BY EUNICE PONCE
The U.S. Coast Guard detained Democracy Movement leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez and two members of the organization with little fuss Saturday morning after they
illegally entered Cuban waters during a planned protest to commemorate the 1994 sinking of the 13 de Marzo tugboat by Cuban gunships.
Sánchez, Alberto Perez and Pablo Rodriguez were taken aboard the Coast Guard cutter Spencer and brought to Key West, where they were released at the request of the U.S. attorney's office in Miami.
Their 23-foot speedboat is being held by the Coast Guard at its Key West base until word arrives Monday from federal officials on its fate.
The speedboat was part of a five-vessel flotilla that left from Conch Harbor Marina in Key West early Saturday morning for the yearly memorial service for 41 would-be Cuban refugees killed in the 13 de Marzo incident -- an incident survivors and the Cuban exile community call "a massacre'' and the Cuban government calls "an accident.''
Also sailing were the Democracia, carrying 20 people, the Human Rights and the Shark, carrying six each, and the Family Ties, carrying five. Those boats stayed in
international waters, Coast Guard spokesman Robert Suddarth said.
Suddarth said the group had been warned beforehand not to enter Cuban waters.
"It was a scheduled flotilla; we had a cutter down there in the area,'' Suddarth said. ``The Coast Guard went to the flotilla beforehand and did notify them where they were allowed to go and what would happen if they violated that.''
Violators are subject to having their boats seized, a fine not exceeding $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 10 years.
But Sánchez said he told Coast Guard officials that the group was planning to challenge, "in a proactive, innovative way,'' the South Florida Security Zone, based on former President Bill Clinton's Presidential Proclamation 6867, which requires small, private vessels to obtain a permit if they intend to enter Cuban seas.
Sánchez says he believes that law is being selectively enforced to target his group's activities. He cites the Coast Guard's own counts, published on its website, showing that while 3,000 permits have been issued, only three have been denied, all for the Democracy Movement.
Sánchez said the group named the speedboat, "My Right to Return Home,'' with a large banner with the name in both English and Spanish.
"They saw that,'' he said. "If they failed to click, sorry. But I want to stress that we have a great amount of respect for the Coast Guard -- they are people of their word, and until now they have respected ours.''
Sánchez said he had no trouble from the Cuban coast guard while he and his two companions tossed flowers into the water for those killed on the tugboat, and sang the Cuban national anthem.
This is not the first time Sánchez has had a boat confiscated. In December 1998, the U.S. government seized the Human Rights after Sánchez refused to promise that he wouldn't take it into Cuban waters. After Sánchez staged a 20-day hunger strike in May 1999, the boat was returned.
© 2001 The Miami Herald