HAVANA - US-Cuba relations came tumbling down along with the two Miami-based planes shot down over Cuban airspace on February 24.
Although the US State Department had repeatedly warned the anti-Castro Cuban-American group "Hermanos al Rescate'' (Brothers to the Rescue) that Cuban authorities could justifiably retaliate against their illegal overflights, the Clinton administration did a quick about-face when the Castro government finally reacted to the brazen incursions by shooting down two of the three planes that flew back and forth over Cuban territory, seemingly taunting the Cuban authorities.
In what to Cubans was a surprise move, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the downing of the planes "totally unjustified'' and a "blatant violation of international law and the norms of civilised countries.'' He threatened unilateral US actions against Cuba, and the Clinton administration is calling for UN sanctions as well.
The president of Cuba's parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, called Christopher a blatant liar. He told a press conference packed with US, European and Cuban journalists that it was "astonishing'' that Christopher could claim that the planes had been shot down over international waters. US officials themselves had requested permission for the US Coast Guard to enter Cuban waters to help in the search and recovery of bodies and debris from the downed planes.
"We have ample material recovered in our waters,'' he stated, "and the US has no material at all recovered in international waters.
"We are not talking about an 'unjustified action' but an act of legitimate self-defence against pirate attacks in Cuban airspace and over Cuban territorial waters.''
In addition, the Cubans say they have one of the pilots who was participating in this group's actions. It is not clear whether this is a captured pilot from the downed planes or an infiltrator or defector from the anti-Castro group.
Cuban Foreign Ministry spokespeople insist that the crucial issue is violation of Cuban airspace. "No country with a modicum of self-respect could tolerate what was being perpetrated against Cuba by means of increasingly brazen and humiliating actions. The United States would never have allowed such violations even once.''
Some in the US Congress have spoken out in opposition to the Clinton administration's position. Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York told CNN, "No North American group has the right to penetrate into Cuban air space and drop anti-government propaganda in violation of the laws of the United States and Cuba''.
Christopher's assertion that the planes had been over international waters baffled Cubans. Reuters had earlier quoted an unidentified government spokesperson as describing a White House meeting "to jointly examine all the evidence we've got'' as to whether the aircraft had violated Cuban airspace.
Apparently they didn't wait to see Cuban evidence of the incursions: Cubans say they have "unequivocal proof'', including annotated maps showing the minute-by-minute radar detection, taped conversations and "even objects that belonged to the transgressors of our sovereignty'' recovered from Cuban waters on February 24.
Cubans say the US was irresponsible in not stopping the repeated violations of their own and international law by anti-Cuban groups based in Florida. The groups have held press conferences gloating over their piratic acts, Alarcon stated.
Jorge Dorrbecker, chair of the Cuban-American Pilots Association, affirmed that the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) had issued a new warning regarding Cuba three weeks ago. He added that "all pilots were warned that if they crossed the 24th parallel without a flight plan, the Cuban government would not be held responsible for their personal safety''. This warning was repeated by Cuban civil aviation authorities.
"Alarcon pointed out that this incident "didn't occur out of the blue''.
"We have warned them repeatedly that we would be forced to take action,'' he said, noting that a number of anti-Castro groups have not limited themselves to dropping leaflets, but have engaged in violent terrorist acts against the Cuban population.
Cuba's surprise at Christopher's reaction was based in part on public statements by the State Department expressing disagreement with the illegal actions of the Cuban-Americans.
"Just a year ago,'' Alarcon stated, Christopher's department sent a note saying it was investigating the possible violation of international law by Jose Basulto's Brothers to the Rescue. Basulto was accused of violating FAA regulations, and Cuba was asked to supply information to prove these allegations.
Despite Cuba's complete cooperation, no charges were lodged against Basulto. "What happened to that investigation and those charges?'' Alarcon asked. "This man and his cronies took off from Florida after the investigation was conducted, and the US failed to do anything to stop them.''
On February 24 they took off again from Florida. They turned back after the first Cuban warnings, but returned in the afternoon. After numerous appeals to them to turn back failed, MiGs were sent out after them.
Alarcon railed against the image being disseminated by the US government and press of "unarmed civilians carrying out a humanitarian mission''.
"There was nothing humanitarian about them. They were not engaged in legitimate civilised activities,'' he asserted. "They were in violation of numerous international laws ... This group has for years been promoting illegal immigration, and the US is supposedly against illegal immigration.
"The US knows that drugs are flown into its territory in small craft like these, yet they allow these planes to illegally depart and re-enter US airports. The US is supposedly opposed to terrorism, yet Basulto and his cronies have a long record of terrorism. These are people they should have prosecuted long ago.''
He noted that a small plane can carry lots of armaments, "and we know they came from a country where you can buy every kind of weapon by mail order."
"We can't exclude the possibility that the plane was armed and preparing a terrorist attack, just because a liar like Warren Christopher says they were unarmed.''
Cuban officials, recalling numerous threats and terrorist acts, including the strafing of fishing villages and tourism hotels, argue they cannot wait until people are killed before stopping planes illegally flying into their territory. An international tourist hotel is located a few miles down the beach from the area where the planes were shot down.
The Cubans were also particularly irked at the US attempt to seek UN sanctions. Alarcon pointed out that the US never paid reparations to the Iranian families of the passengers on the civilian airliner its troops downed in the Persian Gulf.
"And the author of the greatest act of air terrorism in the Caribbean - the bombing of the Cuban civilian airliner in 1976 - is probably taking part in the Miami demonstrations demanding sanctions against Cuba, because Orlando Bosch was given permission by then President George Bush to continue living there despite US immigration authorities' attempts to deport him for his terrorist actions.
"Another member of that team, Luis Posada Carriles, who was convicted in Venezuela of that crime, has for years been a fugitive reportedly working with the CIA and the contras in Central America.''
It's obvious, he said, that "the US is not against piracy, it supports the pirates. It's not against terrorism, it supports the terrorists. It's not for human rights, but for those who violate them.''
US pilots have been violating international law by entering Cuban airspace for many years. Since 1994, there have been at least nine incursions, according to Cuban authorities; after each, protest notes were lodged with the United States Interests Section. On more than one occasion, the Cuban Aeronautical Institute also protested to the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Most of the flights came from Florida, and many flew over the region between Matanzas and Havana provinces. One flight on July 10, 1994, took off from the US base in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay and dropped anti-Cuban government leaflets over the lighthouse Punta Maisi. Between January 9 and 13 this year more leaflets were dropped over Havana province.
Because of the number of incursions, Cuban authorities have had to limit international arrivals and departures at Varadero airport.
Meanwhile, El Diario and La Prensa report that on January 12 the US federal authorities insisted that a case against three men, charged with plotting to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro government, be dropped. The three had been charged with violating federal conspiracy laws and the Neutrality Act, with forbids military action against nations with which the US is not at war.
US Customs officials stopped five anti-Castro Cuban Americans in a seven-metre fishing boat containing arms and explosives off the Florida Keys on January 23. Arms found on board included a semi-automatic pistol equipped with a silencer, several gun holsters and some components of explosive devices. The five people on board were not arrested or charged.
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