President Clinton moved Thursday to protect a planned memorial service at the spot where two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down, ordering the U.S. Coast Guard to escort Cuban exile aircraft and boats to international waters near Cuba this weekend.
The administration also issued a stern warning to Cuba to stay away.
"In plain English, the United States of America will not tolerate unacceptable behavior by the Cuban government," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.
McCurry said Clinton "believes this is a very appropriate way to commemorate the lives of four victims of this barbarous act by the Cuban regime."
At the same time, the administration warned the demonstrators not to stray into Cuban territorial waters or airspace.
Clinton has issued "orders making absolutely clear that the unauthorized entry by U.S. aircraft and vessels into Cuban territory is prohibited and that firm legal action will face those who violate this prohibition," McCurry said. Violators could lose their planes or boats, face imprisonment or lose their licenses to fly.
The Cuban government, for its part, promised not to interfere as long as participants stay out of Cuban territory.
"As long as they stay in international waters, there will be no difficulty, but if they enter Cuban waters or airspace, Cuba has already said many times that it will use all measures to prevent it," said Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, a Foreign Ministry official.
The Coast Guard will send a formidable armada into the Florida Straits on Saturday.
Eleven Coast Guard vessels -- some armed and ranging in
size from 110-foot patrol boats to 378-foot cutters -- will accompany Saturday's flotilla, which the Coast Guard expects to number 30 to 40 vessels. For safety reasons, the Coast Guard will allow only boats 30 feet or longer.
Some Coast Guard vessels will cruise ahead of the exile flotilla to mark the spot where the Coast Guard believes that two Brothers Cessnas were shot down by Cuban MiGs on Saturday. It's some 17 or 18 nautical miles from the Cuban coast, well outside the 12-mile territorial limit, the Coast Guard said.
An unarmed Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane will overfly the flotilla to make sure no one is harmedand that no vessel enters Cuban waters. It will also coordinate navigation with Coast Guard cutters using a network of satellites to determine their exact position.
A second Coast Guard C-130 will lead light aircraft from Brothers to the Rescue and other exile groups to the memorial spot earlier in the day Saturday. The planes will arrive well ahead of the flotilla, then return to Miami, so the group led by Jose Basulto can make a memorial flyover at the Orange Bowl at about 3 p.m.
U.S. military forces will be on call. A Navy carrier battle group led by the USS Enterprise already is nearby, conducting exercises off the coast of Puerto Rico.
In Miami, meanwhile, plans solidified for Saturday's memorial services on land and in the Florida Straits.
* In the air, the two remaining Brothers planes will be joined by six others -- two each from the Cuban American Pilots Association, the Rafters Rescue Legion and Pilotos Democracia, said Jorge "Sonny" Dorrbecker of the Cuban American Pilots group.
* On the sea, the flotilla organized by the Democracia Movement has already signed up at least 20 boats and expects to have more.
An organizational meeting Thursday night at West Miami City Hall drew hundreds of people, indicating the high level of interest in the flotilla among exiles, as well as Coast Guard officials who explained the rules for Saturday.
A Coast Guard officer told the meeting the cutter Gallatin would be stationed 20 miles from the Cuban coast and that no boat would be allowed beyond it.
Democracia leader Ramon Saul Sanchez said his group had not requested the Coast Guard escort but welcomed it.
"We have not asked the Coast Guard or the American military to accompany us. God and our rights accompany us," Sanchez said. "We are going to press our right to be there in international waters, and once more we will mourn those killed by Castro."
Sanchez said the flotilla will drop floral wreaths in the sea about 21
miles from the Cuban coast -- about halfway between the spots where the two
Brothers planes went down. Participants will also drop four crosses, each
bearing the name of one of the crewmen, although those will be picked up after
because they could pose a hazard to other boats.
The flotilla organizers were keeping a close watch on the offshore weather forecast for Saturday. The National Weather Service expects seas in the Florida Straits to be about four to six feet, with a chance of scattered thunderstorms -- not severe enough to cancel the flotilla, said Democracia spokesman Juan Carlos Acosta.
"If we had seas of 10 feet or more, that would be dangerous for the boats we are taking, but so far this sounds all right," he said. Later in the day, when the boats are returning, seas could kick up as high as seven feet, the weather service said.
Unlike another flotilla last fall, during which an overloaded boat capsized and one person died of a heart attack, Acosta vowed that "we will not let any unseaworthy boats go." The Coast Guard will inspect all vessels to ensure their seaworthiness.
* Miami Mayor Steve Clark on Thursday announced that all city flags will be flown at half staff today and Saturday in tribute to the Brothers pilots who died in last weekend's attack.
The City Commission also approved a measure proposed by Commissioner Joe Carollo declaring a day of mourning.
* Rudy Espinosa, spokesman for Metro-Dade police, said there will be a meeting of police today to decide how to control a threatened traffic slowdown in the arrival and departure lanes at Miami International Airport.
"We're not sure as of now that it is going to happen," he said. "But we will have people there to maintain order and keep the peace."
Gus Monge, of the Free Cuba Foundation, said organizers of the slowdown were "three guys" who work at a copying store. Monge said his group tried to dissuade them from the action.
"I don't think a lot of people from the Cuban community are going to show up for this," he said. "We condemn it, and we think it hurts the cause."
In Washington, Clinton also declared a "state of emergency" off the coast of South Florida, giving authorities the power to stop boats they believe may be heading into Cuban waters.
The order will empower the captain of Port of Miami to create a three-mile security zone off Dade, Broward and Monroe counties that prevents vessels 50 meters long or less from leaving the zone without prior permission.
The president's orders will permit Coast Guard authorities to arrest, fine and seize any U.S.-originated vessels that pass the three-mile limit without permission of the local port captain.
Coast Guard authorities in Miami said Thursday they did not yet know how the order would be enforced.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were also working with the Coast Guard to try to identify private boats that might try to cross into Cuban territorial waters, a Coast Guard source said.
McCurry would not say what action the United States would take if Cuba moves on the protesters Saturday. But he said the United States was not expecting a confrontation.
"We believe the warning to Cuba will be sufficient," McCurry said.
Herald staff writers Joanne Cavanaugh, Henri Cauvin and Elaine de Valle contributed to this report, which was supplemented by Herald wire services.
Gates will open at 3 p.m. The ceremony is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.
Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy will officiate at the ecumenical service. Catholic Archbishop John Clement Favalora and Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman have confirmed they will be in attendance.
The eulogy will be delivered by Armando Alejandre Sr., the father of one of the Brothers to the Rescue crewmen shot down.
Noting the event is strictly religious in nature, organizers say placards will not be allowed and political demonstrations will be discouraged.
St. Agatha Catholic Church, the parish of Brothers pilot Mario de la Pena, will hold a Mass at 8 p.m. today for the four men killed in the shootdown. The church is at 1111 SW 107th Ave.
While temperatures across the region are expected to remain in the 70s and 80s through Saturday, showers and thunderstorms are likely, according to the National Weather Service. Winds are expected to reach 15 to 20 knots.
KRT Photo Service
* Mirta Mendez, left, comforts her mother, Mirta Costa, as they hear testimony of other family members before the House Committee on International Relations regarding Saturday's shootdown. Carlos Costa, 29, was one of the lost pilots. Story, 12A.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.