Sail Away and Stay and Stay

Ramon Saul Sanchez's Democracy Movement unveils a new twist on the venerable sit-in protest: The float-in

The 1995 commemoration consisted of a flotilla of thirteen sport-fishing boats that motored from Key West to the edge of Cuban waters. After delivering a eulogy for the victims, Sanchez led one of the vessels, the 39-foot Democracia, across the territorial limit. Two Cuban patrol vessels sandwiched the exile craft. In the ensuing collision, three people on Democracia were hurt, including Miami-Dade Commissioner Pedro Reboredo, whose toe was smashed. (Reboredo, who recently resigned his seat after admitting to misspending county funds, did not attend the Big Five event.)

Seven months later an infinitely more violent encounter between exiles and Cuban government forces occurred -- namely the February 24, 1996, shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in the vicinity of the twelve-mile limit, killing four people. Less than a week later, President Bill Clinton responded with Proclamation 6867, which was aimed at preventing protesters from entering Cuban waters and provoking another international incident. The decree, which cited the shootdown and the tugboat incident, established a "security zone" along the South Florida coast from Boca Raton on the Atlantic to midway between Naples and Fort Myers on the Gulf. Private boats could not leave the zone with the intention of entering Cuban waters without authorization from the U.S. Coast Guard. Moreover the Coast Guard could seize a vessel if its captain refused to state whether he planned to travel to Cuban waters. In February 1997 Clinton renewed the proclamation.

Sanchez found the decree and the security zone a bit dictatorial, and he pressed on with well-publicized plans for another flotilla in July 1997. The U.S. Coast Guard confiscated the Democracia before it could leave Key West.

Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez is plotting a bold new course right through the precarious straits of U.S.-Cuban relations
Greg Horston
Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez is plotting a bold new course right through the precarious straits of U.S.-Cuban relations
Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez is plotting a bold new course right through the precarious straits of U.S.-Cuban relations
Steve Satterwhite
Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez is plotting a bold new course right through the precarious straits of U.S.-Cuban relations

The Democracy Movement filed a lawsuit seeking return of the boat, and while waiting for justice bought another craft and christened it Derechos Humanos (Human Rights). In January 1998 Sanchez and three others motored the 35-foot sport-fishing vessel out of a marina in Palm Beach County, circumventing the security zone, and headed south in hopes of witnessing Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba and making a symbolic statement about their right to return to their homeland. Bad weather and engine trouble forced them to abort the mission.

The tide began to turn in the Democracy Movement's favor in April, 1998, when the Coast Guard returned the Democracia, just before Sanchez's attorneys filed a lawsuit that would have challenged the presidential proclamation as unconstitutional. The lawyers would soon have another chance.

On December 10, 1998, Sanchez and six Democracy Movement colleagues departed from Marathon Key aboard the Derechos Humanos, laden with hundreds of copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fifty miles into the journey, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel stopped them. Officers climbed aboard and stayed there, as the presidential proclamation allows. The Derechos Humanos continued toward Cuban waters for another half-hour, whereupon it broke down. The Coast Guard towed the boat back to Key West and impounded it.

A nearly two-year legal battle ensued. Sanchez kicked it off with a hunger strike in May 1999 aimed at forcing the return of the boat. Meanwhile his legal crew -- Joe Geller, Anastasia Garcia, Luis Fernandez, and Peggy Fisher -- filed a lawsuit contending the proclamation violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights of Sanchez and Democracy Movement members. He ended the hunger strike after three weeks, when U.S. officials agreed to open negotiations to discuss a possible return of the Derechos Humanos.

In February 2000 federal Judge Donald Graham denied the government's request to have the complaint dismissed. The seizure, he ruled, may have deprived the Democracy Movement of the symbolic use of the vessel (First Amendment). The five months it took the Coast Guard to begin a forfeiture proceeding, in which case the boat would never be returned, deprived the group of due process (Fifth Amendment). It would be premature to rule on whether the seizure of the vessel was unlawful (Fourth Amendment), but "scrupulous exactitude" must be applied to seized material that is also protected by the First Amendment. Graham also suggested the proclamation's provision that captains must disclose their intentions to travel to Cuban waters might be tantamount to self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment). The judge assigned a federal mediator to help settle the matter.

Last August the two sides reached a truce. The U.S. Coast Guard returned the Derechos Humanos, and the Democracy Movement agreed the boat would stay at least two miles from Cuban waters. The group also acknowledged the security zone as "valid, lawful, and constitutional." In addition the Democracy Movement consented to reimburse the government $3200 (in monthly installments of $100) for the cost of storing the vessel. The organization's lawyers, in turn, won more leeway for future voyages: A crew's refusal to provide verbal assurances they will not enter Cuban waters cannot be the sole basis for seizure of a vessel.

When a Republican won last November's presidential election, arguably with Cuban-exile votes providing him the Sunshine State, it seemed that the Democracy Movement's ship had come in. But President George W. Bush renewed Proclamation 6867 this past February. Sanchez sent him a letter expressing the group's "great disappointment," likening the decree to those of "dictatorial regimes." He mailed copies to four other Republicans: Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas. "To some, Presidential Proclamation 6867 is nothing less than the continuation of the Kennedy-Khruschev Understanding, which condemned the Cuban people to permanent dictatorship to satisfy the United States' foreign-policy interests with the former Soviet Union," Sanchez wrote.

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