25 Years Ago, Today - Cuban Air Force Shoots Down US Humanitarian Pilots
In 1991 a 15 year-old Cuban boy named Gregorio Perez Ricardo died of severe dehydration in an attempt to flee Castro's dictatorship. A group of Cuban exiles living in Miami, led by Jose Basulto, were moved by this tragic event and created Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue). Their mission was to "support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active non-violence."
The group was comprised of pilots who put their skills to use by flying over the waters of the Florida Straits in search of Cubans attempting the dangerous cross on balsas (improvised flotation devices). The group claims to have rescued thousands.
The Brothers were forced to change up their strategy after the Clinton administration implemented the wet-foot, dry-foot policy in 1995 which stated that all intercepted rafters would be repatriated to Cuba. Now the US Coast Guard would be on the lookout for rafters through the Florida Straits, so fewer Cubans were willing to risk the journey. Though they still wanted to leave, capture now meant being handed back to the Cuban government on a silver platter, which is probably the only thing worse than being stuck on the island in the first place.
With fewer and fewer rafters to assist, the Brothers directed their efforts into inciting a revolution and promoting civil disobedience against the Cuban government. To do this the Brothers began flying over the island itself and dropping political leaflets with messages like "Fight for your Rights" and "The People Own the Streets." This was a ballsy move, but a necessary one.
What he’s doing with the leaflets, it shows great courage. It’s another step, and there are many steps required, toward planting the seed that will lead our people to demanding what is rightfully theirs. It’s a very powerful message."
Sylvia Iriondo, Cuban-American Activist, 1995
Then on February 24, 1996, two Brothers' civilian Cessna Skymasters were shot down in the Florida Straits by Cuban MiG fighters. The four men on those planes were Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario de la Pena, and Armando Alajandre. A third Brothers' plane, piloted by Jose Basulto and Sylvia Iriondo, made it back safely.
The details surrounding exactly where the planes were when the Cuban Air Force authorized their fighters to destroy them are sketchy. I have seen made mention that Madeleine Albright was able to show the United Nations that the planes were flying in international waters when they were shot down, but I couldn't find any hard evidence to back that up. The accounts regarding the exact locations vary from just off Cuba's coast to several miles outside Cuban airspace, so we'll never know for sure. But we do know that at no point did they make an attempt to intercept, radio, or contact the pilots in any way before acting with deadly force.
The fact that weapons of war and combat-trained pilots were used against unarmed civilians shows not only how disproportionate the use of force was, but also the intent to end the lives of those individuals. It is claimed the extracts from the radio communications between the MiG-29 pilots and the military control tower indicate that they acted from a superior position and showed malice and scorn toward the human dignity of the victims.
The worst part about this is that the Brothers were betrayed by one of their own supposed "brothers." Juan Pablo Roque, formerly a major in the Cuban Air Force, had been a member of the group since 1992, but the day before the planes were shot down he unexpectedly left the city. He later resurfaced in Havana of all places, condemning the group's actions! My blood is boiling. Roque was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after the incident and was given a government-provided home in Havana complete with his own security detail.
Roque wasn't the only spy the Cuban government had operating in the United States. La Red Avispa (The Wasp Network) was a group of Castro faithfuls who infiltrated anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami including the Cuban-American National Foundation, F4 Commandos and Alpha 66. The Wasp Network and The Cuban Five is something I'll probably write about somewhere down the road.
I'm writing about this now because today is the 25th anniversary of the day these humanitarians were shot out of the sky by a dictator who would do anything to keep control.
And though that dictator is gone, nothing has changed. 60 años trancado el dominó.