OFF THE COAST OF HAVANA – A Cuban exile flotilla shot bright fireworks into the sky only about 13 miles from the Havana coast Friday in a defiant show of support for dissidents on the island who are struggling for democracy and human rights.
Cuba’s government branded the flotilla as a provocation, detained dozens of dissidents on the eve of Human Rights Day and sent security agents to shut off parts of Havana’s seaside Malecon boulevard.
But the “Lights of Liberty” from the 8-inch shells were clearly visible in Havana despite a light rain, and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo quickly tweeted a blurry photo of a bright globe floating above part of the capital’s horizon.
“Despite the rain, controls and arrests, the flotilla fireworks can be seen!” blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote in another Tweet. “Havana full of lights, and short of human rights.”
“Our goal has been met,” flotilla organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez boasted after the first fireworks went up shortly after 7 p.m. Despite the Cuban complaint, he added, “what we have here is a party!”
The flotilla of at least four vessels organized by the Miami-based Democracy Movement began setting off its fireworks when it reached “Democracy Point” – 12.5 miles from Havana and only half-a-mile from Cuba’s territorial waters.
Dissident Baptist Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart told El Nuevo Herald that many people were gathering along the Malecon despite a light rain, apparently hoping to see the upcoming fireworks. His telephone went dead after that.
Vessels carrying about 60 exiles left Key West and Marathon Key early Friday and sailed through 3-foot waves to reach the designated launch point for the three-hour fireworks show.
Participants prayed and sang the Cuban national anthem before setting off for the coast off Havana, where they hoped that some dissidents in the capital would support the fireworks show with a pots-and-pans protest of their own.
Authorities appeared to have blocked most of the dissidents’ telephones beginning Friday afternoon, most likely to keep them from reporting on the many arrests and the fireworks show.
The Democracy Movement has organized several such flotillas in the past, including two that used fireworks. But this time, the 43-foot Musele Prince was firing 8-inch shells, compared to the 6-inch fireworks used in the past.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry for the first time Friday officially condemned the flotilla as a “provocation” and confirmed that the Cuban government had expressed its concerns to Washington.
The U.S. government “is perfectly informed of the Cuban government’s concern with this type of provocation,” Rene Mujica, a top analyst in the ministry’s North American affairs section, told journalists in Havana.