An agency of the Organization of American States has found the Cuban government responsible for the drowning of 41 people aboard a hijacked tugboat in 1994, and has recommended that Havana compensate survivors and punish the guilty.
``Evidence clearly shows the sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo was not an accident but a premeditated and intentional act,'' said a report by the OAS' Interamerican Commission for Human Rights, obtained by The Herald.
The Washington-based commission has no legal powers and its report ``is lamentably only a moral condemnation,'' said one OAS official. Havana was sent a copy of the report and did not reply, the report notes.
But OAS officials said the report might dampen recent rumors that Cuba could soon be readmitted to the OAS -- its membership was suspended in 1964 -- and will certainly darken Cuba's human rights record.
Cuban exiles loudly denounced the sinking after it occurred on July 13, 1994, but news reports on the deaths were quickly overtaken by the rafter crisis a month later that eventually saw 36,000 people leave Cuban shores.
Seventy-two people seized the old, wood-hulled tugboat in Havana harbor and set out for the United States when the tug was surrounded and hit by four newer and bigger Cuban tugboats. The 13 de Marzo sank seven miles north of the Cuban coast and 41 people drowned, 10 of them children.
But from there the stories differ.
Survivors say the four boats ambushed them as they left Havana Harbor, used their powerful firefighting water cannon to force most of the escapees inside the tug's hold and then rammed it repeatedly until it sank.
Government reports on the sinking made no mention of water hoses and said it was the result of an accidental collision with the other four boats, whose civilian crews were trying to prevent the tug's theft.
The commission clearly believed the survivors' testimony gathered by Milton Castillo, a Peruvian lawyer who is its permanent investigator for Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guyana. The commission interviewed two survivors in Washington and obtained written, tape-recorded and videotaped testimony from several others.
Said the 30-page report:
Cuba's complaints that the tug was stolen ``are irrelevant . . . since the regulations in effect, the political system and the grave human rights situations in that country force people to desperately use various methods to reach their goals -- to flee Cuba.''
And despite Havana's claim that it exonerated the civilian crews only after an exhaustive inquest ruled the sinking was accidental, ``it is clear the Cuban government did not carry out proper investigations, with due seriousness or within judicial guidelines.''
``The result of this is impunity,'' the report said.
The report concluded that Cuba was responsible for ``violating the right to life'' and ``the right to physical integrity'' of the 41 dead, and ``the right to free movement and justice'' of all 72.
It recommended that Cuba carry out a new investigation and punish those responsible, compensate survivors and relatives of the victims, and launch an effort to recover the bodies and the wreck of the tug.
``The powerful strength of this report is that it compares the survivors' accounts to the farce offered up by the Cuban government,'' said Metro-Dade Commissioner Pedro Reboredo.
The OAS commission launched its investigation in 1994 after receiving formal complaints from two Cuban exiles, Sergio Ramos of the Movement Cuba 21 in Puerto Rico and Claudio Benedi of the Cuban Patriotic Junta in Washington.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington sent the commission two documents in March of 1995, a copy of comments on the incident made by President Fidel Castro to Cuban reporters and an Interior Ministry communique on the incident.
But it did not send a representative to the commission's hearings in Washington in September of 1995, and Havana did not reply when a draft copy of the final report was sent there for comment May 3, the report said.
The commission adopted the report as final only last month, and will not make it public until next year, as part of its annual report to the OAS General Assembly.
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald