Clinton and the Bungling of Cuba Policy

As the United States moves toward some kind of normal relations with Cuba, it faces a problem: normal is currently illegal. In 1996, Congress, with help from President Bill Clinton, created the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Helms-Burton) Act, which makes it illegal to normalize much of anything. What helped bring that about was a seemingly routine act of lawbreaking by a Miami exile group and the Clinton administration’s muddled response to it.

On February 24, 1996, three small surplus US Air Force Cessna Skymasters departed from Opa-locka airport in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The planes were gifts from President George H.W. Bush to Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate).

Brothers to the Rescue was a Miami-based anti-Castro organization run by José Basulto and William Schuss, organized in 1991 during a period of immigration chaos. Their first missions were to locate and lend assistance to balseros, Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits trying to reach the United States in makeshift craft.

Basulto and Schuss had received US military training and later belonged to Operation 40, organized by the CIA to prepare for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Basulto later took part in sabotage actions against Cuba along with several well-known anti-Castro terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. In 2005, he said on a Miami TV channel that in 1962, he had taken part in a raid against Cuba, firing a 22 mm canon from offshore at the Hotel Rosita Hornedo in Havana where Russians were thought to be staying. “So far, no one has come to question me,” he said.

Juan Pablo Roque, a Cuban agent who flew with the Brothers but returned to Cuba on the eve of the February 24 flight, told a Cuban interviewer that the organization was set up in the offices of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which was a creature of the Reagan administration. According to Roque,

Specifically, Martin Perez, with substantial economic support from the foundation, put forward the idea with some former CIA agents, José Basulto, Billy Shultz [Schuss], Arnaldo Iglesias. They advanced the idea to create an allegedly, quote, humanitarian organization, unquote, which would save the lives of the men who took to the sea to try to reach the coasts of Florida. [1]

Basulto filed a flight plane for February 24 that would take the three Cessnas to the Florida Straits where they were going to look for balseros. Instead of following the flight plan, they flew south and entered Cuba’s restricted military air space. [2]

The pilots were unaware of the intense scrutiny their flight was receiving from federal agencies. They had on many other occasions entered Cuban air space without arousing much federal interest. On previous flights, Basulto buzzed the Cuban capital and dropped leaflets and other anti-Castro debris over the city ignoring Cuban warnings. But this time, the State Department had alerted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that it would be dangerous for the Brothers to attempt another flight over Cuba and asked for updates on their activities.

Consequently, an immense network of radar installations focused on Basulto’s tiny propeller planes traveling across the Gulf of Mexico at 150 mph. Even the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) center in Colorado, originally set up as an early-warning system against a Soviet missile attack, was enlisted. It coordinated radar installations around the country including March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida and at Cudjoe Key in the Florida Keys, where an  aerostat radar balloon was on alert. All of this for three small Cessnas.

The Riverside base had a narcotics interdiction center that usually hunted for flights coming from the south. When Jeffrey Houlihan, a senior detection-system specialist, reported for work there on February 24, the FAA told him to keep an eye on the Brothers, with whom he was familiar because of their frequent flights in the Florida Straits. According to Houlihan, the Southeast Air Defense

…made it very clear to me in briefings … that anything that pops up inside that area, they [the US military] will launch their interceptor aircraft immediately, their assumption being that anything that pops up in that area, heading towards the United States, is coming out of Cuba.

However, the elaborate monitoring of Basulto’s flight was not for his protection and it received none. National security seems not to have been a factor either since no US fighter jets were launched when Cuban MiGs, in pursuit of the Cessnas, headed toward the 24th parallel, the demarcation line between Cuban and US restricted zones.

Houlihan later testified at a federal hearing that a week prior to February 24, he was told to watch for the next Brothers’ flight because Basulto intended “to make a political statement against the Communist Government in Cuba, and we were requested, by the FAA, to watch for that.” [3]

Houlihan watched his monitors as fast-moving objects he took to be Cuban MiG fighter planes destroyed one of the Cessnas carrying two pilots. Six minutes later, a second air-to-air missile destroyed the second Cessna killing two more pilots. Basulto and three passengers in the third Cessna flew back to Opa-locka.

Clinton immediately declared a state of national emergency and set up a security zone in the waters around the Florida peninsula closing it to unauthorized sea and air traffic. He also demanded an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and a UN condemnation of Cuba. The state of national emergency declared in 1996 is still in effect, one of the long-term consequences of Basulto’s flight.

Amidst the uproar and condemnation of Cuba, Clinton signed Helms-Burton into law, which did more than another other piece of legislation to freeze Cuba policy into perpetual cycles of crisis and stagnation.

How did a miniature air force of three small civilian planes exert such influence on Cuba policy that a president felt compelled to give away most of his control over it to Congress? The shootdown occurred long after Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union had died along with the Soviet Union. None of the old justifications for destroying the Cuban revolution cited in the 1960s seemed relevant in a world without the Soviet Bloc and with Cuba experiencing a serious economic setback after the loss of Soviet trade and aid.


One of the Brothers to the Rescue planes.

