Cuba Downs US Planes | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Cuba Downs US Planes

In the end, the protest sputtered out, a victim of high seas and bad weather in the choppy Straits of Florida. The 35 boats and several private planes that set out from Key West, Fla.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 11, 1996

Cuba Downs US Planes

In the end, the protest sputtered out, a victim of high seas and bad weather in the choppy Straits of Florida. The 35 boats and several private planes that set out from Key West, Fla., towards the coast of Cuba last Saturday bore dozens of Cuban-Americans determined to honor men whom they regarded as martyrs. They wanted to hold a memorial service on the spot where, six days earlier, Cuban MiG fighters had blown two Cessna aircraft operated by an organization of anti-communist Cuban exiles out of the sky, killing four crew members. The unsettled weather forced the flotilla to turn back far short of its destination, and averted a possible new confrontation with Cuban authorities. But the political storms surrounding the incident refused to die down. The passions it aroused, whipped up by American presidential politics, further poisoned relations between Cuba and the United States - and put Canadian businesses that trade with the island on a collision course with U.S. policy-makers.

The Cuban MiG assault lasted just minutes: two fighters intercepted the Cessnas, supposedly after they strayed into Cuban airspace, and destroyed them with air-to-air missiles. The group that sent the planes out to search for Cubans fleeing their homeland in small vessels and rafts, called Brothers to the Rescue, claimed that the planes were downed in international waters - a cry taken up by Florida's politically powerful, million-strong Cuban community. "These are international waters," declared Brothers to the Rescue leader José Basulto, who was in a third Cessna that managed to evade the Cuban MiGs. "And nobody can prevent us by fear from being there."

The first casualty of the incident was President Bill Clinton's patient policy of trying to ease 35 years of mutual hostility between the United States and Fidel Castro's Communist regime. Two days after the attack, Clinton suspended several measures, including direct air charters between the United States and the island nation, adopted only four months earlier to foster closer person-to-person relations with Cuba. More ominously, the President announced that he would support a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at punishing companies, such as Toronto-based Sherritt International Inc., which have substantial investments in Cuba. And he denounced the Cubans with Cold War-style rhetoric, describing the attack as "an appalling reminder of the nature of the Cuban regime: repressive, violent, scornful of international law."

Canadian officials added their voices to the chorus of criticism aimed at the Cubans for violating internationally accepted rules prohibiting military attacks on civilian aircraft. But Ottawa was equally perturbed by the American response - a hasty agreement between congressional leaders and the President to pass the Helms-Burton bill, which Clinton had vetoed last summer. Named after its sponsors, Indiana Republican Representative Dan Burton and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the bill, expected to be signed by Clinton this week, would, among other things, allow U.S. citizens who had property confiscated after the 1959 Cuban revolution to sue, in U.S. courts, foreign companies now using that property. Clinton, however, can waive that provision for unlimited six-month periods.

The bill would also deny entry visas to anyone, including corporate executives or shareholders of foreign companies, now benefiting from the use of confiscated property. This clause could only be waived in strictly limited circumstances. "We are very disappointed and concerned about the bill, and we'll look at what measures could be taken to respond," said Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who is scheduled to make an official visit to Washington in early March. "They are extending the jurisdiction of their court system to citizens of other countries."

Canadians could, potentially, be big losers. In the early 1990s, the Castro regime launched an economic liberalization program aimed at attracting foreign investment to bolster Cuba's faltering economy. Canadian companies were among the first to arrive, and, by late last year, 40 or so had opened Cuban offices. Canadian diplomats in Havana estimate that these firms have signed 17 joint ventures with branches of the Cuban government, and another 20 are being discussed. Their potential value is well over $1 billion.

Executives with many of those companies said that they would have to read the fine print of the Helms-Burton bill to determine whether the legislation poses a real threat. And if it does, they will be counting on Ottawa to defend their interests. "It is certainly a time of heightened sensitivities," says Patrice Merrin-Best, a vice-president of Toronto-based Sherritt, which has interests in mining, tourism, agriculture and petroleum projects in Cuba. "We'll just have to let the dust settle a bit." Sherritt could be immediately affected by the lawsuit provision: it has received letters from two companies making claims on its key asset, a nickel mine at Moa Bay that it co-owns with the Cuban government.

Nor will the dust settle easily. Organizations like Brothers to the Rescue are determined to continue what amounts to a civil disobedience campaign aimed at promoting political unrest in Cuba. Formed in 1991, Brothers has flown some 1,800 missions over the Florida Straits trying to search for and assist Cubans fleeing their homeland. But more recently, the volunteer organization has become a thorn in the side of Cuban and American authorities by ignoring repeated warnings from both to stay out of Cuban airspace. Last summer, members flew over Havana and dumped leaflets urging Cubans to rise up against Castro.

