As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the infamous Berlin Wall this month, a deadlier replica almost twice in age remains in Communist Cuba.
Barbed wire, high fences, mine fields, watch towers, ferocious dogs, and sharpshooters firing at unarmed civilians...the tropical version of the Berlin Wall prevents escapees from reaching the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo. Cuba’s distinctive version of the barrier extends into Guantánamo Bay, where border guards fire from patrol boats or throw grenades at anyone trying to swim to the base.
In the mid-1990s, Cuba built a sea wall, visible on Google Earth. Its movable net allows authorized maritime traffic but is manned by guards trained to trap swimmers trying to get to the base.
During the 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall (1961-1989), 227 people were killed attempting to cross to West Berlin. In the 55 years of the Cuban version, countless thousands have paid with their lives, their limbs, or years of prison for attempting the crossing.
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Successive U.S. administrations, although granting refuge to those who make it to the base, have kept largely silent on the systematic killings to avoid provoking the Castros and having the base overrun by asylum seekers. U.S. anti-personnel and anti-tank land mines in the buffer zone with Cuba since 1961 — reportedly a Cold War necessity — were removed in 1996 to uphold international agreements banning land mines.
Theodore Scotes, commander of the base’s Camp Bulkeley in 1968, has confirmed that Cuban guards stationed around the base had orders to shoot to kill “fence-jumpers” and that the U.S. government kept classified records of all recorded incidents. The Clinton administration reportedly filed a rare protest with the Cuban government in June 1994 after many defenseless swimmers had been attacked with grenades and shot by Cuban border guards as they attempted to reach the base; U.S. personnel could see the bodies being fished out of the water with gaffing hooks.
Iskander Maleras, 26, and Luis Angel Valverde, 30, were murdered by sharpshooters on Jan. 19, 1994 as they swam toward the base with two friends, hoping to obtain asylum. They were about 50 meters from U.S. territory when Cuban border guards started shooting with long-range automatic rifles from their watchtower.
The two survivors, one injured, pulled their friends’ bodies from the water. One then made it safely into U.S. territory, so the news filtered out. The next day, the victims’ parents were told by authorities to go unaccompanied to the Guantánamo cemetery, where the bodies, riddled with bullet wounds, were buried in a large field of unmarked graves for victims of foiled escape attempts to the base.
Photographs of their bodies were exhibited in a local school with a warning to avoid facing a similar fate by trying to escape. The apprehended survivor was tried and sentenced to prison while the two soldiers who killed unarmed civilians were commended for doing their duty. The victims’ families were harassed, humiliated, persecuted and eventually forced to seek political asylum in the United States.
Cuba Archive has record of 80 people killed or missing in attempts to reach the base (www.CubaArchive.org). There are anecdotal accounts of many more cases. A far more extensive list documents Cubans, including children, killed or disappeared attempting to escape the island by any means; the actual number of victims is estimated in the tens of thousands.
Despite regulations relaxing harsh travel restrictions beginning January 2013, Cuba’s Penal Code (Article 215) continues to forbid citizens from leaving the island without prior government authorization. Attempting to do so is punishable with years of prison. Stealing or hijacking a vessel to flee can lead to capital punishment.
While the United States is widely condemned for its prison for accused terrorists at Guantánamo, the killing fields and ghastly dungeons on the Cuban side are altogether ignored. It is time for the double standard to end and for the international community to demand that Cuba stop its egregious human-rights violations.
Maria C. Werlau is executive director of Cuba Archive’s Truth and Memory Project of Summit, New Jersey.