From Cuba at Sea by Ron Ridenour*
HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 18 — Cienfuegos’ is one of the deepest and busiest ports in Cuba, and a major trading town. We neared the long harbor’s narrow mouth in the darkness. It took several hours for the pilot to come aboard and guide us. Large ships can not dock at the quay because it is too small. Large vessels must anchor at buoys.
Thick rubber and steel hose lines are connected underwater to the ships’ tanks and the receiving electric and fertilizer plants. To avoid accidents, such as hoses breaking and subsequent pollution of the waters and fauna, divers must check the hoses while ships load and unload petroleum products.
Mooring eight lines to four floating buoys is not easy. Two tug boats pushed us back and forth, but the ship could not settle still enough to set fast at the right spot, so the pilot and tug boats left. After sunup they returned again and we brought in chains and anchors dripping with mud that reeked of sewage. The next attempt to reset them succeeded.
Captain Marrón and Harry wanted to take me on shore leave in this city of nearly 150,000 where they knew some women. They had to be aboard during the beginning of unloading oil to the thermoelectric plant so we agreed to meet in town and I took a walk about first.
Cienfuegos—which means one hundred fires—is a lovely colonial style city known for its cleanliness, for its efficient bus system and rational distribution of farm products. I first strolled about the wide wharf. Looking at the many docked freighters, I came upon a small cargo ship I’d recognized from television, the Hermann.
Despite having been patched up in Mexico, dents made by canon and machine-gun fire from a US coast guard speed boat were visible. It made me angry, thinking of how the nation of my birth behaves towards people who refuse to cow tow to its profiteering dictates. Staring at the Hermann gave me goose bumps too, remembering how 11 men, armed only with knives and machetes, defied the aggressors.
A true David and Goliath story
On the morning of January 25, 1990, the Hermann sailed out of Moa, Holguín, the principle nickel port. The 3,600-ton displacement freighter was carrying ten tons of chrome to Tampico where it would load 15 tons of merchandise. Like many ships throughout the world, the Hermann flew a Panamanian flag of convenience. The Hermann was officially owned by Guamar Shipping Company S.A., but chartered and operated exclusively by Cuba.
This is the story told by the Hermann crew with factual evidence to back much of it up.
Crossing the Yucatán Canal on January 29, a US reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly overflew the small ship. The next day, US coast guard cutter, WPB-1320 Chiconteague, began maneuvers around the 80-meter long freighter. US sailors shouted insults and made vulgar gestures to the Cuban crew.
The Yankee captain demanded that Captain Diego Sanchez Serrano heave to and allow his ship to be inspected for “possible drugs”. Without hesitation, and without consulting Havana authorities, the captain and the entire crew told the Yankees to take a flying leap. The cutter shot high-pressured water at the crew. Angel Bertot Gutiérrez, the 60-year old cook and former guerrilla in the Rebel Army, dashed out of the kitchen onto the main deck with cleaver in hand. The coast guard threatened again to board but Captain Sanchez never wavered course.
The US State Department advised the Cuban government that it presumed the right to inspect the ship despite the fact that the Hermann was in international waters. Captain Sanchez contacted Cuban government leaders, who asked for his assessment of the situation and what the crew wanted to do. No one wanted to give in. The government leaders agreed and so informed Washington DC.
The Hermann stayed on course to Tampico.
The Chiconteague rammed the Hermann just before dawn on the last day of January but the Cuban freighter was able to outmaneuver the cutter’s many attempts to fatally ram it. US sailors then opened fire, hitting the hull, decks, bridge, storehouse and machine department with canon balls and machine gun bullets. They fired repeatedly for one hour and forty-five minutes. Miraculously, no one was injured but the ship was damaged. Passing by Mexican oil rigs that could have been set on fire by US bullets, the Hermann managed to limp into Mexican waters and the cutter backed off.
Mexican officials in Tampico inspected the ship for any trace of drugs at the request of the Cuban government. Fidel later said: “They found neither drugs nor urine, neither drugs nor shit on that ship! I’m certain that if those dogs had been taken on the U.S. coast guard vessel, all three things would have been found there.”
The day after the Hermann docked and after being inspected, the crew flew to Havana to attend an emotional rally held only a few score meters from the United States Interest Section. I stood with thousands more beside a huge billboard the government had long ago set before the aggressors building. It read: “Mister imperialists, we have absolutely no fear.” Standing under the headless monument to the U.S. battleship Maine (1), Fidel presented the 11 heroes to a cheering crowd. He used descriptions and a style that nearly every Cuban could agree and identify with.
“They wanted to provoke and test the morale of Cubans, because every time they commit a crime they think others will be frightened. They fail to realize that such crimes increase the courage of our people…”
Fidel explained the events of engagement and what he told Cuba’s representatives in Washington.
“If they tell you the ship has a Panamanian flag, you tell them that the flag is Panamanian but the balls on it are Cuban. The crew refused to be searched as a matter of honor and because it had no confidence in the shitty U.S. navy and authorities, because they are capable of making up any lie and of planting anything on the ship.”
The men on the Hermann “waged a moral war against the enemy… When the ship could catch on fire, when they no longer had life preservers, when they had no chance of saving themselves unless they surrendered, they didn’t stop, they continued on course and continued to be willing to run aground or crash into the oil rigs and burn to death there rather than fall into the hands of the imperialists…You have here these men, simple men of the people, turned into heroes overnight.”
United Nations Council of States heard Cuba’s formal protest the following week but took no action against the United States’ unprovoked aggression in international waters. US representative, Thomas Pickering, arrogantly asserted his government’s “right” to inspect the Hermann, and insisted that similar actions could occur in the future. As if to show the Yankees what Cuba’s response would be, the Communist party elected Hermann helmsman Francisco Montalvo Peñalver to its central committee.
*To purchase a copy of the book you can place an order with Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk/Cuba-at-Sea-Ron-Ridenour/dp/0906378028), Socialist Resistance (www.resistancebooks.blogspot.com/http) or write the author at Soderupvej 1, 4330 Havalsoe, Denmark.