CubaBrief: Remembering Canimar Massacre OTD, 11J protests in Madrid and DC. New prisoners of conscience. Members of Congress to host discussion with Cuban pro-democracy activists. A correction.

On this day in 1980, agents of the Cuban government attacked and sank the riverboat “XX Aniversario” on the Canimar river killing over 45 Cubans to prevent the vessel being taken to freedom. Remember them.

Next week will mark the two year anniversary of the nationwide 11J protests in Cuba.  Two years will have passed and today there are over a thousand political prisoners in Cuba, and most of them were jailed during those nonviolent protests.

The Madrid based human rights organization, Prisoners Defenders, places the total number of identified political prisoners in Cuba today at 1,033. Justicia 11J that has carefully tracked those arrested during the 11J protests in July 2021 identified 1,852 of those detained in the demonstrations.  910 of them have been tried and/or sanctioned, and 776 of these protesters remain in prison.

This anniversary will mark the death of two identified non-violent protesters killed by government agents on July 12, 2021.  

Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, a 36-year-old singer, was shot in the back by the police joining the 11J protests in a Havana suburb on July 12, 2021.

Christian Barrera Díaz went missing in Cuba on July 12, 2021 while engaged in nonviolent protest. Police told the family he was in custody, then said he drowned, and was buried in a mass grave. His family is convinced police beat him to death.

 There are others, but the regime has terrorized their families into silence.

Last month Amnesty International observed the one year anniversary of the show trials against Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez demanding their immediate release.

Prisoners of conscience:Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez

There are also new prisoners of conscience in Cuba. On June 21, 2023 Amnesty International recognized Black Cuban activists, and leaders of the Yoruba religion, Loreto Hernández García and Donaida Pérez Paseiro prisoners of conscience, and launched an urgent action campaign for their immediate release.

Prisoners of conscience: Donaida Pérez Paseiro and Loreto Hernández García

Events will be held around the world to mark this anniversary, and reflect on Cuba’s pro-democracy movement.

On Monday, July 10th at 10:30am Members of Congress will host a roundtable discussion in Hialeah with pro-democracy Cuban activists that will be live-streamed on YouTube.

On Tuesday, July 11th at 11am in Madrid, Spain Cuba Dice No (Cuba Says No) will gather together with other activists in front of the Congress of Deputies (Plaza de las Cortes next to the statue of Miguel de Cervantes)  to call on Spanish legislators to side with Cuba’s democratic forces and not the dictatorship.

On Tuesday, July 11th at 7:00pm a vigil will be held at the Cuban Embassy on the two year anniversary of the 11J protests in Cuba. It is co-organized by the Center for a Free Cuba, Cuba Decide, Instituto Patmos, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.

Correction: On June 14, 2023 The Washington Times published an OpEd by John Suarez and Jianli Yang that gave an overview of Chinese-Cuban relations from 1959 to the present. Revealed how, despite Cuba having normal diplomatic and trade relations with the United States, the Castro regime diplomatically recognized Communist China, and a month later Che Guevara was meeting with Chairman Mao, and analyzing conditions for a communist takeover of Latin America. Relations cooled in the 1960s during the Sino-Soviet split, and warmed again in 1989 after Fidel Castro’s full throated support for Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre. In the original OpEd, based on publicly available material we said that Chinese had been spying on the United States from Cuba, and smuggling weapons to Cuba beginning in 1999. Turns out that we were off by seven years. Yesterday, the Miami Herald‘s Nora Gámez Torres quoted Chris Simmons, a former chief of a counterintelligence research branch on the Western Hemisphere in the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency,  that “the Chinese arrived in 1992,” and that “they were embedded in a single building within Bejucal, and they were 50 officers in this facility.”

Miami Herald, July 6, 2023

Congress members will host roundtable with pro-democracy Cuban activists in Miami 

By Henry Jost Updated July 06, 2023

Washington, D.C. Two years after island-wide pro-democracy street protests erupted in Cuba, members of Florida’s congressional delegation will host a roundtable discussion on human rights and hear from leading Cuban activists Rose Maria Payá and Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat. 

