More than seven months after the Cuban Five were arrested and indicted a new charge was presented by the US Government. Again, the charge was one of “conspiracy”, but this time to commit murder in the first degree and was brought specifically against one of the Five, Gerardo Hernández Nordelo.
The new indictment came after a public campaign in Miami actively promoted by “journalists” on the US Government payroll, including reports about meetings in public places attended by well-known Cuban exile leaders, US prosecutors and FBI officials, in which the accusation against Gerardo was openly discussed. It became a clear demand by the most violent groups in town and was a central focus of the local media.
The Government acquiesced to the demand and introduced the Second Superseding indictment whose essential new feature was adding this “crime” to Gerardo’s list of charges.
This was a political concession to anti-Cuban terrorists, who were seeking revenge for the downing by Cuba’s Air Force, in February 24, 1996 of two airplanes (Model O2 used by the US Air Force first in Vietnam and later in El Salvador wars, as was concretely the case with these two planes) piloted by members of a violent anti-Cuban group, an event that had taken place two years before the Cuban Five were detained, when those airplanes were within Cuban airspace.
The timing was very suspicious, indeed. According to information provided by the Government at trial, the FBI had found the real nature of Gerardo’s revolutionary mission in Miami and was monitoring him and controlling his communications with Havana at least a couple of years before the downing of the planes. If that incident was a result of a “conspiracy,” in which Gerardo was a key participant, why wasn’t he arrested in 1996? Why wa this issue not even mentioned in September 1998 when he was first detained and indicted?
The planes belonged to a group led by José Basulto, a veteran CIA agent involved in many paramilitary actions since 1959, included the Bay of Pigs invasion and a number of assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. In the 20 months preceding the incident, this group had penetrated Cuban airspace 25 times, each one denounced by the Cuban government.
After so many diplomatic démarches the US Government wanted to appear responsive. It initiated an investigation about those flights, asked for Cuba’s help in providing details of previous provocations, acknowledged their receipt and thanked for them. On February 24, 1996 such administrative proceedings had not been completed, but later Mr. Basulto was deprived by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of his pilot license and he doesn’t fly anymore (at least legally).
The provocateurs had blatantly announced that they will continue making illegal flights into Cuba’s airspace and even proclaimed that the island, which was at the time suffering its worst crisis ever – worse in economic terms, that the Big Depression, according to a UN report – was not able to respond to their illegal incursions. In January, Mr. Basulto brought with him an NBC TV crew from Miami who filmed and broadcasted how they overflew downtown Havana throwing out propaganda and other materials. Cuba made it public that such provocations will not be tolerated anymore, made the proper notifications to all that may be concerned, including the US Government, the State Department and the FAA, which in turn warned Basulto and his group that they should refrain from such flights.
The alleged “conspiracy” was in itself a monumental stupidity, incomprehensible to any rational mind. It supposed that the Cuban government had decided provoke an all-out war with the United States, a military confrontation that obviously would have resulted in a terrible blow not only for the Cuban government, but for the entire nation and its people. In any crime motivation is always a key factor, a decisive cue. What could have been Cuba’s motivation to provoke such an event precisely at that moment, the most risky for the survival of our country without allies or friends in a world and a hemisphere under the full control of the United States in 1996?
Cuba did exactly the opposite. It denounced one by one, each provocation to the FAA and to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, the UN family institution dealing with these matters) and sent dozens of diplomatic notes to the State Department. But Cuba went farther. It did his best to reach out to the highest level of the US Administration, the White House, trying to prevent more incidents.
The New Yorker issue of January 1998 dedicated to Cuba on the occasion of the Pope’s visit included a serious article in which a fairly objective account of those efforts by Cuba can be found. (Carl Naguin, Annals of Diplomacy Backfire, The New Yorker, January 26, 1998, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1998 )
Yes, there was a conspiracy to provoke the tragedy of February 24, 1996. But it was the entire and exclusive work of the same Miami groups that have launched a half-century terrorist campaign against Cuba, the same gang that will afterwards kidnap Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old boy. Events from which they always came out with impunity.
RICARDO ALARCÓN de QUESADA is president of the Cuban National Assembly.