Rough seas mar memorial to four slain Cuban fliers Flotilla stops short of attack site, possible conflict

March 03, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- Cuban-Americans in a small fleet of boats staged a memorial yesterday for four men killed when their planes were shot down by Cuba, but rough seas prevented the vessels from reaching the waters where the main ceremony was to take place -- and any danger of a clash.

Seven-foot waves and pounding rain forced the 35 boats to turn back more than 20 miles short of their destination, international waters 21 miles north of Cuba where the planes had been shot down Feb. 24. But at least some of 17 aircraft that took off from Miami managed to drop smoke flares and flowers at the site.

The chance of a confrontation between Cuban forces and the Cuban-Americans had all but disappeared days earlier, after the organizers of the memorial -- pressured by the Clinton administration -- promised to stay outside Cuba's 12-mile territorial waters.

Cuba, stung by international criticism after the attack on the unarmed planes, promised to act with restraint.

Last night, about 60,000 people from Miami's Cuban-American community gathered at the Orange Bowl stadium for a memorial service that capped the day of anti-Castro events.

During the flotilla, Coast Guard cutters and aircraft kept a close watch to help and implicitly to restrain the fliers and sailors who were organized by Brothers to the Rescue, the volunteer pilot group whose two Cessna planes were shot down by Cuban fighters last week.

Jose Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, used yesterday's memorial to call for intensified opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"We call up on our brethren inside the island to pursue a new means of organization," he said before taking off from Opa Locka Airport near Miami.

"We are entering a new period of struggle against the dictatorship, one which will consist of the organization of nonviolent clandestine cells throughout the island," he said.

Reading a lengthy statement, Mr. Basulto seemed oblivious to a soaking rain, as did his fellow fliers. As he called out the first names of the four dead airmen -- "Mario," "Carlos," "Pablo," "Armando" -- the other fliers responded with shouts of "Presente."

A small crowd of Cuban-Americans, huddled under umbrellas, cheered as Mr. Basulto spoke; one woman quietly sobbed.

Mr. Basulto called for support groups to be created among exiles to help the anti-Castro resistance in Cuba, and for creation of an international tribunal to document what he called "the genocidal policies of the Castro dictatorship against its own people."

"Today we reiterate that we do not want any American blood shed for Cuba," he said. "This is our struggle."

Mr. Basulto's rejection of U.S. military action to overthrow Mr. Castro and his professed dedication to the nonviolent path of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi separate him from more militant Cuban-Americans.

A tearful Ana Roque pinned folded black ribbons bearing the names of the dead fliers to the chests of pilots participating in yesterday's flyover. She is the wife of Juan Pablo Roque, who abandoned her and his fellow members of Brothers to the Rescue last week and has since been exposed as both an agent of the Castro government and an FBI informer.

The first boats set off from Key West in early morning darkness, but the high seas forced some of the vessels to give up just a few miles from shore.

Passengers in the boats that continued offered prayers and dropped wreaths into the waves about 20 miles short of their destination.

The military escort involved about 600 Coast Guard officers and sailors -- outnumbering the participants in the flotilla.

The evening memorial service at the Orange Bowl was attended by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright.

"My presence here today is obviously primarily to offer condolences and pray with the families of those who have been lost," she told reporters.

"We all want the Cuban people to be able to have what we have, which is democracy."

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