Exiles: We had right to make voyage

Saturday, Jul 07, 2001 04:40
The Miami Herald 
September 7, 2001

 Say they will fight charges


 Cuban exile leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez, flanked by a self-proclaimed ``Freedom of Speech Team'' of prominent attorneys, vowed Thursday to fight conspiracy charges 
 for illegally entering Cuban waters.

 On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced that Sánchez and two other members of the Democracy Movement had been indicted for illegally entering Cuban 
 waters in July -- the first time anyone has been criminally charged for violating the South Florida security zone.

 Sánchez, 47, and Miami residents Alberto Pérez, 58, and Pablo Rodríguez, 48, are scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Hugh Morgan in Key West next week.


 Invoking the name of civil rights figure Rosa Parks, Sánchez said he would challenge a presidential proclamation signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 that was designed to 
 prevent Americans from causing a confrontation with the Cuban government in its territorial waters.

 ``The right to own slaves? To prevent black people from sitting in the front of the bus?'' said Sánchez, calling the proclamation ``infamy.''

 The group spoke at a packed news conference at Democracy Movement headquarters in West Miami-Dade County. Afterward, the group drove to the Bay of Pigs 
 Monument in Little Havana to await a summons for the hearing.

 Sánchez placed six white roses in the chain-link fence surrounding the memorial to Cuban exiles killed during the 1961 invasion.

 Pérez, meanwhile, stood silently nearby, his rose held against his chest.

 ``I came here because I wasn't a free man,'' said the truck driver, who left the island during the Mariel exodus. ``I am ready to go to prison.''

 Rodríguez, a land surveyor who lives in the Redland, called the current situation ``uncomfortable.''

 ``You are being indicted for something you think is your right,'' he said. ``This is a matter of conscience. I believe we have the right to return to our homeland.''

 Sánchez said the flowers were ``our weapons,'' symbolic of José Martí's poem La Rosa Blanca.


 In it, Martí writes of nonviolence and kindness toward the enemy: ``And for the cruel one who tears out the heart with which I live . . . I grow the white rose.''

 ``This is a classic case of selective prosecution,'' Sánchez's lawyer, Kendall Coffey, said, referring to the fact that since 1996, the Coast Guard has issued more than 
 3,000 permits to leave the security zone of U.S. waters for Cuba.

 The only three that were declined by the Coast Guard were from Democracy Movement members.

 ``They say `yes' except to those who say `no' to Castro,'' Coffey said.

 The three defendants, who allegedly ignored a Coast Guard warning to return to international waters during a flotilla protest in Cuban territorial waters on July 14, face up 
 to 10 years in prison, fines and forfeiture of their boat.

 The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said this was the first time anyone has been charged with violating the Florida security zone -- covering all of the Sunshine State 
 except parts of the Panhandle -- since it was established in 1996.

 In Havana on Thursday, the daily Granma, official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, reported the indictment of Sánchez and his two companions factually and 
 with little comment.

 The newspaper cited unidentified Cuban ``observers'' as saying, ``The judicial process . . . will have a strong dose of politicization,'' and the outcome will be ``presumably 
 favorable to the people who violated the laws of both countries.

 ``While ruling out the possibility of real sanctions against the defendants, other analysts stress that the principal significance of the charges is a confirmation that the 
 American authorities are aware of the anti-Cuban activities of those groups that reside in [U.S.] territory,'' the report said.

 A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was less subdued, calling the indictment ``good news for both countries.''


 ``This man violated national water laws, thus he committed a crime,'' said Frank Vazquez. ``The Coast Guard had warned him against being a provocateur. Now he has to 
 face the charges.''

 As for the exile leader's contention that he had a right to return as a Cuban citizen, Vazquez said Sánchez could always apply for permission through the Cuban Interests 

 Would he be allowed to stage a flotilla?

 ``If he wanted to do something negative? No country would allow it.''

 Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report. 

                                    © 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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