How does downing two airplanes in 1996 relate to suffering Cuban families in 2005? In a new report (“Families Torn Apart”), Human Rights Watch blames both sides for dividing families. A “ruthless” Cuban government restricts travel while a “democratic” US regime limits visits by US-based Cubans to their relatives in Cuba. Last year, to “punish” that “unreasonable” Fidel Castro, the Bush Administration limited family visits to the closest relatives no aunts, uncles or cousins — to once every three years.
Bush officials claim that a hard line will remove Castro and bring democracy to the island. To illustrate their contention of Castro’s ruthlessness, they cite the downing of two airplanes on February 24, 1996. Ironically, that event did prove that Castro meant what he said. It also dramatized the bizarre nature of almost forty-seven years of hostile relations between the two countries.
Cuban leaders had decided before that fateful day to shoot down intruding aircraft flown by the militantly anti-Castro “Brothers to the Rescue,” (BTTR). So, after issuing repeated warnings to BTTR and the US government about the consequences of another overflight, Cuban MIGs had advance orders to fire their missiles at intruding aircraft. The pilots and co-pilots of two of the three planes died as the projectiles hit their targets. The third plane escaped. The details are well known. The facts remain in dispute. Official opinions have hardened.
A day before that encounter, Richard Nuccio, White House Cuba spokesman attended a Cuban dance performance in Washington DC. During intermission, he told reporters that the Brother planned to fly the next day. One reporter then asked Fernando Remirez for comments. As head of the Cuban Interest Section, Remirez obviously reported the conversation to Havana.
Nuccio also notified the FAA and e-mailed Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger that Cuba would shoot down planes flown by the Miami-based exile group. In the early 1990s,BTTR began to fly small planes over the Florida Straits to spot Cuban rafters adrift and radio their locations to nearby ships for rescue. The US-Cuban migration accords of 1994-95 stemmed the rafter surge. So, BTTR changed their mission and began to fly, unauthorized, over Cuban territory. Twice in 1995, they dropped anti-Castro leaflets over urban areas.
Nuccio claimed that Berger didn’t answer his urgent that the Brothers “may be planning another in a series of violations of Cuban air space tomorrow.” Nuccio knew that on February 24 Concilio Cubano, an organization of various dissident groups planned to meet in Havana against Cuban government wishes. He saw the political significance of BTTR planes dropping anti-Castro leaflets on that occasion.
His e-mail also referred to previous BTTR overflights of Cuban territory. Jose Basulto formed this flying club, claiming “humanitarian purposes.” But Cubans remembered Basulto from his participation in an August 1962 raid that killed twenty people.
Previous invasions of Cuban air space, Nuccio noted, “have been met with restraint by Cuban authorities. Now, however, Tensions are sufficiently high within Cuba” because of the anticipated flyover coinciding with the Concilio meeting. “We feel this may finally tip the Cubans toward an attempt to shoot down or force down the planes” (Reuters 2-21-99).
Berger admitted that he didn’t read Nuccio’s email until it was too late to stop the planes from flying.
I entered the story with my partner Scott Armstrong while we were in Cuba on a project to improve US-Cuban relations. Cuban Vice President Ricardo Alarcon asked us to take a message to Mort Halpern, who held the Cuba portfolio at the National Security Council.
Alarcon emphasized that for more than a year BTTR planes had penetrated Cuban airspace. In January 1996, they overflew Havana twice and, at low altitude, dropped anti-Castro leaflets on urban areas. Alarcon said that grave consequences would ensue from the next penetration of Cuban airspace: the planes would be shot down.
When we reported the warnings to Halpern, he said that several people had already alerted him. On January 18, Armstrong learned that Halperin had sent a letter to the FAA chief, asking him to revoke the BTTR flying licenses. They had consistently filed false flight plans. Halperin left his job at the end of January. His assistant assured us that the FAA had ordered informed their Miami office to revoke the licenses.
In January 1996, Castro had grown sufficiently concerned that he raised the issue with US Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan, (Commander in Chief-U.S. Atlantic Command at the time of the shootdown). Castro recalled how in the past anti-revolutionary pilots had flown small planes from Miami and dropped bombs on Cuba. Should he assume that men with terrorist histories like Basulto would not repeat their past behavior? Any government would defend its territory, he stated,. If the Brothers returned, Cuba would respond appropriately.
