Exile fireworks show off Cuba irks Castro govt

December 10, 2011 - 3:25 AM
Cuba Exile Flotilla

Fireworks lighten up by a coalition of Cuban exiles from boats anchored 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the Cuban capital, just outside Cuba's territorial waters, are seen from Havana, Cuba, Friday Dec. 9, 2011. The boats sailed south from Florida on Friday to protest the island's human rights record by lighting up the night sky with fireworks, eliciting a stern rebuke from Havana officials who called it an affront to national sovereignty. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

HAVANA (AP) — Fireworks shot from a flotilla organized by Miami exiles exploded in red and white balls off the coast of Havana to call attention to Cuba's human rights record. The stunt irritated Cuban officials but drew few spectators.

The display was visible only intermittently Friday night at a distance of a little more than 12 miles (19 kilometers) from where the exiles anchored their boats just outside Cuban territorial waters under overcast skies and sporadic rain.

Just a handful of people were out along the Malecon seaside promenade, which normally is bustling with young Cubans who socialize along the city's "great sofa" on weekends.

When an Associated Press team tried to interview the few who came out, a pro-government crowd of more than 20 people ran across the wide boulevard shouting "American press!" and demanding that a video camera be turned over. Some were holding bottles of alcohol and appeared to have been drinking.

The journalists identified themselves as accredited members of the press with the right to work in Cuba. One cameraman was punched in the face, another's thumb was sprained and a video camera was broken in the melee before the crew managed to leave.

Exile organizers in Miami said the 18th protest flotilla over the years was not meant as a provocation, though they also said they were trying to coordinate the protest with actions by dissidents on the island on the eve of International Human Rights Day.

The exiles said they were exercising their right to freedom of expression, and the U.S. government said it couldn't legally stop them.

Cuban officials accused them of having malicious aims.

"There's a whole program of provocative acts," said Jose Luis Mendez, an official at Cuba's Interior Ministry. "This is not just about innocuous fireworks. It is subversive."

Before the fireworks, more than two dozen members of the Ladies in White dissident group held a literary tea and discussion of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the house of former leader Laura Pollan, who died last month.

A boisterous crowd of government supporters clogged the street outside the house shouting epithets like "worms" and proclaiming support for Fidel and Raul Castro in what is known in Cuba as an "act of repudiation."

The government says such counter-demonstrations are spontaneous outpourings of revolutionary sentiment, despite thinly veiled coordination with state security agents. The street outside the house had been closed to traffic since Thursday.

"We cannot celebrate Human Rights Day here in Cuba. We can't because they repress us and beat us. Right now there's an act of repudiation in front of the Ladies in White headquarters," said Bertha Soler, one of the group's founders. She accused police of blocking some members from attending the meeting.

Other dissidents also reported that government opponents were briefly held to keep them from gathering or protesting, though their accounts could not be independently confirmed.

The government strenuously denies beating dissidents, whom it considers common criminals. It accuses them of taking money from Washington to destabilize the island and bring down its socialist revolution.

Flotilla organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez of the small nonprofit group the Democracy Movement said about 50 protesters put on the fireworks display from six boats, including an 85-foot vessel and a small security craft. About a dozen members of the news media followed them.

State Department Spokesman William Ostick said U.S. authorities had met with the organizers to ensure they complied with U.S. and international laws. He said the organizers offered assurances they would not violate Cuban territorial waters or airspace.

"The United States government does not promote or encourage this activity," Ostick said in a statement. The U.S. Coast Guard said it would patrol the area to ensure the protesters stayed more than 12 miles off Cuba.

Nevertheless, Cuban authorities criticized Washington for not blocking the protest.

"That the Obama administration did not refuse to allow this kind of action is a very troubling sign, from the vantage point of it could create situations that nobody wants," Mendez said.

An official in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Rene Mujica, said President Raul Castro's government had communicated its concern to Washington but declined to say whether it had sent a formal protest note.

"The United States is perfectly informed about the Cuban government's concerns regarding this kind of provocations that have been repeatedly made against our country," Mujica said.

Past exile actions have included clandestine missions on or near the island. In 1996, the Cuban military shot down two planes carrying activists from the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four members. Cuba maintains the group flew into Cuban territory. The activists deny the allegation.

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Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.