It was only a rumor. But several hundred people turned up at a remote Cuban port on the last days of 2013, some carrying inner tubes, hoping to reach the ship said to be waiting offshore for anyone who wanted to escape the island.
“Police, state security and border guards sealed off the town, and still people were arriving,” said Antonio Luis Caballero, a farmer and dissident from Gibara, 478 miles southeast of Havana.
The rumor about a possible mass exodus through Gibara starting Dec. 24 was the latest in a growing string of odd rumors about everything from official corruption to the kidnappings of children and even satanic rites, several island residents said.
One recent rumor had posters appearing around Havana with the words, “Mothers will weep and children will disappear,” said independent journalist Roberto de Jesus Guerra. Two other rumors had young girls kidnapped in separate neighborhoods of the capital and Vice President Marino Murillo escaping Cuba with millions of dollars.
Theories about what sparked the rumors vary.
Guerra blames “the level of disinformation in Cuba,” a country where the communist government controls and censures all mass media outlets in print, radio and television.
Retired University of Havana Prof. Enrique Lopez said he has noticed the recent increase in wild rumors and chalks it up to an increase in “tensions and anxiety” generated by the island’s shift toward a more market-oriented economy.
Dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) said he believes the rumors are part of an effort by state security agents to manufacture a bit of bedlam — and then identify those who dare criticize the government.
Caballero, 49, said he’s not sure why or how the Gibara rumor got started, but he knows that it had quite an impact on the municipality of about 73,000 people in the northeastern province of Holguín.
The rumor of a mass exodus through Gibara got started in the second half of November, said Caballero, head of the UNPACU group in the area. Two other residents of the town confirmed his account but asked for anonymity, fearing government retaliation.
As the rumor went, a ship would be waiting 12 miles offshore — beyond Cuba’s territorial limit — to pick up anyone who wanted to leave the island.
Caballero said he even received a text message on his cellphone about the rumor sometime in December. He erased it but recalled that it said something like “Massive exodus from Gibara, Camagüey and Havana 24 to 27.” The sender’s number did not display, he added.
No such rumors were ever reported in the two other cities.
“By noon on the 24th, people were already starting to show up from all over, some of them carrying inner tubes for makings rafts ” Caballero told el Nuevo Herald by phone from Cuba.
But by that time, uniformed members of the National Revolutionary Police and the Border Guard and plainclothes agents of State Security had set up a checkpoint on the main road to Gibara and were detaining all nonresidents, he said.
“They had a big yellow bus parked there. It would fill up with people and drive them to [the city of] Holguín, come back and make another trip,” according to Caballero. “That bus made a lot of trips.”
Caballero estimated that authorities detained and turned back about 500 people. One resident said it was more but would not give an estimate. Another said she had no idea but had overheard a policeman referring to “hundreds.”
Five rafters who managed to take to the sea from somewhere outside Gibara on Dec. 27 drifted back into the Bay of Gibara three days later, and authorities had to rush them to a hospital for dehydration, according to all three residents.
Security officials withdrew the checkpoint on Dec. 31, Caballero said, although increased patrols of the area remained for a couple of days.
Caballero said the rumor may have been sparked in part by a U.S. vessel that local fishermen regularly see offshore, sailing east on Tuesdays and west on Thursdays and believed to be delivering supplies to the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo, Cuba.
Fishermen call it “The White Horse,” he said.
The Navy base is supplied every two weeks by a tug-and-barge, based in Jacksonville and owned by Transatlantic Lines. Calls to the company’s offices in Jacksonville were not immediately returned.
The tug-and-barge combo sails east from Florida along Cuba’s northern coast, goes around the eastern tip of Cuba and docks at the Navy base, according to Caribbean shipping officials. A Navy base spokesperson said it arrives every other Wednesday.