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Cuba Exiles Plan Fireworks Flotilla

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A Cuban fisherman watches the arriving of the Ana Cecilia ship with humanitarian aid from the United States at Havana's harbor, on July 13, 2012. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/GettyImages)
A Cuban fisherman watches the arriving of the Ana Cecilia ship with humanitarian aid from the United States at Havana's harbor, on July 13, 2012. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/GettyImages)

HAVANA — Red, white and gold balls of light shimmered low on the horizon off Havana's seafront Malecon boulevard Saturday night in a maritime fireworks display launched by Cuban exiles hoping to inspire protest.

The fireworks were clearly visible from the coast and lasted about an hour. People who saw it said they were mystified by its origin.

"It's curious, because you don't see that often on the Malecon," said Jose Antonio Camejo, who was fishing for red snapper from the seawall along with family members.

Told it was organized by Cuban exiles from Florida, he shrugged and said, "They must be celebrating something."

The small Florida nonprofit group the Democracy Movement said earlier that they would park their vessels 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) from Havana, safely outside the 12-mile territorial water limits.

The exiles timed the show to coincide with a summer carnival that can draw thousands to the Malecon, and they called the show a peaceful display of solidarity with their compatriots.

"When you see the lights of freedom, walk toward the seawall as a silent protest against censorship of expression," said the Democracy Movement's Ramon Saul Sanchez. "And when you're there, among the people, think of freedom, murmur `freedom' and if you deem it prudent, demand freedom."

Cuban authorities scaled back the carnival festivities after torrential rains Saturday soaked Havana and left huge puddles on the Malecon. Several hundred people still came out to laugh and canoodle on the seawall, and families queued up for sizzling barbecue chicken.

One young girl cried out the colors of the fireworks as they exploded: "yellow!" "white!" and "green!"

Like similar previous displays, the fireworks did not elicit any discernible protest from Havana residents.

But the shows are an irritation for the Communist-run government, which considers them provocative, subversive and even potentially dangerous. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but have criticized Washington in the past for not blocking the actions.

In 1996, the Cuban military shot down two small planes carrying exile activists, killing four people. Cuba maintains the aircraft violated the country's airspace, though the exiles deny that.

Sanchez said he had been in contact with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has patrolled previous sea missions to guard against an international incident, and given assurances that they would remain outside the 12-mile maritime limit.

U.S. officials have said they don't encourage or condone such activities, but lack legal authority to block them.

Sanchez said a second message behind the display was to demand greater Internet access on the island, which lags the rest of the world despite the completion of an undersea fiber-optic cable last year.

"The Cuban government has just installed the cable from Venezuela that allows 3,000 times more technical capability of connection, and yet it has not translated into benefits for the Cuban people in terms of access," he said.

Cuba blames its creaky Internet on Washington's 50-year-old economic embargo.

Sanchez said his group has organized 26 flotillas since 1996 including a similar fireworks show last December to mark International Human Rights Day, and another one in March when Pope Benedict XVI visited the island. A second show planned for later during the pontiff's visit was called off due to high seas.

Sanchez said the group does not accept any government money and holds fundraisers to finance its activities. A sympathetic provider let the group purchase the fireworks at cost, which came out to $3,600. The other main expense was fuel.

He said the lead vessel alone, dubbed "Democracia," was expected to consume more than $2,100 in gasoline to make the trip across the roughly 90-mile Florida Strait and back.

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