Castro Reasserts Calm After Riots, But Havana Remains Tense
HAVANA — FOLLOWING the most serious display of popular discontent during the Communist era, President Fidel Castro Ruz's government has restored control of the Cuban capital.
Legions of police, aided by Communist Party agitators, remained deployed through the weekend in Havana to enforce order following Friday's riot, in which 35 people sustained serious injuries.
On Sunday night, the Caribbean island's leaders reaffirmed their grip on absolute power with a mass rally of roughly 500,000 Castro supporters at Havana's Revolution Square.
But the show of strength, while enough to reestablish a tense calm, does not address the cause of the unrest. Cuba's economic collapse has generated widespread desperation, driving people to take grave risks to escape from the island.
Already this year, about 5,000 Cubans have made the perilous journey to Florida. Human rights activists say as many as half of those who attempt to get to the United States die en route.
The event that served as the catalyst for Friday's unrest is thought to be the mid-July sinking of a tugboat, exacerbated by the government's handling of the incident. Estimates of the death toll in the sinking range from 32 to 52.
ACCOUNTS of the sinking are sketchy, but according to conversations with Havanans, many believe the government caused the tragedy and has tried to cover up its guilt. The government blames the incident on ``malevolent'' US immigration policy.
``People are angry at the government about this boat sinking,'' said David, an unemployed cook. ``People do not see a reason why it had to happen. And it angers them more that the government says nothing about it. The radio is silent. That means the government has something to hide.''
Before Friday's riot, when other Havana residents were asked about the incident, many replied similarly. Some quickly glanced over their shoulders before saying, ``People are very agitated.''
The incident occurred on July 12, when several men commandeered a rickety tugboat in Havana. In an apparently preplanned operation, they quickly took on friends and family, including women and children, and set off for the US. Survivors set the number of passengers at around 70.
Three boats full of Castro loyalists gave chase. A government boat, according to some reports, rammed the tug, sinking it. Only 31 people were rescued, the government says.
The memory of the tug sinking was still fresh when a rash of Havana ferry boat hijackings began in late July, carried out by people wanting to reach the US, only 90 miles to the north.
The last of three hijackings ended last Thursday, with the ferry supposedly running out of gas several miles out to sea and being towed back to Havana by a government vessel. Authorities say two policemen died during the incident.
Large crowds gathered on Havana's Malecon seaside boulevard to watch the ferry drama play out. After witnessing the government return the ferry to port, the crowd turned riotious.
* The writer just returned from a visit to Cuba.