On January 17, UN Ambassador Bill Richardson flew to Havana as Clinton’s emissary. Cuban officials told me that he assured Castro that the US government would take appropriate steps to stop future overflights.
Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll told CNN that between February 5 and 9 he had “long discussions with [Cuban] General Rosales del Toro and his staff, the question came up about these overflights from private airplanes operating out of Miami.
“They asked us, `What would happen if we shot one of these down? We can, you know’.” Carroll and former Ambassador Robert White who had also made the trip to Cuba reported this “calculated warning” to high officials at State and Defense (CNN 2/25/96).
By February 23, Cuban authorities knew from several sources that BTTR planned to flaunt Cuba’s warning the next day.
Cuba prepared. On Saturday, February 24, three planes filed flight plans for the Bahamas and then headed south for Cuba. Havana air traffic control told the Brothers to turn around, that they had not cleared them to enter a Cuban defense zone. Basulto, the lead pilot, advised the other pilots to ignore the warning.
From here on, Cuban and U.S. authorities disagree on the facts. Washington insists that only one plane was in Cuban airspace when the MIGs fired their missiles. Moreover, the MIGs ignored that craft, flown by Basulto, and hit the two in international waters. Cuba maintains that all three planes were in Cuban airspace.
Admiral Carroll provided CNN with an analogy. “Suppose we had the planes flying over San Diego from Mexico, dropping leaflets and inciting against Governor Wilson. How long would we tolerate these overflights after we had warned them against it?
Such logic had little impact on anti-Castro militants. They mobilized Republicans like Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Representative Dan Burton (R-IN), allied with Democrats like Robert Torricelli and Bob Menendez, both New Jersey Democrats. All the legislators had links with the Cuban American National Foundation and other anti-Castro groups. Together, they put pressure on the White House. With elections some eight months away, Clinton could ill afford to look weak
His options: a military response or sign the Helm-Burton bill into law, which would both tighten and codify the embargo. It seems strange that Clinton would sign a bill ceding power to Congress to control the embargo and travel to Cuba. This would make it more difficult to alter the ossified relations between the two countries.
In April, a month after Clinton signed Helms-Burton, Sandy Berge admitted to Armstrong that he had not read the codification clause. He mistook the penultimate version for the final one he submitted to the President “I made a mistake,” he said.
Dan Fisk, Helms’ aide who guided the bill through Congress, felt uneasy as a conservative over the codification clause. “We put it in there for negotiating purposes. We didn’t think the White House would sign it,” he told us.
In 2004, at a seminar on US-Cuba relations, a former White House aide compared the “unreasonable Cuban government” with the Vietnamese. “We had given them a tough draft of a commercial accord, expecting to negotiate. They sat down immediately as reasonable people,” the former aide concluded.
Did this mean that we needn’t have fought the Vietnam War, I inquired, given that Vietnam’s government had not changed its ideology? The former aide looked befuddled. Another former high official said. “I’m tired of us making all the initiatives. Why doesn’t Castro make concessions?”
Did he mean, I asked, that Fidel should stop punching our fist with his face and lift the four plus decade embargo on the United States? Remove the Cuban base from US territory?
Yes, US-Cuba relations are absurd. Nine presidents from Kennedy to GW Bush have inherited a “punish Castro” policy. Cuban families have felt the whip of separation because none of the presidents had courage enough to change the policy..
In “Familes Torn Apart,” Human Rights Watch misses the point. US punishment, not Cuban ruthlessness has defined the policy. The US sponsored an invasion in 1961, embargoed the island from 1962 on, and launched thousands of acts of terrorism against Cubans and their property. Washington refuses to allow routine travel by its citizens to the island.
Castro’s refusal to allow intruding aircraft into Cuban territory in 1996 and eschewing US economic and political dictates for four plus decades brought about Washington’s Pavlovian castigation response. This has meant the cruel division of Cuban families. Fidel has yet to miss a meal or a conjugal opportunity. Such is the “logic” of Washington’s Cuba policy.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His 1968 documentary, FIDEL, is available through Cinema Guild in New York City.