13 de marzo en Cuba

Un gran crimen fue cometido hace 20 años; la justicia todavía debe encargarse

John Suarez

En las primeras horas de la mañana del 13 de julio de 1994, 37 hombres, mujeres y niños fueron asesinados por agentes del Estado a siete millas de la costa cubana, mientras trataban de viajar hacia la libertad a bordo del remolcador “13 de Marzo”. Once de estos cubanos eran niños, de edades comprendidas entre la de Helen Martínez Enríquez —de solo cinco meses de edad— y la de Mayulis Méndez Tacaronte, de 17 años.

Los organismos y organizaciones internacionales de derechos humanos investigaron el incidente. El relator especial de la Comisión de Derechos Humanos de la ONU en Cuba hizo la siguiente observación, el 24 de octubre de 1995, en su informe sobre la situación de los derechos humanos en Cuba para la Asamblea General de la ONU:

Si bien el Gobierno sostiene que las autoridades no tenían ninguna responsabilidad en lo que se considera que fue un accidente, el Relator Especial recibió el testimonio de algunos de los sobrevivientes indicando que lanchas del Gobierno desde el puerto de La Habana intentaron interceptar al 13 de Marzo con chorros de agua a presión y luego deliberadamente lo embistieron, provocando su hundimiento. Fuentes no gubernamentales informaron al Relator Especial que el número de personas que murieron no fue de 32, como el Gobierno había declarado, sino por lo menos 37, y que las familias ya llevaban un año solicitando iniciar una investigación.

La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, en un informe publicado el 16 de octubre de 1996, llegó a la conclusión de que lo que ocurrió aquella madrugada “no fue un accidente sino un acto intencional con premeditación” por agentes del gobierno cubano. El informe culpó al Estado cubano como responsable por la violación del derecho a la vida de todas las personas que naufragaron y perecieron como consecuencia del hundimiento del remolcador “13 de Marzo.”

Veinte años después, los hombres responsables de los asesinatos en masa siguen en libertad y son protegidos por el Estado cubano. Los supervivientes y los familiares, por otro lado, se han enfrentado a la persecución, hostigamiento, amenazas de muerte y detenciones arbitrarias por expresarse.

En 2009, uno de los miembros de estas familias, Jorge García, aceptó dirigir unas palabras a estudiantes de la Universidad Internacional de Florida en un panel organizado por la Fundación Cuba Libre en el 15to aniversario de la masacre del remolcador. Antes del evento, nos conocimos, y él se sentó y explicó ante las cámaras lo que ocurrió antes, durante y después de los sucesos del 13 de julio de 1994.

Jorge García es un hombre que ha sufrido una pérdida que pocos pueden imaginarse.

En una entrevista en el programa Nightline en enero de 1998, Jorge describió cómo se enteró de la noticia. “Cuando le pregunté a mi hija, ‘¿Qué pasa con Juan Mario?’ ‘Papa, se ha perdido’. ‘Y Joel?’ ‘Papa, se ha perdido’ ‘Y Ernesto? ‘Papa, se ha perdido’. Y luego supimos que otros miembros de la familia estaban todos perdidos, 14 en total”. Su hija, María Victoria García, había sobrevivido, pero perdió a su hermano y a su hijo ese día.

Jorge García fue detenido e interrogado en varias ocasiones. Su detención más larga fue de 15 días. Su hija sobrevivió a la masacre y siguió hablando: “Ellos trataron en varias ocasiones de matar a mi hija, porque ella fue la primera en hablar y contradecir la narrativa oficial del régimen.”

El padre y la hija habían hablado previamente frente a las cámaras en el programa Nightline de La Habana, Cuba, sobre la masacre del 13 de julio de 1994. Un año más tarde, en 1999, tuvieron que partir al exilio como refugiados políticos al temer por sus vidas.

Veinte años más tarde, los restos de las 37 víctimas no han sido recuperados ni devueltos a sus familias. Tampoco ha sido proporcionada ningún tipo de compensación para los sobrevivientes o los familiares de los muertos.

El sábado 12 de julio, Jorge García formó parte de una flotilla organizada por el Movimiento Democracia para acercarse a Cuba y al lugar que 20 años más tarde sirve como una tumba de agua para 14 miembros de su familia, incluyendo a su hijo y a su nieto. Esto es lo más cerca que puede llegar a rendir homenaje a sus seres queridos.

El domingo 13 de julio a las 3:00pm participé en un momento de 20 minutos de silencio en protesta por estos 20 años de injusticia y para rezar para que una investigación seria finalmente se lleve a cabo, que los restos de las víctimas sean devueltos a sus familias, y que las personas responsables de esta atrocidad se enfrenten ante la justicia en un juicio justo, con respeto de sus derechos en un tribunal de justicia.

Traducido por Rebeca Morla