The roundtable will be held Monday morning in Hialeah Gardens at the Assault Brigade 2506 Museum and will include Republican Reps. Brian Mast, Mario Diaz-Balart and Maria Elvira Salazar, chair of the House western hemisphere subcommittee. Democrats scheduled to attend include Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Jared Moskowitz.

[ Full article ]

Miami Herald, 05 July 23 

“China Has Had A Spy Base In Cuba For Decades, Former Intelligence Officer Says” 

By: Nora Gámez Torres 

China’s espionage efforts in Cuba targeting the United States are not recent and date back at least three decades, a retired army counterintelligence agent has told the Miami Herald. 

It took U.S. intelligence agencies nine years to figure out who was behind the repair and enhancements spotted during the 1990s at a “signals intelligence facility” — a reference to the interception of electronic communications — in the town of Bejucal, a 45-minute drive from Havana. 

“We saw the enhancements over a decade, a steady evolution; clearly something was going on, but we didn’t know what,” said Chris Simmons, a former chief of a counterintelligence research branch on the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which had Cuba as its number one target. “And then, in 2001, we discovered that the Chinese had been there already for nine years. We were told at that time that when the Chinese arrived in 1992, they were embedded in a single building within Bejucal, and they were 50 officers in this facility.” 

The revelations of the long-term foothold of Chinese spy agencies in Cuba come after new intelligence reported by the Wall Street Journal suggested Cuban and Chinese officials were discussing building a spy base and a military training facility on the island and paying billions of dollars to Cuba in exchange. White House and Pentagon officials first said the initial report had “inaccuracies” without further elaboration. But later, Biden administration officials confirmed that China had intelligence-collection facilities in Cuba since at least 2019, when they were upgraded.

[ Full article ]

Amnesty International, June 23, 2023

Cuba: Authorities must release prisoners of conscience wrongly convicted a year ago

© Anamely Ramos

The Cuban authorities must release artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez immediately and unconditionally, Amnesty International said today, one year since they were unjustly sentenced to five and nine years in prison, respectively, in a legal process that did not respect the guarantees of fair trial.

“The continued arbitrary detention of Luis Manuel and Maykel is part of a pattern of repression based on imprisoning at all cost those who disagree with the authorities. These detentions are intended to have a chilling effect on activism and to silence freedom of expression in Cuba,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“These convictions are a sign of the cruelty that President Díaz-Canel’s government is willing to inflict on anyone who criticizes the Cuban authorities. The authorities must stop using the criminal justice system to repress the population and take the necessary measures to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the Attorney General’s Office.”

Maykel Castillo Pérez, known as “Osorbo”, is a musician and human rights activist. He is co-writer of the song “Patria y vida”, which criticizes the Cuban government and has been adopted as a protest anthem. He was detained at his home on 18 May 2021 by security officials and has been in prison ever since.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a member of the artistic collective Movimiento San Isidro, which has opposed a law that censors artists. He was arrested on 11 July 2021 in Havana after announcing in a video that he would join the protests that same day, along with thousands of others who demonstrated peacefully and spontaneously in dozens of cities to demand a change in living conditions in Cuba.

During the protests, thousands of people criticized the shortage of food and medicine, the inadequate electricity system and the restrictive measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Authorities responded with a wave of widespread repression across the country. During the protests and in the following weeks, hundreds of people were arbitrarily and violently detained; many of them were charged and prosecuted for various crimes. According to the organization Justice 11J, as of 7 June 2023, 773 people detained during the 2021 protests were still deprived of their liberty.

In 2021, Amnesty International documented the details and context of the detention of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez and named both artists prisoners of conscience, as they have been deprived of their liberty solely for peacefully exercising their human rights.

Both artists were charged with the crimes of “contempt” and “public disorder”, crimes that the Cuban government commonly uses to criminalize activists and political opponents. The definitions of these crimes in the Criminal Code are ambiguous and they are used arbitrarily to justify imprisoning people for acts that should not be considered crimes, such as criticizing or insulting an authority. The new Cuban Penal Code, which came into force in December 2022, not only kept these provisions in force, but increased the minimum penalties applicable for these crimes. 

