My Mariel: 35th Anniversary, Part One

And Then There Were 10,000

On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 1, 1980, 31-year old unemployed bus driver Hector Sanyustiz crashed a Route 79 bus through the gates of the Peruvian embassy in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. And that’s how it all began.

Francisco Diaz, who had been driving the bus minutes earlier, crouched along with Radames Gomez, Maria Antonia Martinez, Martinez’s 12 year old son Lazaro, and Sanyustiz’s 18-year old stepson Arturo on the bus’s entry steps and aisle. Diaz, who was on duty as driver that afternoon, had earlier emptied the bus of passengers with the pretext of a mechanical breakdown and then turned the wheel over to Sanyustiz, who had been working on a plan to leave Cuba for several years. 

And on that April 1, a day that in Cuba has no association with silly jokes, he put his plan into action.

As the bus took a hard, last-minute turn and lurched into the Peruvian embassy’s gate, Cuban guards on both sides opened fire with automatic AK-47s. They kept on firing as the bus crashed through the gates, almost in slow motion, and then rolled into the compound. Sanyustiz was hit in the left leg and the right buttock. Radames Gomez was grazed on the head and on his back: either bullet would have been fatal if its trajectory had been a tenth of an inch different. A 27-year old Cuban guard, Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, was caught in his fellow guard’s crossfire and died shortly thereafter.

For me, in the town of Caibarien, 140 miles east of Havana as the seagull flies, that school Tuesday was one like many others. I had woken up at 7:30, got dressed in my mustard pants and white shirt uniform, the red neckerchief of the Communist Pioneers in place, and ran two blocks to Julio Antonio Mella school, on Falero Street and Independencia Avenue, next to the Catholic church. In the school yard, we students formed by grade and class — I was in the eighth grade, and there were three or four eighth grade classes in the school, and roughly the same number of seventh and ninth grade classes. In all, the school had approximately 250 students. As we had done every morning of every school day of every school year of our lives, on that April 1 we again saluted the flag, sang the national anthem, and shouted the Pioneer motto: “Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Che!” 

As I went through this routine for the fifteen hundreth time or so in my life, no one could have failed to notice my athletic shoes, a gift from my aunt in Miami, a gift that marked me as less than a dedicated communist. My mother had not wanted me to wear the shoes to school lest I call undue attention to myself, but she eventually relented — my old pair were falling apart and there were no shoes my size to be found in town, not in the official store, not on the black market.

Everyone who went to school in Cuba was a Pioneer — even suspect kids like me who came from known anti-communist families, went to church against the best wishes of the government, and had relatives in Miami who sent capitalist gifts. No one had a choice. I had somehow even managed to get myself elected “Detachment Chief” (meaning the leader of my class). The principal, a thin, young man in his thirties with an acne-ravaged face, had strongly hinted that I could even be “School Chief” (meaning I would stand with the teachers facing the rest of the students as we went through our morning ritual) were it not for my unfortunate church-going habit.

News of the Peruvian embassy incident had come in over the Miami radio stations almost at once, and by the time I got home after school, my grandparents were talking about it as they listened to WCMQ (the volume turned down, of course). Over the next two days, details began to trickle in through the government-controlled news on television and Granma, the official newspaper: Cuba demanded the gate-crashers be handed over to face trial for the death of the guard. Peru refused to turn them over. The two injured gate crashers had been moved by diplomatic agreement to a Havana hospital, and government mobs gathered outside their rooms shouting “Firing squad! Firing squad!” 

Tensions mounted. On Good Friday, April 4th, news came that Cuba was going to withdraw its guards from the Peruvian embassy, the official word being that no more Cuban soldiers were going to die protecting an uncooperative foreign government.

As word of this development spread around Havana, people began probing their way into the allegedly unguarded Peruvian embassy, over three hundred of them by Saturday morning. By nightfall, thousands were inside. By Easter Sunday, more than 10,000 people had crammed into the compound seeking political asylum. (He has risen … and we shall have eternal life in Miami throug Him).

Word had it that Fidel Castro could not believe so many Cubans were so willing to jump the ship of revolutionary Cuba and had himself driven to the embassy to see for himself. In a few hours, a “temporary” guard was back in place around the embassy to prevent any further inflow (or outflow, depending on your point of view) of Cuban souls.

