MIAMI – A small group of Cuban Americans launched motorboats from Miami early Friday, planning to approach Cuba in a show of support for people experiencing hardships on the island.
Five boats left from Miami's Bayside marina just before 8 a.m. They planned to refuel in Key West before heading into the Florida Straits, said Jose Portieles, who is helping organize the effort.
He said they would stay in international waters, some 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the coast of Havana.
“We also want to draw the attention to the United States government that they have to do something,” Portieles said. “We feel identified with what is happening in the protests in Cuba, we could be the ones who are there.”
Cuba considers the boats a provocation. Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez called the flotilla illegal and urged the U.S. government to halt the boats “to avoid incidents which are not in anyone’s best interest.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has warned it would be illegal for the boats to depart U.S. waters with the intention of entering Cuban territorial waters. However, for those intending only to go near Cuban waters, the agency has merely advised against doing so while also giving safety reminders for those who would ignore that advice.
The group is not armed, Portieles said. And most of them aren't activists, but rather Cuban-American entrepreneurs who know each other from the South Florida boating community and share a desire to see a free Cuba.
The boaters planned to arrive at the closest point to Cuba by 5 p.m. Friday, before heading back to Miami, arriving home by mid-day Saturday.
The trip was originally planned for Monday but postponed to Friday.
Ramón Saul Sanchez, leader of the nonprofit group Movimiento Democracia that launched several flotillas in the past, was at Bayside to see them off. He advised them not to use flares to draw the attention of the Cuban government, and to go no closer than 15 miles from the coast.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this information from Havana.