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Organizacion Autentica

CANIMAR RIVER (July, 1980)


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


Cuba, España y los Estados Unidos | Organización Auténtica | Política Exterior de la O/A | Temas Auténticos | Líderes Auténticos | Figuras del Autenticismo | Símbolos de la Patria | Nuestros Próceres | Martirologio |

Presidio Político de Cuba Comunista | Costumbres Comunistas | Temática Cubana | Brigada 2506 | La Iglesia | Cuba y el Terrorismo | Cuba - Inteligencia y Espionaje | Cuba y Venezuela | Clandestinidad | United States Politics | Honduras vs. Marxismo | Bibliografía | Puentes Electrónicos |

Organización Auténtica