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Exiles plan fireworks show for Cuba -- at sea

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 11:33 AM EST, Fri December 9, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The flotilla headed toward Cuba from Florida on Friday morning
  • The group will stop just outside Cuban waters
  • The fireworks show is meant to raise tensions, state media say
  • U.S. says it is not sanctioning the trip

(CNN) -- A group of Cuban exiles will host a fireworks show for Cubans on Friday night, but supporters of the Cuban leaders see it as a U.S.-backed attempt to destabilize the communist island.

A flotilla organized by the exile organization Democracy Movement set sail from Key West on its way to international waters just off the coast of Cuba: 12.5 miles from Havana, to be exact.

The group will launch bright fireworks 1,000 feet into what forecasters say will be a partly cloudy sky; organizers say it will be visible from Cuba.

As the fireworks show gets under way, activists in Cuba are calling for a pot-banging rally on the seawall at the same time.

"We try to express our solidarity with the nonviolent movement on the island that advocates for democracy," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of Democracy Movement.

But some voices in Cuba don't see it that way.

Cuban President Raul Castro has been silent on the flotilla, but state media have carried the presumed official position on it.

On the state-run website Cubadebate, opinion columnist Jose Luis Mendez called Democracy Movement a "terrorist and provocative organization."

He accused previous flotillas by the group -- there have been 17 -- of trespassing into Cuban waters and, at least in one instance, of smuggling explosives onto the island.

The flotilla's objective is to "create tensions between the United States and Cuba and to support domestic mercenary groups," the columnist wrote.

In addition, setting off fireworks could pose a danger to airplane flights, he wrote.

Sanchez denied that the fireworks will cause any risk or diplomatic troubles.

"We would like to provoke their reflection, their thoughts on these issues," he said. "We don't see how this could be seen in any way that increases tensions."

Mendez said that the flotilla had the blessing of the U.S. Department of State and was sanctioned by the Obama administration to tweak the communist government.

The State Department confirmed that it had met with organizer Sanchez but said it did not give the flotilla its blessing.

"The United States government does not promote or encourage this activity," spokesman William Ostick said.

U.S. officials met with flotilla organizers simply to ensure that they comply with domestic and international laws, he said.

"We have urged the Democracy Movement and the Cuban government to exercise caution and restraint" during the fireworks show, Ostick said.

"We have also made it clear to Cuban authorities as well as participants in this event that the U.S. government would punish any violation of U.S. laws," he added.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat will accompany the flotilla on its journey, though Sanchez said he had argued against this precisely because he does not want to give the appearance that the government is involved in his project.

It's easy for critics to look the flotilla and assume that he is a provocateur, but all he wants is for the Cuban government to give space to those advocating for change inside the country, Sanchez said.

Besides, the Cuban government is easily offended, he said.

"Whenever a citizen of a country under a dictatorship exercises a right, the government feels provoked," he said.

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