Rally greets released boat Human Rights

Sunday, May 30, 1999 10:25
Herald Staff Writer

About 100 people rallied at Jose Marti Park in Miami on Saturday to welcome the return of the Democracy Movement boat, Human Rights -- out of federal custody and back in its owner's possession following a 20-day hunger strike.

``When you consider the holiday and the rain, the spirit of the people was not broken. We will work through the strength of the few,'' said Gus Garcia, a movement co-founder. ``We can exert our rights without taking others' rights away.''

The rally concluded a sequence of events that began Dec. 10, when federal authorities seized the boat at sea after organization co-founder Ramon Saul Sanchez would not promise to keep the vessel clear of Cuban territorial waters. Months of legal wrangling followed before Sanchez surprised everyone by declaring a water-only hunger strike May 5.

The hunger strike lasted 20 days, and Sanchez shed more than 20 pounds before the U.S. government relented on Monday and conditionally agreed to return the boat. For much of the week, Sanchez lay on a hospital bed while recovering, a gaunt and even frail-looking man in a green hospital gown.

Speaking at the park Saturday, he raised himself back to his full six-foot two-inch height, and seemed reenergized.

While other speakers talked from the park's grandstand, several feet above the crowd, Sanchez descended a few steps to reach eye-level with the crowd and the audience crowded closer.

``There were some very special people who regained our boat and defended our constitutional rights -- the American Civil Liberties Union,'' Sanchez said. The ACLU provided legal help in persuading the government to return the boat.

``My family is the Democracy Movement,'' Sanchez said, shortly before spreading out the crowd into a hand-holding circle. The participants became solemn, heads bowed in sober reflection, before singing the Cuban national anthem.

The boat Human Rights, carried on a flatbed truck, took a circuitous route up from Key West with several stops Friday and Saturday. Police had expressed concerns about the effect on traffic, so the movement remained low-key about all stops except Jose Marti Park.

``At Sweetwater City Hall, the entire police department came out to get their pictures taken with the boat,'' a smiling Garcia said. ``To see law enforcement standing side by side with a symbol of civil rights, even civil disobedience, was amazing. That stop was our greatest worry but it became our greatest victory.''

Sanchez said he was recovering swiftly from his hunger strike, helped by frequent helpings of picadillo and other traditional Cuban fare.

The Human Rights will require some repairs, but the movement will return it to active seagoing service as soon as the group raises funds, Sanchez said.

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