Imperialism : A Cuba Story


Richard Moore

Date: Fri, 04 Nov 2005 16:03:04 -0500
To: •••@••.•••
From: "Raging Grannie (Wanda B)" <>


A Cuba Story

Torn Families and Shot Down Planes


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

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

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

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 "Families 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.


"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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