Brothers to the rescue of Helms-Burton

When the number of balseros decreased after the 1994/ 1995 migration agreements, Basulto turned to direct action flying provocatively into Cuban air space. Whether through brilliant tactical calculation or reckless stupidity, the Brothers created counterrevolutionary martyrdom for themselves during the February 24 incursion, turned world opinion against Cuba and made Helms-Burton law.

According to journalist and historian Richard Gott, Helms-Burton had little to do with Cuban liberty and democratic solidarity:

Helms-Burton was aimed at investment and was originally drafted because of the success of the Cuban recovery and the concern that US business might take second place to European, Canadian and Japanese investors. Its underlying purpose was to scare off foreign investors at a time when Cuba’s economic survival depended on its ability to open up to the outside word — to seek markets, investors and managerial expertise in Europe, Canada, Japan and Latin America.[4]

By this time, there was growing interest in opening up trade with Cuba. Farm-state representatives, including conservatives like John Ashcroft (R-MO) pressured the White House for change. Cuba had survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and had begun to show economic growth without any help from US farm states. The Cuban economy grew by 2.5% in 1995, with 5% projected for 1996.

This was bad news for some exiles groups because it appeared that the opportunity to finally dispose of the revolution through economic sanctions and sabotage was slipping away. Exile groups like Basulto’s were determined to provoke new tensions and force the Cuban government to overreact. [5]

It was also bad news that Clinton rejected Helms-Burton. He said in 1995, that he could not support the bill because “it would affect our capacity to promote the transition to democracy in Cuba.” [6]

If he was concerned about giving up some executive control over Cuba policy, he might have considered that his and previous administrations had already ceded much of it to private groups in Miami, some of them created and encouraged by Washington. No effective measures had been taken against private commando raiders, filibusterers and terrorists. It was also becoming apparent that agencies in the executive branch were, by inaction or tacit approval, relaxing federal control over the civil aviation adventures of José Basulto.

Crises and the art of learned helplessness

After months of warnings from Cuba that it would not tolerate continued provocations by Basulto, there was no effective US government action to prevent as opposed to simply monitoring the events of February 24. It is true that in October 1995, the US Interests Section in Havana had looked into the matter in languid bureaucratic fashion, asking Cuba for evidence the FAA could use against Basulto even though evidence was piling up in the Miami FAA offices of Basulto’s flagrant violations of FAA rules. The FAA was still going over Cuba’s evidence when the shootdown occurred four months later.

Of particular concern to Cuba, were flights into restricted military areas identified internationally as part of a nation’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Cuba’s ADIZ extends 26 miles toward the Florida Keys and is demarcated by latitude 24. These restricted military spaces extend beyond the traditional 12-nautical mile (22.2 km) maritime limit.

US agencies kept track of Basulto in the weeks before the shootdown, concerned about how Cuba might react to another overflight. After a January 20, 1996 overflight, FAA chief Cecilia Capestany wrote a letter to the Miami FAA office:

State is increasingly concerned about Cuban reactions to these flagrant violations. They are also asking from the FAA what is this agency doing to prevent/deter these actions. As a matter of fact, the Undersecretary of State called Secretary Pena last week to check on our case against Basulto. Worst case scenario is that one of these days the Cubans will shoot down one of these planes and the FAA better have all its ducks in a row.

But an unnamed official said that by the fall of 1995, the government had given up trying to control Basulto because he was “so agitated that we were more likely to provoke him than to quiet him down. He was going ballistic every time we talked about it.” [7]

The attitude was that, short of restricting airspace between Florida and Cuba, little could be done since the Brothers, whose leader was apparently treated as a rebellious teenager, would probably disobey any FAA orders.

Charles Smith, FAA administrator in Miami, had warned Basulto against making a July 13, 1995 flight over Cuba, but Basulto had said, “Chuck, you know I always play by the rules, but you must understand I have a mission in life to perform.” [8] When the FAA finally went after Basulto’s license, it was for flying too low over water.

Election: Running on Two Tracks

Meanwhile, Clinton was making regular incursions into Florida — looking for votes. It is difficult not to conclude that the shootdown was bound up with a risky electoral strategy by which Clinton advanced along two tracks.

On Track One, the White House would emit periodic signals to anti-Castro leaders in Miami that Clinton would stick doggedly to tough sanctions against Cuba and negotiate nothing with Castro. Track One led straight to the election and support from the Cuban American National Foundation.

Track Two was strewn with obstacle left over from building Track One. It required Clinton to listen privately to Cuban warnings about the incursions and privately to reassure Havana that something or other was being done about it. This track led nowhere because any action taken to shut down these exile operations might wreck the Clinton political express barreling down track number one.

When leaders of Movimiento Democracia planned to take a flotilla of small boats with air support from Basulto on a taunting mission to the Cuban coast, Clinton’s Cuba expert Richard Nuccio was sent to head off a train wreck. The exiles said they had the right, as Cubans, to engage in protests off Cuba’s coast, and the White House agreed. While the government could not do much for the flotilla and its air cover if they entered Cuban territory, the Coast Guard would set up a command post and escort them toward Cuba.