Washington officials acknowledge that at least Basulto's lead plane had flown within Cuba's 12-mile coastal territorial zone, and that the doomed pair had been at least close to a broader Air Defence Identification Zone below the 24th parallel of latitude, 40 to 60 miles north of Cuba. Further, a U.S. transcript of in-flight dialogue contained an exchange in which civilian air traffic controllers in Havana clearly warned Basulto of the dangers of entering the air-defence zone, where he said he would be flying for up to four hours.

But the United States, along with Canada and other countries, argued that the Cubans should never have resorted to shooting down unarmed civilian aircraft. Instead, they maintained, the MiG pilots should have either chased the Cessnas out of Cuban airspace or forcibly escorted them to land. The American account of the attack, based on various forms of electronic monitoring, revealed that the Cuban fighter pilots first sought permission for the attack from their superiors on the ground. Then they displayed an almost macho delight in shooting down the Cessnas. "We took out his cojones," shouted one pilot, using the Spanish slang for testicles, while another said: "This one won't mess around anymore." Said U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright at the United Nations last week: "This is not cojones - this is cowardice."

In Miami, amid grieving and fury last week, leaders of the Cuban-American community demanded reprisals and plotted their flotilla protest. "This was assassination," Basulto shouted to a crowd attending a post-mission rally. Alongside Basulto, as she had been on the flight, Sylvia Iriondo, the leader of a Florida group called Mothers Against Repression, branded Castro a murderer. That prompted chanted refrains from the rally crowd of "Murderer!"

International reaction to the incident was swift, although much less strident. On Feb. 27, the 15-nation UN Security Council adopted a statement - without waiting to hear from Cuba's Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina as he headed to UN headquarters in New York City - stating that it "strongly deplores" Cuba's action. The UN statement avoided stronger U.S.-proposed wording, which had cited Cuba for "unlawful" use of force.

But despite international censure, the Cuban government remained unrepentant. Ricardo Alarcon, the leader of Cuba's National Assembly and a Castro confidant who negotiated easier relations with Washington last spring, spent most of a 90-minute news conference in Havana berating and mocking the Americans. "Who is responsible?" he asked rhetorically before answering his own question. "The great responsibility, along with the perpetrators of this provocation, lies with the irresponsible people who run a government incapable of making its own laws respected."

Some Cuban officials hinted at another reason for the attack: fear that the Brothers were on a terrorist mission on Feb. 24. They based their suspicions on allegations made by Juan Pablo Roque, a 40-year-old former pilot in the Cuban air force who fled to the Miami area in 1992, left Florida shortly before the Feb. 24 incident, and resurfaced in his homeland after the attack. He claimed that the Brothers had plans to commit acts of sabotage in Cuba, and even intended to attempt to kidnap Castro.

The attack also occurred at a time of domestic political tension, on the 101st anniversary of the day in 1895 when Cubans rose in rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. A loosely organized coalition of more than 100 human rights groups and professional organizations, operating under the name Concilio Cubano, had chosen the anniversary as the date for its inaugural meeting in response to signs that the Castro regime was encouraging the development of democracy.

That movement was stimulated by Clinton's policy of "incremental steps" towards better relations with Havana - the promise of relaxing U.S. economic sanctions in reward for progress in human rights. As recently as Feb. 11, three dissident Cubans had been released from imprisonment after the personal intervention of U.S. congressman Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat. But four days later - and only nine days before Basulto's Cessnas took off from Miami - Cuban security agents began stopping opposition activists in the streets of Havana, quizzing them, seizing documents, and placing some of them under arrest, according to U.S. authorities.

To Cuba-watcher Otto Reich, a former U.S. ambassador and now a Latin America specialist with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, shooting down the Cessnas was probably designed to forestall further embarrassment of the Castro government. "Brothers to the Rescue had humiliated Castro, in his eyes, when they overflew Havana and dropped those leaflets," Reich said. "It could be very costly because somebody could say, 'Well, jeez, Fidel is losing control, so why don't we replace him?' Underlying this is a terrible feeling of insecurity by Castro, both politically and economically. And whenever this has happened in the past, he has always created an international crisis to regain control of the domestic situation while the world's attention is focused on the international crisis."

The latest one showed few signs of ending quickly or quietly. A memorial service for the dead men held in Miami's Orange Bowl stadium on March 2 revealed the determination of the Cuban-American community to keep international attention focused on the attack. It also kept the diplomatic flames burning. The White House declared that the United States "will not tolerate unacceptable behavior by the Cuban government," while a Cuban spokesman warned the Americans to stay out of its waters and airspace or "Cuba will use the necessary means [to stop them]." Clearly, relations between Cuba and the United States were getting colder, and the bottom line could be financial pain for Canadian companies doing business with Havana.

Maclean's March 11, 1996