A high seas demonstration planned by Cuban exiles off the coast of the island on Saturday has raised concern among U.S. officials and has angered some members of the Cuban American community here who fear the event is designed to provoke an international incident.
After a similar demonstration last month when an exile boat was sideswiped by a Cuban gunboat, the Castro government has threatened to sink any vessels that violate Cuba’s 12-mile territorial limit and to shoot down any planes that penetrate the Communist island’s airspace.
A flotilla of up to 30 private boats--accompanied by six small planes--is scheduled to leave Key West, Fla., early Saturday for a rendezvous offshore from Varadero, a beach resort east of Havana. According to Ramon Saul Sanchez, one of the organizers, the aim of the demonstration is to protest Cuban human rights policy and show support for the U.S. economic embargo.
Among the dozens of people expected to make the 90-mile journey across the Florida Straits is Alina Fernandez Revuelta, the daughter of Cuban President Fidel Castro. She defected in 1993.
Gov. Lawton Chiles and State Department officials have cautioned protest organizers about going ahead with their plans, especially since participants in the July 13 demonstration deliberately crossed into Cuban waters and at least two private planes buzzed downtown Havana.
Sanchez has said the flotilla and aircraft will not enter Cuban territory.
Nonetheless, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Tuesday that “there are a number of dangers that could be associated with an incident that is being planned such as this. We do have some concerns about this particular event.”
In urging demonstrators to respect Cuban borders, Chiles said: “I don’t think Castro recognizes civil disobedience. I hope they don’t do it.”
Protest organizers were summoned to Washington to meet Monday with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson, who affirmed the exiles’ right to assemble in international waters while warning that American consular officials had limited power to help Americans who might be detained by the Cuban government.
Patterson offered to set up a command post to monitor Saturday’s activities from Washington, Sanchez said. He also indicated that the U.S. Coast Guard would assign a patrol boat to stand by should humanitarian assistance be needed.
In Miami, however, Petty Officer Scott Carr, a Coast Guard spokesman, said: “We are aware of the situation, that they are going. But this is an ordinary Saturday. We always have ships patrolling the straits.”
Andres Gomez, who heads the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a group that favors lifting the 33-year-old embargo and improving ties with Cuba, charged organizers with attempting “to promote themselves to the right wing in Miami while provoking a confrontation between the two governments.
"[Organizers] will attempt anything to impede what they see as the process of re-evaluation of present U.S. policy,” Gomez said. “They fear that.”
Although the Clinton Administration has reiterated its support for the Cuban embargo as a means of pushing Castro toward democratic reforms, a growing chorus of moderate exiles and American business interests has called the ban on trade with the Caribbean nation outmoded and ineffective.
That chorus, along with the Administration’s decision May 2 to repatriate Cubans fleeing the island by sea, has worried some hard-line anti-Castro exiles who think U.S. policy toward Cuba may be changing.
This week, about 30 people planning to take part in the flotilla climbed into motorized rubber rafts to stage well-publicized evasion and life-saving drills in Biscayne Bay. Organizers say they will take several of the rafts with them on the trip to Cuba, but have refused to spell out how they might be used.
Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said that despite organizers’ vows that the demonstration will be non-confrontational, “I don’t understand the flotilla unless there is an attempt to provoke a reaction” from the Cubans.
If the flotilla does draw a response “that shows the authoritarian character of the Cuban government, then it is harder for Washington to change policy,” Perez said.
The July 13 demonstration off the Cuban coast was designed to mark the first anniversary of the sinking of a Cuban tugboat crowded with 72 people attempting to flee the island. Forty-one people, including 20 children, drowned, giving impetus to a summer-long exodus in which more than 40,000 Cubans sailed to the United States.
After the lead boat in the July flotilla crossed into Cuban waters, it was rammed by a Cuban gunboat.
Among those injured was Dade County Commissioner Pedro Reboredo, whose foot was crushed. He later lost a toe.
“That first flotilla opened the eyes of many people to the type of criminal activities the Cuban dictatorship is capable of,” Reboredo said. “They had the right to stop and arrest us, because we were in Cuban waters, but not to ram us like they did.”