On Tuesday, April 8, a week after the initial incident, my mother took me and my sister to our Baptist church after a hurried dinner — the same rice, split peas, and stringy bits of unidentified fish as always. Most of the people gathered at church (twenty or twenty five of them) believed the days of the regime were numbered — surely no government could survive such a massive show of dissent. Someone reported that a man had started shouting “Down with Fidel!” in our town’s central park earlier in the day, two blocks from our church, and when others had joined in, the police swept in and arrested everybody. The whole thing, it was said, had been a setup. An old man named Araque summed it up, “They want you to stick your head out, and then they’ll cut it off. Better to shut your mouth.”

During those days, my grandfather was glued to the WQBA radio station in Miami as details kept coming in, most of them unconfirmed by the Cuban news services: Peru had asked other Latin American nations to accept some of the asylum seekers; President Carter had agreed to accept a certain number of them; Costa Rica was willing to fly them off and then distribute them accordingly. On April 16, Miami reported evacuation flights had begun from Cuba to Costa Rica. Two days later, Cuba suspended the flights, no explanations given.

This was all background noise to me: I still went to school, ran back home afterwards, changed into regular clothes, and went to play on Paseo Jose Marti, where a statute of Cuba’s leading intellectual and freedom fighter watched over our games of catch and tag. Rumor spread that someone had put a suitcase at the feet of the statute and a sign around its neck, “I’m leaving too.” The police took the offending objects away immediately, or so it was said.

On Saturday, April 19, state television showed a huge government-mobilized demonstration parading through Havana and past the Peruvian embassy. The crowds were chanting “Scum!” and “Worms!” and “Leave, we don’t want you!” as they marched. Coverage went on and on, and I was glued to the t.v. for some reason. “Worms, fiends, you sell yourselves for jeans!” the marching crowd chanted, and I of course thought of my Miami athletic shoes.

A young man from church came to visit my mother and spoke to her in the living room as I watched t.v. He wanted to go to Havana and try to get himself into the embassy. My mother tried to dissuade him: according to Miami radio, they had guards around the grounds again, checkpoints had been set up all around the neighborhood, no one could get in anymore, he’d be arrested, it wasn’t worth it.

And then, as I watched the demonstration on live television, a group of six or seven people who had been marching with a long banner reading “Let them Leave!” (an intended protest in the midst of unintended political duty?) suddenly dropped the banner and ran for the Peruvian embassy and helped each other climb over the wall, the first ones pushed up by the those on the bottom and then the ones on top of the wall yanking the rest up. And then the camera cut to another view.

On April 20, Cuba announced it would open the port of Mariel to boats coming from the U.S. to pick up anybody who wanted to leave. Word was that if you claimed to be a prostitute or gay you would be allowed to leave the country too, no questions asked. Either that or some relative in Miami had to come get you (to us, there was no U.S., not really — that defied the imagination. We only knew Miami).

The catch was that if you were leaving, your name was put on a list which was made available to local party officials who then had the revolutionary duty to organize an “act of repudiation” against you. At best, an act of repudiation meant a crowd would gather outside your home and chant slogans, break your windows, and bang on your door for hours, the threat of what would happen should they break the door down hanging over the whole proceeding. At worst, the crowd would get you in the open and the beating would begin: clubs, stones, even crowbars would come down on you, and you’d be lucky to get away with just a few broken bones. At least three people in Havana were killed, an insignificant number given the massive deployment of mobs, yes, unless you were one of the dead or their families and friends.

That week, four or five dump trucks came to our school. Every single student was loaded onto the trucks and off we went through town, shouting slogans and banging on the side of the trucks with sticks: “Let them leave! Let them leave! We don’t want them!” and “Pim Pam Thorns, Down With All the Worms!” None of it made too much sense. 

Crowds gathered by the side of the streets watching us go by. Something in me revolted against the whole thing, maybe even against myself, with relatives in Miami and yet riding a truck shouting pro-government slogans. I was wearing my athletic shoes, of course, as anyone could see. There were some metal bolts on the back of the truck I was riding, and on impulse, I took one and tossed it high up in the air. I watched it as it came down on the sidewalk as we drove past, and I saw a mother bring her three or four-year-old son against her to protect him as the metal piece I had thrown landed and bounced a few feet from her. And I think that moment, so irrational and infantile, so potentially catastrophic to the true innocents who stood watching us go by, crystallized where I stood in the matter: I might have been on the truck shouting support for the government, but my heart was with the young man who came to visit my mother wanting to get into the Peruvian embassy and the group that used the protest as cover to get themselves inside. And right then, I knew I wanted to leave if my father came from Miami to get us.