In addition, Luis Manuel was accused of “insulting national symbols” and Maykel of “defaming institutions, organizations, heroes and martyrs”. Both are crimes that unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in international human rights law.

Amnesty International has also criticized the Cuban courts’ lack of genuine independence, particularly in politically motivated cases where they display undeniable deference to the Attorney General’s Office and where convictions of political dissidents are virtually guaranteed.

Judicial authorities systematically conduct these trials in closed sessions, without public access. A family member of the accused may attend, but no human rights defenders, journalists or diplomatic representatives are admitted. Amnesty International has repeatedly requested access to various trials of activists or political dissidents, without receiving a response from the authorities.

Among the actions of Luis Manuel and Maykel that the court considered criminal are the posting of texts and images of political protest on social media, such as a meme referring to the authorities, photographs on the beach with the Cuban flag, participating in demonstrations and singing a protest song in the street.

In this and other cases documented by Amnesty International, the courts take into consideration inconsequential aspects of the life of the accused that should have no relevance in criminal matters. For example, the court has used as evidence their jobs or trades, relationships with other people and their participation in guild associations linked to the government. In the case of these two prisoners of conscience, the court noted that Luis Manuel Otero “met with antisocial elements with low moral standards” and that Maykel Castillo “met with antisocial elements”.

Amnesty International considers that the criminal proceedings and the sentences in which they culminated were a farce, devoid of any respect for the minimum guarantees of a fair trial. The sentences must be quashed and those affected immediately and unconditionally released. The government must also ensure that neither they, nor their families or associates, suffer repression for asking for justice in these cases.

Amnesty International Urgent Action, June 21, 2023

Cuba: Release Yoruba Prisoners of Conscience

June 21, 2023 Index Number: AMR 25/6902/2023

Cuba Freedom of Association

Hundreds of Cubans remain imprisoned for participating in island-wide protests on 11 July 2021. The Cuban judiciary, which is not independent of the government, routinely rubber stamps politically motivated accusations without regard for fair trial guarantees. Among those unjustly convicted are Black activists, and leaders of the Yoruba religion, Loreto Hernández García and Donaida Pérez Paseiro, who are prisoners of conscience detained only because of their political beliefs, and who should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Mr. Miguel Díaz-Canel
President of Cuba

Dear President of Díaz-Canel,
I write to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Loreto Hernández García and Donaida Pérez Paseiro, both Black activists, and leaders of the Yoruba religion in Cuba, an African diaspora religion
practised in Cuba.

According to a court document that Amnesty International reviewed, Loreto Hernández García and Donaida Pérez Paseiro were sentenced to 7 and 8 years in prison, respectively following their peaceful participation
in demonstrations on 11 July 2021. They were wrongly convicted of “contempt” and “public disorder”, and in the case of Donaida, “assaulting” a state official.

The activists and religious leaders were imprisoned following an unfair trial, lacking in evidence, and sentenced in a judgement which repeatedly refers to the protester’s political opposition to the government,
which should have no bearing in a criminal case. The charges against them should never have been brought.

Loreto’s health is fragile, and the authorities must take all necessary measures to provide him with adequate independent medical care.

I call on the Cuban authorities to release Loreto Hernandez Garcia and Donaida Pérez Paseiro immediately and unconditionally and to take all necessary measures to guarantee them redress for the violation of their
human rights, including the discrimination they have suffered.


Cubans of all ages and walks of life have been charged, put on trial, or given harsh sentences for peacefully participating in protests in July 2021 in largely unfair and opaque proceedings mostly held behind closed doors. Among those imprisoned are spouses Donaida Pérez Paseiro, Black activist, priest, and President of the Free Yoruba Association of Cuba (“Yorubas Libres de Cuba”) and Loreto Hernández García, Black activist, priest, and Vice-President of the Free Yoruba Association of Cuba. The Yoruba religion is an African diaspora religion. They are imprisoned in Guamajal prison in Villa Clara province, central Cuba.

