U.S., Cuba fret about confrontation during protest in Cuban waters Freedom Flotilla is set for launch from Florida

July 13, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- Using virtually the same language, U.S. and Cuban officials are fretting that the Freedom Flotilla set to cross the Florida Straits today could ultimately lead to a risky confrontation.

Havana is reported to have put security forces and Communist Party members on alert against "sabotage" this weekend, and Washington has warned flotilla members that they will be arrested if they try to enter Cuban waters.

"Everybody is in a 'prevent mode,' " said an official in Washington. Strict orders issued to U.S. officials to avoid public comments on the flotilla underlined the depth of Washington's concerns, he added.

U.S. Coast Guard vessels are expected to escort the flotilla and try to ensure it does not create an incident.

Havana has announced no plans for its military, but during a previous flotilla in March it sent a couple of Border Guard patrol boats, one carrying dozens of journalists, to patrol a discreet distance from the flotilla.

Flotilla supporters view their activists as champions of Cuba's freedom, players in a nonviolent game of cat-and-mouse who are dealing effective publicity blows to President Fidel Castro's government.

Today's sailing is to mark the second anniversary of the drowning of more than 30 people who had seized a tugboat to escape Cuba. The tug sank after it was rammed repeatedly by other Cuban boats.

Sailing into Cuban territorial waters to mark that event, flotilla supporters would argue, is no different from the campaign of peaceful disobedience waged by blacks during the 1960s.

"There's a small group of people, Cuban Americans, who control U.S. policy on Cuba and are pushing it into a military confrontation," one U.S. official said.

But most U.S. military officers worry equally about accidents, mishaps, misunderstandings and misinterpretations that could escalate into heightened U.S.-Cuban tensions.

These are times when Cuba and Washington must be especially alert to possible incidents, observers said.

Amid a U.S. election campaign, with President Clinton courting Cuban-American voters in Florida and New Jersey, "the possibility of an incident turning into a real political football is very great," said historian Richard Millett.

And any calls to "do something" against Cuba after any incident would run up against the fact that the list of retaliatory options was all but exhausted when the Helms-Burton bill -- punishing foreign companies that do business with Cuba -- became law after the shoot-down Feb. 24.

"The worry and concern in the Pentagon is that we don't have many options left," said Ed Gonzalez, a Rand Corp. analyst. "Since Helms-Burton, were another incident to occur, it's hard to see what the Cubans might do, and then what we would do."

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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