A few minutes before Movimiento Democracia’s three boats got as close as 12 ½ miles from Havana to put on a fireworks show Saturday night, tension overcame the anti-Castro organization’s members.
The Cuban government had challenged the presence of the flotilla even though the boats were in international waters. And the U.S. Coast Guard had received instructions from Washington to keep the protesters a “prudent” distance away from the island.
The tension broke when the flotilla voluntarily pulled back to 13 miles from Cuba.
In March, the Cuban ministry of Foreign Affairs had officially condemned, for the first time, a Movimiento Democracia flotilla that sailed close to Cuba while the Pope Benedict XVI was visiting. Authorities accused the exiles of an act of provocation.
“The governments of Cuba and the United States have their tension, but as Cubans we have the right to enter and leave our territory,” said MD leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez. “We will stay at 13 miles because we don’t want to cause problems. This is a totally pacifist event to express solidarity with the Cuban people.”
The fireworks were intended to highlight the lack of freedom of Cuban civil society and the government’s censorship of Internet access. It was the most recent activity of the group that advocates Cuba’s immediate democratization.
Connection to the Internet in Cuba is restricted to official entities and, under strict supervision, to educational and cultural institutions. Access to foreigners and Cuban citizens must be officially authorized.
Payment for service must be made in dollars or some other convertible currency. The price for one hour online, with a slow connection, is normally $8 to $12 at cybercafés and hotels. In the parallel black market that operates with access codes, the cost is $40 to $50 an hour.
The flotilla sailed over the weekend from Key West amid great expectations. Exiles were flanked by banners with slogans saying “Freedom!” There were also photographs of recently deceased activists such as Laura Pollán, leader of the Ladies in White, the organization of mothers and wives of political prisoners, and Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement.
They prayed, sang Cuba’s national anthem, and expressed slogans in favor of respect for human rights and individual freedoms.
In early June dozens of exiles and activists inside and outside of Cuba addressed a letter to President Raúl Castro demanding the ratification of the 2008 United Nations agreements on political and civil rights.
The so-called Citizens’ Demand for Another Cuba asks that a legal and political framework be guaranteed for a broad debate of ideas.
On this occasion, as they drew close to the island, exiles tossed white and yellow roses into the ocean in tribute to those who have fought peacefully for freedom in the civil society and for the end of the Castro dictatorship.
“This has been a very emotional moment,” said Mario Páez, a member of the Cuban Naval Circle and an MD volunteer. “I never lose hope of returning to a free Cuba.”
Of the 16 maritime expeditions that MD has led to the fringe of Cuban waters, only three have included fireworks. This time, the organizers used larger detonators so that more Cubans could see the lights from any point of Havana’s seawall and adjacent areas.
The 43-foot Musele Prince launched the fireworks from 9 to after 10:15 p.m. Saturday. With no rain or high waves, the so-called Lights of Freedom fulfilled their purpose and lighted up the sky.
“It has been a beautiful spectacle,” said José Aguilar, an activist who took part in the voyage. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen in my life.”