On 15 July 2021, police officers arrested Loreto Hernández García. His family maintains that authorities have placed him several times in solitary confinement, sometimes lasting 15 days, sometimes more. In February 2022, the Popular Municipal Court of Santa Clara (“Tribunal Municipal Popular de Santa Clara”) sentenced him to seven years in prison for “public disorder” and “contempt.” Donaida Pérez Paseiro was detained just a day after Loreto Hernández García. In February 2022, the Popular Municipal Court of Santa Clara sentenced her to eight years in prison for “public disorder”, “contempt”, and “assault” (“atentado”) against an official.

Based on the information available to Amnesty International, they should never have been charged with these offences. The organization notes that “contempt” and “public disorder” are charges frequently used in Cuba to limit the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The government also use other charges such as “assault” or “damages” (“daños”) when trying to unlawfully crack-down dissent. Furthermore, in connection with the charge of assault, the organization found that was no concrete and individualized allegations against Donaida. There was a striking lack of evidence against her.

Both Black activists were tried along with 14 other protesters in an unfair trial. The judgement repeatedly refers to the protester’s political opposition to the government – something which should have no bearing in a criminal case – in a discriminatory and stigmatizing manner. Likewise, the judgment makes it clear that the defendants’ alleged role as leaders of the anti-government protests has been considered an element of criminal responsibility. The judges appear to have relied almost exclusively on witness statements from law enforcement officials, a common occurrence in Cuba. At the same time, the judgment dismisses all the statements by the defendants’ and by the witnesses proposed by the defence, vaguely arguing that they contradicted what the police declared. 

Additionally, in Cuba, defence lawyers must belong to an official organization which, according to many sources, is closely controlled by the State. Therefore, they can only act somewhat independently when representing their clients.

Independent human rights monitors and independent media were prevented from monitoring any of the trials of the 11 July protesters. Cuban authorities have never responded to Amnesty International’s requests to monitor the trials.

According to Loreto’s family, Loreto suffers various health problems, including diabetes and hypertension, which are not being treated in prison. In May, Loreto was hospitalized without a precise diagnosis, according to reports from his family published in the media. According to his family, Loreto is in a delicate state of health due to complications from diabetes. Currently, he is in the prisoners’ wing of the Celestino Hernández Robau Provincial Hospital, known as Hospital Viejo, in Santa Clara, Cuba. The organization is concerned about allegations that he is not receiving adequate treatment.

Amnesty International considers Donaida Pérez Paseiro and Loreto Hernandez Garcia prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release. Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience determination is based on the information available to Amnesty International regarding the circumstances leading to the person’s detention. In naming a person as a Prisoner of Conscience, Amnesty International is affirming that this person must be immediately and unconditionally released but is not endorsing past or present views or conduct by them.

NAME AND PREFERRED PRONOUN: Donaida Pérez Paseiro (she), Loreto Hernández García (he)

The Washington Times, June 14, 2023

China’s decades-long military presence in Cuba goes beyond espionage

By John Suarez and Jianli Yang – – Wednesday, June 14, 2023


President Biden has made it clear that he seeks competition, not conflict, with China, but President Xi Jinping has other plans. China seeks to replace the U.S. as the world’s superpower, create a new international world order in its totalitarian image, and Communist Cuba has been an ally in that effort.

The failure of the U.S. to side consistently with pro-democracy movements in both countries led to lost opportunities and instead empowered two regimes hostile to America while the current administration is repeating the same errors.

There has been a substantial Chinese military presence in Cuba for the past 24 years, and this relationship is not limited to espionage.

The Biden administration’s initial response to an article in The Wall Street Journal that “China was preparing to build a spy station in Cuba” was one of denial, but the existence of Chinese bases spying on the United States forced the White House to walk that back.

Manuel Cereijo, a professor of electronic engineering at Florida International University, reported in a 1999 study: “Chinese personnel have allegedly been working out of the Bejucal listening post since March 1999. In 1995, [Russia] began helping Cuba build the base south of Havana. It is allegedly capable of both eavesdropping and ‘cyber-warfare.’ Chinese workers are reportedly helping Cuba modernize a satellite-tracking center.”

In 2002, in El Nuevo Herald, Mr. Cereijo reported that “Chinese personnel, in collaboration with Cubans on Project Titan, have also built two antenna bases, one in Wajay, Havana, and the other in Santiago de Cuba, known as the antenna farm.”