The State Department did not seem to take seriously the possibility that the flotilla might enter Cuban waters or that Basulto might fly too near Havana. This is where the two tracks – one publically belligerent toward Cuba and the other privately conciliatory – could intersect with dangerous results.

In Track Two fashion, the administration sent a discrete note to Cuba about perhaps investigating something. In stark contrast, Clinton’s Track One action was to issue a loud public announcement aligning Washington with Basulto and the flotilla.

Clinton was making moves in matching pairs. He threatened a veto of the Miami-backed Helms-Burton bill, simultaneously suggesting that he was going to crack down on Basulto through the FAA. Then, to head off an angry reaction from the hardliners for that, he relaxed travel rules for family visits to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, reversing restrictions he had ordered the previous year.

Conspiracy theories and excuses

After the shootdown, the administration and the media advanced a version of the shootdown that was carefully limited to the events of February 24 — as Dickens might have put it, to create a harvest that had never been sown.

Basulto also confined his telling of the shootdown to the day it happened. Despite the limited historical perspective, Basulto managed to raise questions about that day that have never been satisfactorily answered.

“No one, not one of the many agencies that were monitoring our flights that day, called to inform us we were being hunted down,” Basulto claimed. He even suggested that Clinton and Castro had conspired to bring the planes down and cover up unexplained discrepancies. This, said Basulto, was to insure Clinton’s reelection, which Castro presumably favored. [9]

At a congressional hearing, Basulto said that after the two Cessnas were shot down, his plane was chased by MiG fighters for 53 minutes as he raced back to Opa-locka. While the scene was being observed by the great radar network, no US fighter planes were scrambled even though, he claimed, evidence showed that the MiGs came within three nautical miles of Florida.

After Clinton’s re-election, which included a victory in Florida, Cuba policy seemed to drift with congressional currents. In January 1997, he sent Congress a report called “Support for a Democratic Transition in Cuba,” which discharged his obligation under Helms-Burton to tell Congress how the United States was to assist Cuba in its transition to democracy.

The report outlined a fanciful scenario in which the Cuban government would wondrously start dismantling its socialist economy and sack Fidel Castro. The reward for making this transition would be millions of dollars in aid, the possible return of the Guantánamo Bay territory, resumption of normal bilateral relations and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the IMF and World Bank and thereby be eligible to take part in that destroyer of economies, the structural adjustment programs.

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who played a role in requiring the report, said the intention was to create seeds of ferment in Cuba by showing that the United States was committed to the welfare of the Cuban people. [10] Two years earlier, CANF and Clinton acted together to sow seeds of ferment by convincing Cubans they would get no help from Clinton. Whatever the gestation properties of seeds in federal reports are, the “Support for a Democratic Transition” initiative was clearly not a serious step toward normalization.

They made me do it

In his second term and after he left office, Clinton portrayed Helms-Burton and the shootdown as things that happened in a space beyond his reach where other people were at fault. In a 2000 radio interview he said, “I believe if Castro hadn’t shot those planes down, and the Congress hadn’t passed a law which prohibits me from doing anything with the embargo, that we might have made some real progress there.”

At a 1997 gathering in Argentina, he said the Miami exiles were responsible for Helms-Burton because of pressure from them. He said that he was forced to sign the bill to prevent a stronger piece of legislation coming before Congress. [11]

In his memoirs, Clinton dropped the part about preventing a worse bill from coming to his desk. “Supporting the bill,” he wrote, “was good election-year politics in Florida…but it did undermine whatever chance I might have had, if I won a second term to lift the embargo in return for positive changes in Cuba.” [12]

Perhaps the simplest explanation for why Basulto was able to fly that day in spite of all the radar surveillance, the FAA handwringing and the State Department warnings was this from Clinton’s memoirs: “My main target was the election.” [13]

After all, he had worked hard throughout his first term to win the Florida vote. He did favors for Florida: he held the Summit of the Americas in Miami; he relocated the Southern Command there from Panama; and he made “inroads” in the Cuban-American community. He might have added that Basulto was free to fly.

The handling of the Brothers little war against Cuba and the shootdown had driven the administration into an election-based myopia. By signing the Helms-Burton Act, Clinton was reduced to sending reports mandated by Congress. Cuba policy was to be decided primarily by congressional committees responding to concessions or lack of them from Cuba. By hitching policy to fictional scenarios of a Cuban surrender of its sovereignty, Congress and Clinton, with considerable help from Brothers to the Rescue, ensured that little would change far into the future.


1 Roque interview, Tele Rebelde, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 02/27/9.

2 Miami Herald, 02/16/97.


4 Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History, New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2005, p.278.

5 Agencia EFE, 11/21/95.

6 Agencia EFE, 03/29/95.

7 Miami Herald, 02/16/97.

8 Miami Herald, 03/01/01.

9 El Nuevo Herald (Miami), 12/24/98.

10 Miami Herald, 01/28/97.

11  Miami Herald, 10/17/97.

12 Bill Clinton, My Life, New York: Knopf, 2004, p. 700.

13 Ibid. p.727

Robert Sandels writes on Cuba and Mexico. Nelson P. Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of New Mexico.