Flotilla shoots off fireworks near Cuba
Exiles aboard the flotilla stopped short of Cuban waters before setting
off the firewords during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba.
By Cammy Clark
OFFSHORE OF HAVANA -- As the bright orange sun set Tuesday, a Cuban
exile flotilla of three fishing boats called the Democracia, Muscle
Princess and Nilito's Toy II stopped in choppy, deep blue international
waters — 12 ½ nautical miles from Havana — to set off fireworks. They
symbolized "lights to liberty."
At first, just a few tall buildings could be seen in the distance. As it
got darker, the entire coastline lit up.
"I'm thinking I'm so close, yet so far away," said Rufina Velazquez, 23,
who came to Miami in 2009 on a political refugee visa. "This is the
closest I've been to my family for over three years and the closest I am
going to be in I don't know how many more years. The Cuban government is
keeping me not just from my family, but from my people and my country."
It's the closest most of the 30 or so Cuban exiles who took part in the
flotilla have been to their homeland in decades, since they fled the
Exiles old and young made the more than 160-mile, 18-hour roundtrip boat
journey – in sea conditions that became increasingly dangerous
throughout the night – to show support for their countrymen who are
actively seeking their own freedom.
The trip, which left from the Key West Bight Marina, could not wait for
calmer seas – not when the world's eyes were focused on the island
nation for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
Despite winds gusting to 20 knots and waves up to 7 feet, the high seas
light show began. Visibility was good to see the fireworks that filled
the sky, first with colors of white and yellow to welcome the pope.
Cheers soon erupted on the 39-foot boat Democracia. Ramon Saul Sanchez,
leader of the Democracy Movement and organizer of the flotilla,
announced that he just learned from a Cuban blogger he reached via
satellite phone that the fireworks could indeed be seen from various
sights in Cuba.
The boat's radio operator also was receiving messages in Morse code that
confirmed the fireworks could be seen on the island. "The people who can
see them are getting goose bumps and are so happy," Saul Sanchez said.
The fireworks continued for more than an hour, with the colors getting
brighter and brighter. They were launched from the Muscle Princess, a
Marathon-based stone crab commercial vessel loaned to the effort by
Cuban exile Denny Valladares. He arrived in the United States in 1980
during the Mariel Boatlift and no longer has family living in Cuba. But
he still wants to live long enough to see a free Cuba.
"Cuba is like a big prison," Velazquez said. "The fireworks are
important to show the Cuban people that we do understand, we do care,
and we do support everything they are doing. We're blood. We're
brothers. Every Cuban in every part of the world cares about you. And
Cubans everywhere, in China, in Mexico, want a free Cuba."
Velazquez left Cuba by herself. Her entire family still lives in Cuba,
including her dad who was jailed Monday as he began to participate in a
march with the pope project. The last time she saw him he was in jail,
serving a three-year term for similar political dissident activity that
involved peaceful marching.
Older exiles with no family left on the island also want the same thing.
"My father was killed by Castro," said Nilo Hernandez, who loaned his
Nilito's Toy II fishing boat for the flotilla and organized the repairs
of the Democracia, a boat that had not sailed in five years.
Democracia was symbolically important because it was the boat that was
rammed by a Cuban gunboat in 1995 as it entered Cuban waters. The
incident brought international awareness to the cause. Roberto Rodriguez
Tajera, who hosts a Univision radio show called Prohibido Callarse, was
on the Democracia that day and said one Cuban gunboat blocked it from
moving while a second Cuban gunboat hit it on the side.
"It was scary," he recalled.
This time the closest the Democracia got to a Cuban gunpoint was miles
away. It was only spotted with binoculars. Flotilla participants joked
people on the gunboat were waving white flags.
The Democracia, with American and Cuban flags flapping in the wind, did
not leave international waters Tuesday. Three U.S. Coast Guard cutters
and a C-130 plane ensured the flotilla was safe and that it stayed legal.
The U.S. Coast Guard also inspected all the vessels for safety before
the trip. "We want good communication with them," Saul Sanchez said.
As the Democracia stopped just short of Cuban waters on Tuesday, the new
Scarabeo-9 deepwater oil drilling rig could be seen to the right at a
distance. Two Coast Guard cutters were positioned between the rig and
"The Cuban government said we had plans to ram it," Saul Sanchez said,
But this flotilla, No. 26 organized by the Democracy Movement, was
strictly to continue its mission to let the Cuban people know they are
During the fairly calm trip toward Cuba, the flotilla stopped about
halfway for a mini tribute. White roses were handed to everyone. They
sang the Cuban National Anthem.
The white roses were part of a tribute to the Ladies in White in Cuba
who are now protesting human rights violations and to those Cubans who
died in these waters trying to reach freedom in the United States on
creaky boats and makeshift rafts.
A second expedition had been planned to leave at 10 p.m. Tuesday evening
and arrive offshore of Havana for the 9 a.m. Wednesday mass by the Pope,
but it was cancelled due to the weather.
And the cancellation was wise. Sea conditions worsened as the flotilla
returned to Key West. Winds picked up to 23 knots and waves at times
were 10 feet high or more as rain showers appeared. Several waves
splashed over the entire Democracia, which was having an issue with its
fuel line and had to stop or slow down several times for repairs.
A Coast Guard cutter was never far away.
All passengers were requested to put on lifejackets for the return
journey, in which standing up on the boat was nearly impossible. Most of
the 19 onboard became sick as the boat was tossed from side to side in
the choppy seas. At about 7 a.m. Wednesday, just as the sun was rising,
the Democracia pulled back into the Key West Bight Marina with everyone
safe and free.