Although the communist regimes in China and Cuba were established 10 years apart (Mao Zedong in 1949 and the Castro brothers in 1959), the dictatorships have much in common: They see the U.S. as an enemy, and they also see democracy and human rights as hostile to their interests, and anti-Americanism remains a core tenet of their ideology.

On Sept. 28, 1960, the Cuban regime diplomatically recognized China. This was at a time when Havana maintained normal diplomatic relations with the United States and had not declared its communist nature, and no sanctions had been imposed. 

In November 1960, Ernesto “Che” Guevara led a Cuban delegation to China, where he met with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other high-ranking Chinese officials to discuss conditions in Cuba and Latin America, as well as the prospects for spreading communism across the Western Hemisphere. Between 1960 and 1964, Beijing and Havana worked closely together. When the Castro regime sided with the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet split in 1964, these connections cooled.

Under Castroism, Havana’s ties with foreign countries were frequently defined by their antipathy toward and threat to the United States. From 1959 through 1991, the Soviet Union was regarded as an existential danger to the United States, and Havana maintained close ties with Moscow. Relations with Havana cooled as Mikhail Gorbachev began to push human rights and market reforms in the Soviet Union in 1985.

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro openly supported Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and his government was one of the few in the world to do so. This backing resulted in Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s high-level visit to Cuba in 1993, followed by Raul Castro’s first visit to China in 1997. These travels were publicly utilized to sign new trade and investment deals, but they were also used to push more strategic and ideological objectives.

After negotiations between Raul Castro and Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian, as well as Gen. Dong Liang Ju, an agreement was reached between Beijing and Havana in 1999 under which Chinese military personnel would use the Bejucal base and others alongside Cuban military personnel to spy on the U.S.

The Washington Times reported on June 12, 2001, that “at least three arms shipments were traced from China to the Cuban port of Mariel over the past several months.” U.S. intelligence authorities were sourced saying, “all of the weapons were aboard vessels owned by the state-run China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco).” Military-grade dual-use explosives and detonation cords were among the goods. 

According to the story, the latest of these three shipments arrived in December 2000, coinciding with a visit to Cuba that month of Beijing’s military chief of staff, Fu Quanyou. The Chinese general “signed a military cooperation agreement with Havana aimed at modernizing Cuba’s outdated Russian weapons,” The Times said.

Colombia intercepted a Chinese ship smuggling weapons intended for Cuba in 2015.

Official visits continued with Fidel Castro’s trip to China in 2003 and Raul Castro’s in 2012, while Mr. Xi made his first visit to Cuba in 2014. These high-level visits have continued to this day and do not bode well for U.S. interests.

Despite this, the Biden administration has maintained that Washington is “determined to avoid” a cold war with Beijing. The incident involving China’s spy station in Cuba is only the latest evidence that Cold War 2.0 has already begun.

The administration should stop denying it. Instead, it should accept that Beijing and Washington’s relationship is what it is and ensure that the U.S. wins the new Cold War.

• John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba and a human rights activist. Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of “It’s Time for a Values-Based ‘Economic NATO.’”

Excerpt from  Cuba: Between the devil and the deep blue sea by Tim Bower, January 1, 1994

CANIMAR RIVER (July, 1980)

By Tim Bower


On July 6, 1980, the riverboat “XX Aniversario” set off from the Canimar Abajo tourist center located on the margins of the Canimar river in the province of Matanzas with over 60 passengers holding tickets for what they believed would be a tranquil scenic cruise along the river. Among those sixty were three young men secretly hoping to have purchased what would be their tickets to freedom. Little could those young men or their fellow passengers foresee, however, that by day’s end fewer than twenty of them would be left alive, witnesses to a massacre of innocent Cuban women and children without parallel in the history of the island, or the whole continent, for that matter.


The Mariel exodus of the spring of 1980 had seen nearly 125,000 Cubans flee the island. But for youth such as Sergio and Silvio Aguila Yanes, Roberto Calveiro Leon, and Humberto Martinez Echazabal _19, 18, 16 and 19 years old respectively_ obtaining a visa or the government’s exit permit was nearly impossible. Since all youths in Cuba are required to serve three years in the military, they were only four among thousands of adolescents prevented from leaving Cuba with their families during the Mariel boatlift.

