Police warn of arrests today
By ELAINE DE VALLE
Herald Staff Writer
Despite police warnings that they may be arrested, members of the Movimiento Democracia and other Cuban exile groups pushing for the release of a seized vessel vowed to disrupt the commute in Miami-Dade County today and cause other chaos.
They promised to sit and lie down in the streets, block busy thoroughfares or intersections, flood phone lines at federal agencies and the White House, and even disrupt service at post offices.
While protest leaders declined to be specific about when and where most of the disruptions would occur, they did provide one detailed schedule: on Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m., they promise to stop traffic from entering or leaving the Port of Miami-Dade.
The threat of disruptions follows a 19-day hunger strike by Democracia leader Ramon Saul Sanchez, whose boat, The Human Rights, was seized by
presidential decree in December as he planned to set sail for Cuba with the goal of distributing 2,000 copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On Sunday, more than 200 supporters sat on the steps of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami, applauding and cheering Sanchez's call to the community's conscience.
''Yes, they are going to haul us off to jail. Yes, they are going to arrest us,'' said Sanchez, so weakened by his fast that his father and another man had to hold him up. ''But I ask that you not resist. When a police officer comes up to you, don't scream at them. Don't raise your hand to them.
''Then they won't be jailing a woman or a man. They will be jailing a piece of dignity.''
During the vigil, which kicked off the weeklong campaign of ''civil disobedience,'' everyone raised a hand -- many raised both -- when Sanchez asked who was committed to the crusade.
Goal is release of boat
But he cautioned his followers not to be violent, not to disobey police orders, and to stop all activities when told to do so by protest leaders once the objective is reached: release of the boat. The crowd agreed.
''Our enemy is to the south. This country is our brother,'' Sanchez said, reminding them that the group's beef is with the U.S. government, not the American people.
''Although their government has done what they have done, the people here are our friends. There will be conflict, but this is a decent and respectful community, and when that conflict occurs, it will be with dignity.''
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Sanchez said he was hopeful that disruptions would not be necessary and that the boat would be returned soon.
''The thing that frightens me a little bit is that his life is on the line if he doesn't end the hunger strike,'' said Andy Kayton, legal director for the ACLU of Florida.
U.S. role questioned
''It is difficult to understand, at this point, what benefit the federal government gets from continuing to keep the vessel,'' he said.
The government has other resources to keep Sanchez from breaching the security zone around Cuba, he said.
''One of the ironies in this situation, notwithstanding the government concern that there was probable cause that this vessel was going to Cuba, is that at the time it was seized, it was mechanically incapable of going to Cuba,'' Kayton said.
''When somebody's life is on the line, as here, that is no time for the government to rest on any sort of institutional ego. The circumstances are far too important.''
As for the planned traffic protests, nobody would say specifically what roads would be targeted.
''We can't say now or we would be neutralized,'' Democracia spokesman Norman del Valle said. Like many, he said he isn't afraid of being arrested.
''What an honor,'' he said.
That's exactly what will happen to demonstrators who disrupt or block traffic on state roads, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Ernesto Duarte, who remembers the traffic nightmare of a 1995 protest that blocked traffic on the Dolphin Expressway.
That demonstration grew out of President Clinton's reversal of a long-standing U.S. policy to welcome Cuban rafters.
''When you use large dump trucks to block or slow traffic down on a major highway, you are not talking about inconveniencing the public. What you are really doing is placing lives and property at peril,'' Duarte said.
''There are many different lawful methods of protesting. We hope that they reconsider and not attempt to impede the roadways. If they do, their vehicles are subject to tow as well as drivers being arrested,'' he said.
''We hope it doesn't come to that because we are part of the community also, but we are not going to tolerate this from anyone.''
City manager's expectations
Miami City Manager Donald Warshaw said he did not expect problems.
''Over the years, in my years as police chief, we have had numerous demonstrations and we have always worked with the exile community through the permitting process,'' he said. ''We've really had very few negative incidents, and I don't anticipate that this time will be any ifferent.''
Though most protests are nondisruptive, the city will take ''appropriate measures'' to ensure public safety, Warshaw said.
But the threat of arrest does not deter some protesters.
Nadia del Toro and Felicia Garcia each spent time in Cuban jails -- two years for del Toro and 19 years 6 months for Garcia.
Del Toro also spent time in Dade County Jail after a 1991 protest at the port.
''Compared to the jails in Cuba, this is a country club,'' she said.
''We know this is something that will bother a lot of people, and I understand. It is not something that we want to do; in fact, it's the last thing we want to do. But we have to do something so they listen to us.''