US Cuban exiles mark anniversary of 1994 migrant drowning
A flotilla of Cuban exiles left Florida's Key West Saturday to commemorate the drowning of 37 migrants -- including 10 children -- who fled their communist homeland two decades ago.
Three boats carrying 25 people headed out to sea in the early afternoon from this picturesque part of the United States bound for waters some 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from the Cuban capital Havana.
That's where those on board plan to set off fireworks and sprinkle the sea with flowers in memory of those who perished on July 13, 1994, when a tugboat headed for American shores sank.
On board were 68 people trying to flee the Cuban communist regime, hoping for a better life in the United States.
The circumstances surrounding the tragedy are up for debate.
Survivors and members of the Cuban exile community refer to the events of that day as a "massacre," contending that several vessels intercepted the tugboat, that it was attacked with powerful jets of water and that it sank after it was rammed.
In total, 37 people lost their lives -- including 10 children.
While relatives who lost loved ones blame the Cuban regime for what happened, Havana maintains it was an accident.
Jorge Garcia lost 14 of 17 relatives on that fateful day, including a son and grandson.
"This has profound meaning for me," the 69-year-old, who is taking part in the emotionally charged trip, told AFP.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, the head of the Miami-based "Movimiento Democracia" (Democracy Movement) exile group that organized the flotilla, said the boats would not enter Cuban waters.
The fireworks will be set off at nightfall in the hopes they will be seen from Havana's Malecon esplanade, where activists have urged locals to come with candles.
After the ceremony, the boats will make their way back to Florida.
Ahead of its departure, the US Coast Guard inspected the flotilla, which is led by a boat called "Democracy" and adorned with Cuban flags and pictures of those who lost their lives.
Sailing conditions were favorable, with Coast Guard representative Mario Gil telling AFP that waves of between three and four feet were to be expected, along with 15 knot winds.
Organizers have made more than 25 similar trips since 1995.
The United States and Cuba have not had full official diplomatic relations for more than half a century.
Florida is a magnet for Cuban migrants, as its shores are just about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Caribbean island.
The 1966 "Cuban Adjustment Act" says any Cuban who reaches US soil by any means will be allowed to stay, live and work. Cubans who are caught at sea, before setting foot on US territory, however, are sent back.
The United States does not accord this treatment -- pre-approved US residence and work permits for all emigrants who reach US soil -- to people leaving any other nation. It was hard won by Cuban-American lawmakers keen to embarrass Havana.
Cuba blames the law for encouraging people to board rickety boats to cross the Florida straits in the hopes of reaching the US coast -- a perilous process that has left thousands dead over decades.