Sergio Aguila Yanes, at 19, already a sergeant in the Cuban military, could no longer support a system that allowed him no individual freedom. He subsequently decided to leave the island. He soon recruited his younger brother Silvio and his friends Roberto and Humberto, and together they planned their escape. It was Sergio who first suggested that the four takeover one of the tourist boats cruising the Canimar River.

After observing the boat’s schedules, travel patterns, and security, the boys agreed that this would be a relatively safe means to realizing their dreams of freedom. The boys determined that in order to seize complete control of the boat they would somehow have to disarm the boat’s onboard guard. Though Sergio obtained firearms from the weapons room of his military unit, he, however, counseled the other boys that he did not anticipate a confrontation in which guns would actually be fired.

Sergio’s plan was that once the group had taken control of the boat they would be well on their way to the United States before any government officials became aware of their escape. Sergio further assured the other boys that even if their plot was uncovered, no exchange of gunfire would occur because the lives of the innocent passengers would be jeopardized.

After arriving by bus in Playa, Matanzas, the four boys walked towards the boat docks with their weapons concealed in a handbag. On the way to the port, Humberto left to purchase cigarettes and never returned. When the three remaining boys arrived at the dock, they found that the boat had run aground earlier while attempting to dock and was still not ready to depart. To add to the teenagers’ growing anxiety, several government officials passed by to investigate the scene. Finally, nearly three hours later, the “XX Aniversario” set sail on the Canimar River.


Once the boat was on its route a good distance away from the docks, the boys decided to take action. They drew their guns and attempted to take the boat’s guards by surprise. They failed, and when one of the guards drew his gun, Sergio fired first, wounding him. That being the only incident of violence, the boat was soon under the boy’s control, who ordered its captain to reset course into the Florida Straits and towards the United States. The boys soon became worried over the health of the injured guard and, although time was precious, decided to transfer him to a small fishing boat they spotted just off course. At that time, an ex-government official on board announced himself and begged to be released in return for his promise to explain to the Cuban government that the boys only wanted to travel to the United States and had not intended to harm anyone. The boys agreed and let him go to help the fishermen with the wounded guard.

The “XX Aniversario” was finally on its way towards freedom. At this point, according to Manuel Calveiro, Roberto’s father, the majority of the passengers had become ecstatic upon learning that they were headed for America. Roberto told his father that one passenger thanked him saying: “How wonderful … I have an aunt that lives in the United States.” By this time, everyone aboard was feeling relieved, even the three boys. When one of the passengers asked Roberto for a cigarette, Roberto responded: “Take one… take as many as you want.” Unfortunately, neither the passengers nor the boys could know that Cuban government officials had already been notified of the sound of gunshots coming from a tourist boat on the Canimar River.


The report of gunshots did not take long to reach Julian Rizo Alvarez, the First Secretary of the Party in the Matanzas Province, who immediately converted a local restaurant into a command post with direct telephone links to his Party Headquarters and to Fidel Castro, who gave him the explicit order that the boat could not be allowed to escape from Cuba. Castro remarked to Rizo Alvarez that “what will happen, will happen.”

Rizo promptly dispatched several torpedo boats to apprehend the “XX Aniversario.” The smaller, quicker government boats approached the riverboat and insisted that it stop and return to Cuba. The boys chose not to obey the government’s demands and pushed on northward. After being notified by field radio that the torpedo boats would not be able to stop the larger “XX Aniversario,” Rizo had to make a decision. When asked by another Cuban official whether he was going to allow the vessel to cross into international waters, Rizo responded: “The orders were not to let the boat leave Cuba, even should that mean sinking the boat.”

As though they knew what was about to happen, some of the passengers held their children up in the air begging the government boats not to start shooting. Nonetheless, Rizo gave the order to start shooting and the massacre of the men, women, and children aboard the riverboat “XX Aniversario” began.


