tampabay.com

If Cuba opens up, they're ready

By JOSE CARDENAS
Published April 16, 2007


MIAMI - People make offers, but Enrique Bassas is not interested in selling his riverfront property in the shadows of the city's skyline.

The Cuban-American businessman has a personal purpose for the three warehouses and docking space along the Miami River.

In that plan, Bassas and others believe, the Cuban government will begin to crumble and be unable to provide its citizens with basic necessities. Bassas and other Cuban-Americans will then leave Florida with boats full of supplies - and help bring democratic reforms to the island.

Bassas talks about his plans as he stands near the Bimini Breeze, a red and white ferry that he and others hope will carry 49 people and 20 tons of cargo to Cuba.

Bassas fled the island in 1962 through Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan), a Catholic program that helped children leave the island. He was 12.

"All my life, I've said, 'When Cuba is free, I'm going.' "

* * *

No one knows whether large numbers of Cuban-Americans like Bassas will board vessels and sail to Cuba when Fidel Castro dies or at any other point.

The 80-year-old Castro fell ill in July and his brother Raul Castro remains in control. On Friday, Cuba's foreign minister said Fidel is recovering from his undisclosed illness.

In the past few months, federal and South Florida authorities have been preparing for a potential mass migration to and from Cuba. Entering Cuban territorial waters without U.S. permission is illegal. The penalty: a 10-year prison term, a $10,000 fine and seizure of vessels.

In an emergency, the Coast Guard could temporarily prohibit vessels within a security zone around Florida and close marinas and ports.

"We understand that Cuban-Americans desire to provide aid and comfort and to see other people enjoy the freedoms they enjoy," said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, who is based in Miami. "That said, there is a controlled, legal and safe means of migration to the United States."

The first restrictions governing the movement of boats around Florida were enacted in 1995 after a Cuban government vessel hit an American boat that entered Cuban waters.

It belonged to Movimiento Democracia - Democracy Movement - an exile group based in Little Havana.

Bassas has volunteered his warehouses and docking space to Democracia. In its developing plans, the group has arranged to use a few other warehouses and boats offered by Cuban-Americans passionate about the cause. The warehouses sit empty now, but Democracia hopes to use them to store donations of food, medicine, generators and other supplies.

Group members say the signal to go to Cuba would come when the government destabilizes - which is not certain, but which they're banking on - and Cubans need food, medicine and encouragement to uprise.

"When that happens," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, Democracia's leader, "the exiles need to respond, peacefully, nonviolently, to democracy."

Sanchez, 52, is an outspoken activist. His desire to bring democracy to Cuba is respected by Cuban-American community leaders and some in local law enforcement.

When he was 10, Sanchez and a younger brother left Cuba during the "Freedom Flights." Their father joined them in Miami soon after but the brothers never saw their mother again. She died in Cuba a few years ago.

In the 1980s Sanchez spent more than four years in federal prison for refusing to testify in a government investigation of violent anti-Castro groups.

He said during his time in prison he decided to pursue nonviolent civil disobedience.

Now he coordinates his exile activities in between his job with a nonprofit that builds low-income housing.

Sanchez and Democracia are well-known to Coast Guard officials. Sanchez said officials always call him to find out what his group is planning. Coast Guard officials say Sanchez calls them, too.

Five years ago, Sanchez was charged with conspiracy to violate Florida's security zone when a boat he was on went into Cuba's territorial waters.

Sanchez had guided a flotilla to hold a memorial near the spot inside Cuban territorial waters where Cubans trying to reach Florida on a boat drowned.

Sanchez said the group had intended to stay in international waters. But when he saw that the U.S. Coast Guard cutter that normally guarded the area wasn't there, he said he and two other men spontaneously decided to go to the exact spot.

Sanchez argued to a federal jury in Key West that he had the right to return to his homeland. He and the others were found not guilty.

Sanchez enjoys telling the story about how he was not convicted, but says that now he would try to get permission from federal authorities to go to Cuba.

More than likely the world will probably learn of Fidel Castro's death months after Raul Castro has had time to install security measures, said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies at the University of Miami.

A mass migration might occur, he said, if Raul Castro does not do better at providing services. Regardless, the United States is ready, said Gomez, who has participated in meetings with law enforcement agencies preparing for a possible migration.

"I am very much convinced that the efforts among the United States are very well-coordinated," he said. "More so than they have ever been."

* * *

Democracia members meet in a small office on the second floor of a strip mall in Little Havana. Pictures of children who have drowned in the Florida Straits and men who are political prisoners hang on the walls.

The group, in various forms and with different names, has been around since about 1985. Sanchez estimated thousands of people have participated in Democracia's activities over the years. Most are Cuban-Americans who left the island long ago as well as those who have arrived recently. They are of all ages and most are working class.

"We are a poor movement but rich in our love for Cuba," said Carmen Valdes, 64.

Twenty people in the executive committee meet weekly to discuss the news in Cuba, write press releases and plan activities such as vigils. In their written plans, each person has a role to play in organizing that eventual voyage.

"When is it okay to go to Cuba?" they discuss. "If the U.S. doesn't let us go, how do we achieve that anyway?"

To some, the planning might seem obsessive, Sanchez said. But it's born out of love for country, he said.

Sergio Gonzalez speaks fondly of his hometown of Matanzas, a province not far from Havana. He said he spent three years as a political prisoner before he boarded a plane to Florida two years ago as political refugee.

"I would return," Gonzalez, a 45-year-old electrician, said in Spanish. "I love my town tremendously. I think this is a great country, but I want to live in Cuba."

So far, Democracia has three boats docked in spaces donated to the group by sympathetic community members: the Human Rights, Democracia, and My Right to Return Home.

And next to the Bimini Breeze, Bassas also keeps a simple, brown metal boat built in Cuba - a reminder of the Cubans who used it to get to Florida a few years ago.

"I was anti-Castro when I was 12," Bassas said. "Whatever we have to do to liberate my people, I'll do it."