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
Greg Horston

Sail Away and Stay and Stay

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 Times called 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 Marzo sank 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.

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.

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.

Despite the choppy political waters, the humanitarian-aid boat may be just the kind of thing the Democracy Movement needs to stay on course. And the organization shows no sign of losing steam, as evidenced by the Big Five event, which brought together members of diverse groups such as SAVE Dade, the American Civil Liberties Union, and old-guard anti-Castristas like the Mothers Against Repression and Agenda Cuba. (Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Santos was invited but did not attend.) After the speeches, which were kept short, participants enjoyed a fine meal featuring stuffed Cornish game hen and then danced until midnight to the salsa rhythms of the Conjunto Los Profesionales. The fete raised about $16,700 of the needed $500,000, which means there are roughly 30 galas to go.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >