By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
On a stormy Saturday night at the Big Five Club in west Miami-Dade, the Democracy Movement (Movimiento Democracia) revealed its plan for the newest and biggest weapon yet in the war against Fidel Castro. Many distinguished members of el exilio had gathered to lend their moral and financial support. Among the troops, who sat at big round dinner tables covered with white tablecloths, were veteran commandos such as Ernestino Abreu, the spunky septuagenarian who landed a small boat in western Cuba in May 1998. His plan was to start a revolt against the bearded one, but instead he was arrested, convicted, and returned to the United States for health reasons this past February.
Father Francisco Santana set a solemn tone for the evening with a poignant benediction, in which he referred to Cuban socialism as an "intrinsically perverse system" and then invoked a favorite line from liberation theology by reminding folks that "we are the protagonists of our own history."
The priest turned over the floor to mistress of ceremonies Marta Flores, who occasionally does her own part to encourage partisans of violence against the Castro regime, such as Comandos F4 director Rodolfo Frómeta, who recently called her nightly talk show on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710). For this gala affair, however, Flores chose to applaud the chieftains of civic leadership in the crowd, including Sweetwater Mayor Pepe Diaz, West Miami Mayor Rebeca Sosa, and (after someone reminded her) Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. Then she introduced Ramon Saul Sanchez, the charismatic capitán of the Democracy Movement, the foremost Cuban-exile force on the high seas.
Before offering a glimpse of the weapon, Sanchez also had a few philosophical remarks to make. The 46-year-old employee of a nonprofit economic-development corporation delivered them in a manner more Evangelical than Catholic. No stranger to the concept of armed opposition, Sanchez led the Organization for the Liberation of Cuba in the early Eighties but has never publicly disclosed its deeds. He spent four and a half years in federal prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating members of another exile group, Omega 7, one of whom was convicted for the 1980 assassination of a Cuban diplomat in New York.
But the fight against Castro has evolved since then. "The biggest force is not a gun nor a grenade nor a bomb," he shouted in Spanish into a hand-held microphone, his voice booming through loudspeakers. "It is nonviolent civic struggle!" And what is the new armament Sanchez has invented for this critical juncture of nonviolent warfare against Castro? A boat, naturally. Specifically an old 102-foot navy vessel that would be provisioned with food and medical supplies and staffed with medical doctors.
The Democracy Movement doesn't actually have the ship yet. The plan, should the group raise the $500,000 or so needed to purchase the craft, is for the vessel to idle about twelve miles off Cuba, just outside Cuban territorial waters. The crew would request authority from Havana to steam ashore and deliver the supplies. Sanchez says the goods would go only to opposition groups, never to the Cuban government. The ship would stay there indefinitely (presumably garnering publicity all the while) until permission is granted.
It could be a long wait. Even nonexiles bearing humanitarian goods have been kept at bay. Last month a cargo ship operated by a private Jacksonville shipper attempted -- with authorization from U.S. officials -- to deliver humanitarian supplies to Havana, but Cuban authorities turned it away.
"Every day I spend in exile I feel more like a slave," Sanchez bellowed. "I too have a dream that one day not far away the sufferings of exile will be tossed into the sea. This boat is going to be an embassy of goodwill."
The Coast Guard was caught a little off-guard when New Timescalled for its take on the planned deployment. "The Coast Guard has not been contacted by the Democracy Movement with regard to a humanitarian-aid ship," spokesman Robert Suddarth read from a written statement after consulting with the legal and law-enforcement departments at the Coast Guard's Miami headquarters. But, he explained, it would be legal for the Democracy Movement to station a ship just outside the twelve-mile limit. "Would we monitor them? I think we would," Suddarth added. If the boat's operators attempted to exercise their rights as free Cubans and head south? "We would stop -- or try to stop them," Suddarth assured. But what if the wily comandante in Havana surprised everyone and welcomed the ship? Suddarth said the Coast Guard would not speculate: "That is something that would have to be determined when it happened."
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Democracy Movement have had a tormented relationship at sea dating back six years. The exile organization was born during its first demonstration in the Florida Straits on July 13, 1995, to honor the 41 people, many of them children, who drowned one year earlier when the tugboat 13 de Marzosank eight miles off the coast of Cuba. The operator of the stolen tug had been spiriting about 70 passengers away from the island when it took on water. Survivors said Cuban patrol boats hastened the submersion by firing water hoses into the vessel in an attempt to halt the escape.