My mother got the call a few days later: Nilito, our pastor’s son, came running to tell her that my father was on the phone. My mother and I ran the four blocks to church leaving Nilito behind, who was winded from his initial run. I listened as my mother spoke on the phone, an old artifact from the 40‘s hanging on the wall outside the pastor’s office.

“Where are you?” she asked, out of breath, “When did you get in?”

A pause.

“Yes, Juan and Ñia” (my grandparents) “want to leave.”

Pause.

“No?”

Pause.

“I’ll tell them, they’ll understand.”

Another pause.

“No, we haven’t gotten any official notice.”

And then the call ended.

That night, my mother, my sister, and I sat on my mother’s bed. My grandparents were sitting on the porch, as they often did in the evenings. It was cooler outside the house, and they could chat with neighbors passing by.

“Your father has come to get us; he can’t get Juan and Ñia out,” my mother said. And then to me: “Do you want to leave?”

“I want to go to Miami,” I heard my 13-year-old self say. My entire life had been spent hearing from my grandparents and everyone in church what a great place Miami was. I’d heard of Disney World (now, of course, I know Disney World is in Orlando), which I desperately wanted to visit, and I’d heard that houses in Miami had carpet and air conditioning and there was plenty of food and soda and candy. I even had a fantasy: in Miami, I’d have a room all to myself instead of sharing one with my mother and sister, and I’d have my own desk to read and write, its drawers full of sweets. I’d also heard that in Miami you did not have to go work on a farm for 45 days out of the school year, as we did in Cuba starting in seventh grade; that no one made fun of you or called you names for going to church; and that you did not get drafted into the Army at age 16. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Leaving my grandparents didn’t seem all that final. My father had left for Miami eight years earlier, and now he was coming back for us. We’d see my grandparents again, I was sure.

And so we waited. We heard that Fofy and Roberto Robles, who lived together in my maternal grandparents’ small town of El Crucero, just outside Caibarien, had been accused of being homosexual lovers (despite being brothers) and forced to board a boat to Miami. A man in town whose last name was Colgate (like the toothpaste in ads on Miami radio) was told he could either leave or go to prison. He chose to leave — without his wife and children. A male nurse named Aristide who worked at the polyclinic was likewise given an ultimatum: a boat or a cell. He too left his wife and children behind. We heard that the mother of a school friend of mine, apparently a lesbian, had been summarily expatriated, her two daughters left behind.

But these cases were outnumbered by those eager for a chance to leave, and they lined up outside the police station to put their names down as “scum,” admitting to such anti-revolutionary sins as homosexuality, prostitution, and undue attraction to minors. On their way out of the police station, they had to face a crowd shouting slogans and throwing eggs for the half block or so it took them to get to the town’s main square and relative safety.

Word had it that a kid in his late teens tried to put himself down as gay and the police officer in charge made him walk around the room.

“You’re no faggot,” the police officer said, and denied the claim.

The kid came back a few hours later, this time as a confessed thief. The police officer in charge didn’t recognize him, and put his name down on the waiting list of undesirables.

It worked like this: for every certain number of names put down for an exit permit via a boat waiting at Mariel (i.e. those people who had relatives who had come to get them), the government could place someone of its choosing onboard. Lists of “scum” from all over Cuba were forwarded to Havana, and eventually you’d get a knock on the door and you’d be put on a bus for Mariel. Or you wouldn’t. No one knew how the selection process worked. The gay-thief kid from Caibarien eventually made it out. Or so it was said.

Miami radio said Castro was putting dangerous criminals and the insane on boats and dumping them on the U.S. At church, people noticed that the three or four homeless and/or mentally addled persons who had been a common sight in town had vanished. Word had it they had been shipped out. Word also had it that anyone with a university degree seeking to put their name on the exit list would be beaten severely and maybe even jailed, but would not be allowed out. Claiming a religious affiliation, particularly if you were a Jehovah’s Witness, could be good enough to get you on the list. Many people from our church took the risk and stood in line at the police station to claim religious dangerousness and braved the egg-throwing mob afterwards. Our pastor, however, was adamant he and his family were not leaving: “My mission is here,” he told my mother, “but your children have a future in Miami.”

