Six blocks up from NR headquarters in New York is the Cuban mission to the U.N. Our publisher, Jack Fowler, has passed the mission many, many times in his walks to and from the train station. He has been known to give it a digital salute. I have been known to give the same salute.
At noon today, democracy activists gathered across from the mission to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tugboat Massacre. This was the atrocity in which the Castro dictatorship murdered 37 men, women, and children as they attempted to flee the island.
Not only will totalitarian dictatorships prevent you from living freely in your own country; they prevent you from fleeing to another. In this sense, they are slaveholders and hostage-takers. When assessing a dictatorship, I often ask, “Does it allow people to leave?” The first freedom, in a way, should be the freedom to vote with your feet: to leave, if you don’t like the way things are going at home. The worst dictatorships prevent this.
I will quote a press release of the Human Rights Foundation on the Tugboat Massacre:
On July 13, 1994, Cuban coast guard vessels were deployed in pursuit of the 13 de Marzo tugboat after state security forces learned of the massive attempt to escape the island. Acting on direct orders from the government, state agents chased and intercepted the boat, which carried 72 men, women, and children, seven miles from the Havana harbor. The Cuban agents had no intention of returning the boat to land; instead, they first used high-pressure water hoses to sweep the boat’s occupants off the deck, and then rammed the boat repeatedly until it collapsed and sank. 37 Cuban citizens, mostly women and children, drowned as a result. As the result of a decision made by the Cuban government, no attempt was made to recover the bodies.
The activists who gathered at noon today were from HRF, based here in New York, and the Directorio Democrático Cubano, based in Miami. NR and NRO readers are well familiar with those organizations. They are “points of light,” as the first Bush might say. The activists held pictures of the dead — the victims of the massacre. (For a picture of the demonstration itself, go here.) Janisset Rivero, of the Directorio, called the roll. That is, she read the names of the dead, and gave their ages, too. After each name was read, the group said, “Presente,” meaning “Present,” or “Here.” They said this directly to the dictatorial outpost across the street.
It seemed so little, in the face of this vicious, long-lived, and excused dictatorship. But it was something, and better than nothing.
Fidel Castro, I believe, is the most popular dictator in the democratic world. Stalin lost his luster after the Secret Speech in 1956. Mao lost his luster, or some of it, in the wake of publication of honest books: such as the one by his doctor, Li Zhisui, and the Chang-Halliday biography. Ho is no longer a poster boy. Chávez is popular, though dead — and a small fry in any case. A Castro wannabe.
For years, Cuban democrats have been defamed as gusanos, meaning worms, or “Batista stooges.” Luminaries in our culture have treated Castro gently, when not bathing him in adulation. Carole King, the singer-songwriter, crooned to him “You’ve Got a Friend.” He sure does, many of them. But his victims have friends, too. And a handful of them were present on Lexington Avenue in New York today.
(A courtesy to those needing to know: The heading of this post alludes to the title of an important anti-totalitarian novel, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Koestler himself must have drawn the words or image from the Bible.)