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Flotilla Takes Democracy Demonstration to Edge of Cuba’s Waters

May 21, 1990

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ A flotilla of private boats piloted by exiles sailed Sunday across the wave-tossed Florida Straits to rally for democracy on the edge of communist Cuba’s territory.

Cuban patrol boats were waiting, but there were no confrontations, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Karonis, a Coast Guard spokesman.

″It was a very emotional moment for all the Cubans who particiapted in this,″ said Julio Rebull of Miami. ″We felt we were right in front of the wall, like the Berlin wall, that separates our people.″

Although 34 boats sailed from Key West at sunrise, only 24 made it all the way to the rendezvous point about 20 miles north of the Cuban coast by early afternoon, Karonis said.

The flotilla sailed parallel with the Cuban coast for about six miles, then headed back across the strait for Key West, said Petty Officer Luis Diaz.

Exiles tossed wreaths of flowers and bottles with messages into the water, Rebull said. For seven minutes, a Catholic priest read prayers to a Cuban operator monitoring a VHF radio channel from the lighthouse at Havana harbor, he added.

″By just looking and knowing on the horizon that we were less than an hour away from our homeland, and after talking on the VHF, everyone was crying,″ said Rebull, 53, a veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. ″For me personnally, it was the most emotional moment in my 30 years of exile.″

Rebull said the Cuban operator acknowledged recieving the message, but made no further response. The ocean current carried the messages and flowers north, away from Cuba.

Coast Guard Cutters on patrol in the Straits monitored the flotilla by radar, but did not provide an escort, Coast Guard officials said. They had warned the exiles to protest verbally but go along peacefully if they were intercepted by Cuban defense forces, and also warned them that Cuba claims a territorial sea extending 12 miles or more from the coastline.

The expedition was billed as a peaceful demonstration against Cuba’s Communist government as well as a celebration of Cuba’s independence from Spain.

″It will bring a message of solidarity and support for efforts seeking democracy in Cuba,″ spokesman Jose Basulto said before the flotilla sailed.

Backers had said they expected more than 100 boats to take park. But Diaz said that no more than 51 signed up, and only 34 actually sortied out of Key West.

For reasons ranging from breakdowns to not wanting to buck 5-foot waves in the center of the 90-mile-wide straits, 10 of those 34 stayed on this side, Diaz said.

It’s not the first time Cuban exiles have ventured into the Florida Straits to protest Castro’s government. In September 1988, two boatloads of exiles left Key West to protest human rights abuses on the island. Cuban gunboats stopped them 17 miles offshore.

Coincidentally, as the flotilla headed south Sunday morning, two Cubans escaping the island on a raft of innertubes were spotted by a pleasure boat in the Straits about 20 miles east of Key West.

Karonis said the sunburned pair were picked up by a Coast Guard boat and brought in to Key West, where they were turned over to U.S. immigration authorities Sunday afternoon.

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