At a February 26 White House press conference, President William Clinton announced a new round of hostile measures against the socialist revolution in Cuba. The Democratic administration tightened the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba and reinforced the de facto ban on travel to the island by U.S. residents.
Clinton added that he was "not ruling out any further steps in the future should they be required." Filling in the algebra with arithmetic, U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher, speaking while on a visit to El Salvador, said that the "president has not included any military action, but he has reserved the possibility to take that kind of measure."
Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright, chief U.S. representative to the United Nations, took on the job of trying to cajole other governments to give a stamp of approval to Washington's course.
These aggressive moves followed by two days the action of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces in shooting down two of three Cessna aircraft that, despite unambiguous warnings by Cuban air traffic controllers, invaded Cuban airspace on a course toward the capital city of Havana. The planes, which took off from the Opa-locka airport near Miami, Florida, were piloted by members of a group called Brothers to the Rescue, led by Cuban-American counterrevolutionaries, a number of them with long histories of armed action against the Cuban state dating back to the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion organized by the CIA.
According to the Cuban government's account, the invasion of Cuban airspace on Saturday afternoon, February 24, was the second hostile incursion that day by the same kind of aircraft, and the tenth such violation of Cuban territory over the past 20 months, involving some 30 planes all told. Throughout this period, Washington had done nothing to stop these escalating provocations organized from U.S. soil.
With bipartisan unanimity, government officials, journalists, and opinion-makers in Washington denounced the defensive actions of the Cuban armed forces.
Speaking to the White House press corps February 26, Clinton labeled the downing of the planes "an appalling reminder of the nature of the Cuban regime: repressive, violent, scornful of international law."
"All charter air travel from the United States to Cuba will be suspended indefinitely," Clinton said. This is the second major reinforcement of the travel ban during the first three years of the Democratic administration. Journalists, those with family members in Cuba, and the handful of other categories still exempt under specific conditions from tightened regulations imposed by the White House in August 1994 will now find it much more difficult and costly to travel to Cuba.
Clinton said he would "move promptly to reach agreement with the Congress" on legislation to further strengthen the brutal, 34-year-long U.S. financial and trade embargo of Cuba. Two days later, on February 28, White House press secretary Michael McCurry announced that "the president is delighted" to have reached "common ground with the Congress" on the so-called Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, sponsored by U.S. senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and U.S. representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and adopted by both houses of Congress last fall.
"The president, in light of the incident on Saturday, believes that tightening the embargo on Cuba is a necessary step both to deal with this incident and to promote our overall goal of democratic change in Cuba," McCurry said. The White House spokesperson acknowledged that Clinton still did not agree with certain provisions of the Helms-Burton bill that have been protested by many other governments around the world that could be negatively affected by them. But Clinton was more concerned with acting quickly, McCurry said.
Another measure announced by Clinton requests Congress to authorize payments to families of agents involved in anti- Cuban activity, starting with the 4 downed crewmen for Brothers to the Rescue. The White House is seeking to draw the funds from Cuban assets frozen in U.S. accounts since the expropriation of U.S. capitalist holdings on the island in 1960.
The administration also announced the expansion of the operations of Radio Marti' (the U.S. propaganda outlet named, as a gratuitous insult to Cuban patriots, after the central leader of Cuba's revolutionary struggle against Spanish colonial rule and Yankee domination at the end of the last century) and sharp additional restrictions on internal travel by Cuban officials living in or visiting the United States.
The U.S. government simultaneously began to increase military activity off Cuba's shores. Despite the Cuban government's public offer to permit the U.S. Coast Guard to search for the downed aircraft within Cuba's 12-mile territorial waters, U.S. forces limited their operations to outside that area, where U.S. officials claim the shootings occurred. According to McCurry, F-15 fighter planes were scrambled on February 25 to provide air cover to the U.S. flotilla.
The Miami Herald reported that Air Force reserve pilots were also summoned on Saturday to fighter squadrons at Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida. And among the Navy vessels cruising close to Cuban waters early Monday, the Herald said, were a guided missile frigate, a guided missile cruiser, and an amphibious assault ship
As the White House was announcing its intention February 28 to sign the Helms-Burton act into law, defense secretary William Perry said that the Pentagon is "actively exploring what actions we will take in the weeks ahead." The UPI dispatch reporting Perry's comments added that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and guided missile cruiser USS Mississippi were both conducting training exercises in the Caribbean.
What actually happened off the northwest coast of Cuba on Saturday, February 24? And what was the sequence of events that led the Cuban armed forces to fire on the two Cessnas? In answer to both questions, there are several conflicting accounts.
