Cuban-American protesters, whose boat was sideswiped and turned back by patrol boats in Cuban waters Thursday, found no safe harbor in the Clinton administration Friday.
Although an official statement expressed "regret" over the incident, one White House official praised the Cuban government for having "exercised restraint" when dealing with the boat and with the exile airplanes that briefly flew over Havana.
He noted that Cuban aircraft had been close enough to some of the intruding airplanes to write down their tail numbers and, instead of shooting them down, reported the numbers to U.S. aviation officials.
The official also said the vessel, Democracia, had received repeated warnings from the Cuban patrol boats to turn back before two gunboats collided with it in a pincer movement. The Democracia then turned back.
Another administration official said the White House had asked the Coast Guard to evaluate how Cuban patrol boats reacted to the incident and said there would be no additional response until the report comes in.
The boat was damaged, and three of the protesters were injured, including Metro Commissioner Pedro Reboredo. One of Reboredo's toes was amputated Friday.
The Democracia led a 13-boat flotilla and entered Cuban waters to commemorate the deaths of 41 Cubans a year ago. They drowned after the tugboat they had hijacked was rammed and sunk by Cuban government vessels.
The Cuban government issued a statement Friday denying that forcewas used against the Democracia, but acknowledging that there was "physical contact" between the vessels as the Cuban gunboats maneuvered to force the flotilla out of Cuba's territorial waters.
Jose Luis Ponce, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, noted that a week ago, both the government of President Fidel Castro and the Clinton administration had warned protesters of the consequences.
Ponce defended his government's response. He noted that the Cuban patrols kept their guns "covered up" throughout the altercation. He said there was no deliberate attempt to sink the boat.
But the Cuban government also said that if anybody tries a similar incursion, the boats could be sunk and planes could be downed.
"Patience has its limits, and we are going to prevent similar actions from happening again," said Ponce.
The chilly reaction to the incident by the White House comes as the Clinton administration is trying to end a policy of direct confrontation with the Castro government. Administration officials have discussed the liberalizing of travel and other restrictions involving Cuba.
U.S. and Cuban officials said they did not believe the incident would affect a new round of immigration talks scheduled to begin in Havana on Monday.
A White House official said the level of interest in the ramming was slight among senior policymakers.
"It's not on the radar scope at all. Bosnia is on the scope," he said.
The reaction outside Miami also was minimal.
The two newspapers most influential in Washington gave little or no attention to the flotilla in their Friday editions. The New York Times ignored the event. The Washington Post published three paragraphs under the headline "Boats Collide Off Havana." CNN gave the incident light coverage, and some other networks did not mention it at all on their national news programs.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, the man in charge aboard the Democracia, decried the fact that the administration did not condemn the Cuban government.
"It is a shameful statement for a democratic government to make," he said. "It is an attitude that is as condemnable as the attitude of Fidel Castro."
Sanchez vowed to form another flotilla soon -- this time to deliver medicines to Cuba.
Sanchez has emerged as the leader of a new strategy on the part of the exile community. The actions Thursday, he said, were part of an attempt to spark a nonviolent protest movement inside Cuba. The Clinton administration has also spoken of helping build civic opposition to Castro, but obviously was not happy with Thursday's tactics.
Some Cuban Americans were enthusiastic, however.
"I think this begins a new chapter in the struggle," said Orestes Lorenzo, a former Cuban combat pilot who defected to the United States four years ago. "I have always believed that the best way to topple Fidel Castro is through actions like this."
Lorenzo said that three previous approaches -- armed confrontation, lobbying U.S. lawmakers and dialogue with Castro -- have backfired. The only alternative is for Cubans to take their future into their own hands, he said. The flotilla could empower the Cubans on the island to "rise up" against Castro, said Fernando Rojas, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation.
"We are teaching the Cuban people what to do," said Cary Roque, a former political prisoner who now works with the foundation. "Civil disobedience is the way to go."
Said Frank Calzon, executive director of Of Human Rights, a Washington-based human rights organization: "Castro will try to paint it in a different way, but this was not a commando raid. These people were not trying to destroy or attack. They were merely calling attention to a crime."
HECTOR GABINO / Herald Staff
AFTERMATH OF AN INCIDENT: The Democracia's cabin shows disarray after the boat returned to Key West.
HECTOR GABINO / Herald Staff
REPEAT VISIT: Juan Bernardo, who was on the tugboat sunk by a Cuban vessel last year, returned to Cuban waters on the flotilla.
HECTOR GABINO / Herald Staff
HAPPY HUG: Ramon Saul Sanchez, who directed the lead boat, and Sylvia Iriondo of Mothers Against Repression say mission was a success.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.