US Coast Guard vessels and aircraft will attempt to keep the peace today as Cuban-Americans sail and fly from Miami in a protest-cum-memorial demonstration to within 20 miles of the Cuban coast. The exiles plan to toss wreaths and crosses into the Straits of Florida in the area where four exiles were shot down in two small planes by Cuban MiG fighters a week earlier.
With relations between Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro at their lowest point to date, the President's order for a heavy Coast Guard escort - with Air Force fighters and naval vessels on standby in Florida and the Caribbean - appeared aimed as much at keeping the exiles in check as protecting them from any further Cuban attack.
The US warned the exiles, expected to sail in up to 40 private boats with two light aircraft overhead, that they would face civil and criminal penalties if they tried to provoke Mr Castro by pushing ahead into Cuba's 12-mile territorial waters. The organisers have promised not to but there were some fears here last night that the most radical anti-Castro activists may break ranks.
Some moderate exiles expressed fears that any unforeseen incident could create confusion in the US response and suck in the US military forces on stand-by.
The White House press spokesman, Mike McCurry, said the US had warned Cuban officials not to interfere with the flotilla. "In plain English, the United States of America will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour by the Cuban government," he said, a phrase seen by some as almost dangerously vague in the event that anything unforeseen occurs.
Mr McCurry said Mr Clinton supported the idea of a memorial service at sea to the four victims from the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue. The group flies the Straits of Florida looking for Cuban boat people but has also made at least two flights over Havana to drop pro-democracy leaflets.
Cuba's Foreign Minister, Roberto Robaina, said Cuba would take no action provided the flotilla and planes stayed outside the island's territorial waters. That, however, raised the question of definition. Cuba said its MiGs shot the two planes down over its waters, though US radar tracking showed they were outside the 12-mile limit, 17 and 25 miles respectively. Cuba apparently acted because a third plane had entered the 12-mile limit or because all three were south of the 24th parallel, about 40 miles north of Cuba, recognised even by the US as the island's Air Defence Identification Zone.
A dozen Coast Guard cutters will accompany the flotilla, backed by two unarmed Coast Guard C-130 planes.
Meanwhile, Canada slammed Mr Clinton for backing anti-Castro legislation that could affect countries, such as Canada, Britain and Spain, which do business with Cuba. The Canadian Trade Minister, Art Eggleton, said he would meet US officials in Washington tomorrow to argue that the so- called Helms-Burton bill violates international law and the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said Canada may take the US to the international court in The Hague. The bill would mean Cuban exiles could sue in US courts for the return of property they owned before Mr Castro's 1959 revolution.