Published Sunday, July 14, 1996, in the Miami Herald.

Knocking on Cuba's door

Protest voyage ends in peace and sadness

Herald Staff Writers

KEY WEST -- A girl asked: Must you go? They said: Yes, we must. A man issued a single request: Bring me some sea water. Water that touched my homeland. They said: Of course. They huddled in prayer. Then, they left.

On one side, American warplanes pulsated on alert Saturday. On the other, Cuban military vessels mustered for sentinel duty. Between the two floated the catalyst of crisis: Cuban exiles engaged in a peaceful protest on the edge of Cuban waters.

Escorted by private planes, monitored by U.S. radar installations, nearly 200 Cuban exiles aboard 19 boats cruised without incident to within sight of the land they yearn to reclaim.

They returned deep into the night, after a 15-hour, 160-mile round trip. They declared it a success, though the Havana skyline aroused an unsettling mixture of triumph and melancholy.

``It was very emotional because I thought I wouldn't see it again,'' said Elsa Herrera, 50, of Miami. ``That's where I belong.''

The latest in a series of seaborne protests organized by the Democracia Movement, Saturday's flotilla marked the second anniversary of the sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo. Cuban boats rammed and sunk the vessel after it was commandeered by disaffected Cubans. Forty-one people drowned.

``This is a sad trip,'' said Chuny Montaner, who works with the protest group Concilio Cubano. ``This is not one of happiness. Hopefully, the eyes of the world will open.''

Someone asked her: Is the world paying attention?

``One day it will,'' she said. ``We have to knock on every door as many times as possible.''

Reaching destination

Knocking on Cuba's door once again, the flotilla reached its destination at midday Saturday, a point 13 miles from Cuba, just outside the territorial limit.

The exiles recited prayers, tossed wreaths of red and white carnations, and spread the ashes of Juan Bernardo Varela. A young man who survived the tugboat incident, he finally arrived in Miami last year but died of cancer in May. He was 28.

``He participated in the first flotilla,'' said Guillermo Castillo of Democracia, ``and he asked that when he died, his ashes be scattered in the sea off Cuba.''

And so, they were.

Launched five months after Cuban MiGs shot down two private American planes and killed four people, the voyage of protest provoked security alerts on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

A fighter squadron stood ready at Homestead Air Reserve Base in case MiGs neared the vessels. An AWACS military surveillance plane flew high over the flotilla. Radar installations on the mainland monitored the sky.

In Cuba, Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said his nation was ``ready to protect the sovereignty of its air and sea space, no matter what the price.''

Hinted at showdown

Flotilla leader Ramon Saul Sanchez had hinted that the boats would enter Cuban waters, inciting a showdown, but he backed away after the Clinton administration expressed support for his overall campaign -- though opposition to any intrusion into Cuban territory.

The White House also authorized the Coast Guard to block any flotilla vessel heading into Cuban waters. Violators faced confiscation of their boats, fines and prison terms.

``There will come a time when we will land in Cuba,'' said Sanchez. ``We were born there, but we are not able to go back.

``But this is something that has to be conducted step by step. We will be patient, as much as possible.''

In the end, the voyage proceeded virtually without blemish, though several vessel reportedly ran out of fuel or turned back after encountering engine trouble. It also proceeded under the watchful eyes of American authorities.

A Coast Guard cutter monitored the flotilla's progress and safety. To prevent vessels from inadvertently entering Cuban waters, Coast Guard personnel stationed in a small rubber boat bobbed at Cuba's 12-mile limit.

Before departure, Coast Guard officers inspected the flotilla's boats at a Key West marina and confirmed their seaworthiness. Coast Guard Lt. Mike Loy said they found only minor violations like expired flares.

Loy is stationed on the Nantucket, a cutter cruising the straits Feb. 24 when the planes from the humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue were shot down in international airspace.

``We were the first on that scene,'' Loy said. ``We know why they're out there today.''

Unable to make trip

At about the time he said that, Agustin Garcia addressed a group of friends. Garcia helped with flotilla logistics but was unable to join his colleagues at sea.

``Bring me a container of water,'' he said. ``If I can't go this time, at least I'm going to pour the water over my head and bathe in it.''

Nearby, Democracia's Leon Rozio darted from boat to boat, delivering pastries and soda. During a break, he recalled a luminous moment from the group's final pre-launch meeting.

Rozio asked for questions. A young girl raised her hand. The room hushed.

She asked: ``Do you have to go?''

He answered: ``Yes. It is my duty.''

She asked: ``But do they all have to go?''

He answered: ``Yes. It is all our duties.

``It is, you see, our obligation.''

Herald staff writers Cynthia Corzo and Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.

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Copyright 1996 The Miami Herald