Despite already having two fully armed gunboats attacking the “XX Aniversario” and its passengers, the ruthless Rizo dispatched another more heavily armed patrol boat as well as a plane which began circling above. The plane’s pilots began to attack just before the riverboat left Cuban waters. After the plane had made two lethal passes, the riverboat was miraculously still afloat, though only capable of running in circles. By that time, nearly half of its sixty passengers were already either dead or wounded.

Realizing the international repercussions that would occur should the “XX Aniversario” escape, Rizo commandeered the huge boat “23 de Mayo” and ordered it to intercept and sink the much smaller riverboat. The crew members of the “23 de Mayo” _one with the last name Bonelli, a second who was missing one ear, and an unidentified third_ carried out their orders to sink the riverboat by ramming it down the middle. Fearing for their safety, Sergio had taken all the women and children down into the riverboat’s hold to hide them from the spray of bullets. Although the first blow did not extensively damage the riverboat, the women and children, now trapped below, began screaming hysterically.

Seconds later, the “23 de Mayo” rammed the riverboat for the second time, nearly splitting it in two. As the “XX Aniversario” filled with water, Sergio said to Roberto, his sixteen-year-old friend, “Forgive me Papito” (Roberto’s nickname) and went into the cabin. Amidst the frantic screams of the women and children drowning in the hold, Sergio withdrew his pistol and cried to Roberto: “The communists will never capture me alive.” He then put the gun to his temple and killed himself.

Fidel Castro’s orders had been carried out. The “XX Aniversario” would not escape to freedom. Roberto Calveiro still remembers the water turned red around the floating, bullet-ridden bodies of men, women and children. He also witnessed the drowning of those who survived the initial slaughter but who could not withstand the rough waves of the sea and went under, never to resurface. Calveiro himself jumped into the water and began to swim, but when the patrolmen saw him they began shooting. Later, as he was picked out of the sea by his hair and beaten in the patrol boat, the coastguardsman who shot at him confessed: “Kid, I don’t know how you survived because I let bullets fly all over you.”

When they finally arrived on shore, the guards told Roberto to start running. Roberto refused, knowing full well he would be shot. Though his life was spared, there would be many other harrowing experiences waiting for the 16-year-old Roberto throughout his next twelve years, all of them spent in a Cuban prison.


The Castro regime recovered only 11 of the bodies of the nearly four dozen innocent men, women and children massacred that day. The government provided no explanation to the families of the missing, other than that they had died at sea during the “hijacking” of a boat. The government did not allow any communal funerals. Before the ten survivors were allowed to return to their homes, they were ordered not to talk to anyone about the incident and to never gather together in groups in which more than two of them were present. For the next couple of years government agents were stationed to monitor their activities, while they attempted to bribe the victims’ relatives as well as the survivors into silence by giving them televisions, refrigerators, and other appliances usually reserved for high government officials.


The massacre of at least 45 innocent people was dismissed by the Castro regime as a “thwarted illegal exit from the country” in the communist party paper Granma. No government statements mentioned the ages of the boys accused of being C.I.A. agents who had infiltrated the Cuban military. The government’s version was that the “23 de Mayo” had accidentally destroyed the “XX Aniversario” when waves forced the two vessels to collide. This version would be repeated fourteen years later after the sinking of the tugboat “13 de Marzo”, in which 42 innocent people died. The prosecution, which petitioned the court to impose the death penalty on the two surviving teenagers, presented a case based entirely on fabricated evidence and lies. The government accused the boys of shooting the passengers as well as the coast guard boats. No motive was ever presented by the government explaining why the boys, whose only intention was to escape to the United States, would have turned against their fellow passenger _at least half of whom had supported the action.

The two boys, convicted of mass murder, were not given death sentences because of their age, but were instead sentenced to thirty-years imprisonment. The order to sink the “XX Aniversario”, the shooting of defenseless women and children, the preposterous trial that followed symbolizes the savagery of the Castro dictatorship and its lack of regard for human lives or the subtleties of due process of law. Approximately forty-five men, women and children were butchered and two young boys sent to prison with violent criminals for thirty years with no explanations given, or responsibilities cleared. The cruelest lies told in silence.


Tim Bower

This publication has been made possible by the dedication and collaborative efforts of the men and women of the Cuban American National Foundation.–THE AUTHOR