When I first started going to Cuba as an adult, one of my singular pleasures was taking the ferry across Havana Bay from the city to the village of Regla. The ferries were old, unsteady tugboats that dripped oil and fuel into the water but provided a panoramic view of the Cuban capital, especially the colonial district in Old Havana.
The trip itself cost pennies, was almost always silent but for the heavy breathing of the tugboat itself, and dropped anchor right in front of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Regla. The official story is that this Marian image was concocted by St. Augustine himself for the city of Hippo in northern Africa in the 5th century and then made its way to Spain and the Americas.
But in Cuba, Our Lady of Regla — since her birth a black Madonna — is mostly associated with Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. And no matter the church officials’ efforts, the sanctuary in Regla was always surrounded by locals selling a variety of items for adoration and sacrifice that hearkened back to the Virgin’s African roots.
There’s another open secret about Our Lady of Regla: In the latter years of the Cuban Revolution, she has become the patron saint of rafters, of those leaving the island on unsteady embarkations.
So perhaps it was inevitable that someone should consider that one of those wobbly ferries to the Virgin’s shrine might offer some sort of protection, might in fact, get them to another shore protected by the Virgin who always has them in her sight.
On April 2, 2003, in what we now refer to as Cuba’s Black Spring, a group of eight men made a disastrous attempt to do just that. After weeks of planning, they boarded a tugboat called Baragua and ordered it across the Straits of Florida. The eight men, from 22 to 40 years of age, were armed with one pistol and several knives.
Their timing, frankly, could not have been worse: Two domestic flights had already been hijacked that spring, revolutionary forces had frustrated countless others, and the government had already arrested 75 dissidents in a broad and brutal sweep. In addition, there were two French-Mahgribian citizens aboard the ferry.
For the Cuban government, the French tourists may have been the final straw. With absolute dependence on tourist dollars, it was imperative that the stand-off that ensured after the ferry ran out of fuel in international waters end non-violently. And it did: The government and the hijackers cut a deal that, if the ferry returned to the port of Mariel and the tourists were released, they’d be refueled and allowed to leave. But once back in Cuba, one of the tourists, Sonia Arbib, jumped in the water and distracted the hijackers, allowing Cuban security forces to overwhelm the ferry. No one was hurt.
Fidel Castro himself talked to the hijackers, lecturing them on the error of their ways; according to Arbib and Deborah Jaoui, the other tourist, he promised them he’d be lenient with the men, none of whom had criminal antecedents.
On April 8, all eight of the men were convicted of terrorist acts. Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, 32, who’d brandished the gun against the ferry captain and the French women; Barbaro Leodan Sevilla Garcia, 22, who’d made verbal threats; and Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac, 40, who’d procured the gun but barely said a word during the hijacking, were all sentenced to die.
On April 11 – nine days after the actual incident, three days after their lightning fast trial – they were executed by firing squad. It was the first time Cuba acknowledged using the death sentence since 1989, when it shot General Arnaldo Ochoa for treason.
Outside of Cuba, the dissidents’ arrests caused an international uproar. But inside Cuba, it was the ferry hijackers’ executions that chilled and crushed the soul. Sevilla Garcia’s mother threw herself off a Central Havana balcony. A small riot – reported almost as a rumor by the foreign media and ignored in the Cuban press – erupted in the aftermath, and Central Havana was cordoned off by police for hours. (I know because I was caught inside, visiting a friend.)
In recent days, the last of the 75 dissidents arrested in the Black Spring have been okayed for release from prison, most opting for exile in Spain. Fourteen have refused to leave Cuba.
Right now, the five surviving ferry hijackers remain in prison, none of their names on any list of possible pardons. They are Maikel Delgado Aramburo, Yoanny Thomas Gonzalez, Harold Alcala Aramburo and Ramon Henry Grillo.
After their arrests, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Regla overflowed with white flowers, symbol of Yemaya. But in the years since, most of the local believers appear to have abandoned it. Visiting last summer, I found only a few of the faithful in the pews. The handful of vendors outside, none particularly aggressive, were focused on selling water, trinkets, and perhaps not surprisingly, small statues of Babalu Aye, offspring of Yemaya, better known in the Catholic universe as Saint Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.