Ex-political prisoners, my uncle being one, were informed that whether they liked it or not, they were being shipped out. My uncle and my grandfather talked things over as I listened. (My grandfather Juan was not related to my uncle, who was not my uncle at all, strictly speaking — he had married my mother’s sister; also, my “grandfather” was really my great-aunt Ñia’s husband and adoptive father to my father, not related to me by blood). At any rate, my grandfather hadn’t wanted to leave Cuba for a long time, but had finally admitted he might leave, if possible, only a few days earlier. He was then disappointed my father couldn’t take him out, but refused to claim non-existent crimes to leave Cuba. He consoled himself that he knew how the system worked: he had gold coins, jewelry, and fine watches stashed away, and he had black market contacts. “In Miami,” he told my uncle, “we are going to be a burden to others. I don’t want that. So maybe it’s better this way.” 

(By “we” he meant himself and my grandmother Ñia, really my father’s aunt: nevertheless, they were my grandparents as far as I bothered to parse such things.)

“This thing,” my uncle said, meaning the country, “Is going downhill. It will only get worse. The Americans are never going to do anything about it. I think Castro would rather kill everybody in Cuba than surrender.”

“This can’t last long,” my grandfather said. He’d been waiting 20 years for the government to collapse, and things seemed to be at the tipping point. Overhearing that conversation, I did not know I’d never see him or Ñia again once I left Cuba. And that day was approaching fast.

The “acts of repudiation” in town kept coming, day after day. My mother stopped going to work: she had been warned by friends that an assault on her was being prepared — everyone knew she was leaving in a matter of days. My mother was supposed to pick up her last paycheck, but a friend warned her not to do so. Eventually, the check was hand-delivered to my mother by a sympathetic coworker with the silent approval of my mother’s boss.

From then on, after my sister and I got home from school, we were not allowed to go out again. My mother’s thinking was that at any point a government car could come to take us to Mariel. We spent the evenings watching news on t.v. and listening to the Miami radio stations with my grandfather. Neighbors would drop by with updates, and it was mostly all bad. We heard of people who, after being attacked by a mob, would not be admitted to the hospital for being “worms” set to leave the country. We heard of a woman whose ex-political prisoner, common-law husband was taken away by force to be shipped out without her: she set herself on fire and died screaming for ice to be placed in her mouth. Truckloads of people in convoys were driving all over town shouting “Death to the Worms,” stopping at selected houses to throw rocks at windows and doors. Word had it that in the big cities things were much worse: people were being beaten to death by pro-government mobs while the police stood by watching. Or so it was said.

After a few evenings cooped up inside the house, I got bored and decided to walk down to the town square, without telling my mother. From a distance, I heard shouting, and as I got closer, I saw a fairly large crowd, maybe two hundred people, gathered around the square’s glorieta, a permanent, domed band-stand. I shoved my way to the front of the mob and saw a man sitting on the ground, blood on his face, surrounded by people screaming obscenities at him. Then someone in the crowd came up from behind and swung a baseball bat and hit him on the ribs. The man made no noise; he just sighed heavily and slumped down on the ground. 

And suddenly I was terrified, and I ran back home thinking that at any moment someone was going to spot me as a “worm,” and I would be beaten too (an irrational fear — the mobs, to our knowledge, did not target children). I was so shaken as I told my mother what I’d seen that she didn’t even yell at me for leaving the house without her permission. Later, neighbors told us the man had been beaten so badly he had passed out, but he’d been taken by friends in a private car to a hospital in nearby Remedios, and he was ok.

I dreamt about him for nights, a black man with hair cropped short, blood-stained clothes, and bits of dirt and grit stuck to his arms and face, his saliva on his mouth and on the ground. 

“I hope he gets sent to Miami,” someone in the overwhelmingly white crowd had yelled as the man slumped down onto the floor after being struck with the bat, “So he gets lynched by the KKK!”

Part Two: Goodbyes

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  1. May 29th, 2015

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