(AP) Cuban exiles marshaled a flotilla to sail from the United States Saturday to just outside the island country's territorial waters with plans to put on a nighttime fireworks show and encourage protest among the thousands of revelers expected at a summer carnival along Havana's seaside Malecon boulevard.
Organizers planned to park the vessels 12.5 miles off the coast of the Cuban capital and launch around 80 colorful salvos in what organizers called 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 Ramon Saul Sanchez of the small nonprofit group the Democracy Movement. "And when you're there, among the people, think of freedom, murmur 'freedom' and if you deem it prudent, demand freedom."
Similar stunts in the past have been only faintly visible on the horizon north of Havana and elicited little response among islanders. But the shows have irked the Communist-run government, which considers them provocative, subversive and even potentially dangerous. Cuban officials have criticized Washington 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 will remain outside the 12-mile maritime limit.
In the past, U.S. officials have warned the group to stay clear of Cuban waters and said that while they don't encourage or condone such activities, they lack legal authority to block them.
The flotilla of four or five boats, including a small security craft, was scheduled to leave Florida in the afternoon.
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," is 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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