According to a February 25 statement issued by the Cuban foreign ministry, between 10:15 and 11:27 a.m. on Saturday morning, three Cessna planes crossed over into Cuba's airspace and retreated to the north after being intercepted by Cuban air force fighters. Later, at 1:21 p.m., the air traffic control center in Havana detected one of the planes once again heading toward Cuban airspace "north of the capital," the statement said, "and they were warned...of the risks they were running by doing this. In response the pilot of the pirate plane said it was clear he could not fly in that zone but he was going to do it anyway."
This part of the Cuban government account is confirmed by the transcript of radio messages released February 27 by Madeleine Albright, based on U.S. intelligence recordings. The transcript reports the following exchange (translated from the Spanish) between the Havana air control tower and "Cessna 3," piloted by Jose' Basulto, the founding leader of Brothers to the Rescue:
"Havana: Sir, be informed that the zone north of Havana is activated, [garble] you, danger behind 24 north parallel.
"Cessna 3: We are aware that we are in danger each time we cross the area to the south of the 24th [parallel] but we are willing to do it as free Cubans."
By 3:15 p.m., the Cuban statement said, the Revolutionary Armed Forces knew from "internal communications of one of the pilots that they were heading toward Havana. Meanwhile, two of the planes were penetrating the restricted zone of Cuban airspace. The head of the group in a third plane [Basulto] remained outside of the 12-mile limit." Then, between 3:21 and 3:28 p.m., the "two pirate Cessna planes ... were shot down by our armed forces ... at a distance of 5 and 8 miles north of the Baracoa beach, west of the city of Havana."
The Cuban government says it has "irrefutable proof" that the two planes were shot down over Cuban waters, including personal items from the four pilots and spotters on the planes and debris from the wreckage.
It took the U.S. government several hours on Sunday, February 25, to settle on its official - current - account of the events.
Initially, according to the Sunday edition of the Miami Herald, "a Pentagon official told The Associated Press that early indications suggested the planes may have been heading to Cuba to pick up people and fly them out of the country." Reports Sunday morning on CNN and other television networks also reported statements by unnamed Pentagon officials that they had information that the planes may have been planning to touch down on Cuban territory.
By midday, however, that story had been deep-sixed by U.S. government officials. Reporters for the big-business press asked no embarrassing questions about the source of the now-abandoned "early indications."
The version issued by the White House later on Sunday went as follows:
Between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Saturday, Cuban fighters conducted "air patrols in reaction to what they believed to be an incursion of Cuban airspace. The Cuban aircraft return to their base, making no contact with any aircraft." The three Cessnas take off from Opa-locka airport between 1:15 and 2:00 p.m., and at around 2:57 "the Cuban air traffic controller informs the [lead] aircraft of the danger in operating south of the 24th. The [Brothers to the Rescue] aircraft made it clear that it was aware of the danger but was flying in anyway."
By 3:22, the White House says, the "lead aircraft penetrates three nautical miles into Cuban airspace," and over the next 9 minutes Cuban MiG fighter pilots request and receive permission to fire on and destroy two of the Cessnas, one 5 miles and the other 16 miles outside Cuban airspace.
Even after the White House released this account, however, later reports by U.S. press agencies called its accuracy into question. An AP dispatch on Tuesday morning, February 27, for example, reported that "U.S. intelligence officials said the air traffic control tower in Havana warned the [Cessna] pilots they were in danger. The officials said at least one plane, and perhaps all three, ventured into Cuban airspace, though the downing occurred over international waters."
Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose' Basulto claims that the planes were on a routine weekend mission to spot potential rafters from Cuba and deliver them to safety. Basulto and other leaders of the group say that this was why the group was founded in 1991 and remains its primary activity. According to a feature article on Brothers to the Rescue in the New York Times, the group had 15 pilots and 5 twin-engine planes prior to the events of February 24, as well as other volunteers who served as spotters during sorties over the Caribbean.
Immediately following the downing of the two Cessnas last weekend, Basulto insisted that the claim even in the White House account that one of the aircraft had entered Cuban airspace "is a lie," and that all three planes had stayed some 15 miles off the Cuban coast. But later in the day on Sunday he told CNN: "I'm not denying or accepting anything. There's always a possibility, although remote, that something like this might have taken place."
In late August 1994, Washington signed an agreement with the Cuban government reversing the previous U.S. government course of refusing to grant legal entry to Cubans who wished to emigrate to the United States, while at the same time encouraging illegal flight from Cuba on homemade rafts and commandeered boats. By that time, the numbers of Cubans seeking to come to the United States by such desperate means had reached more than a thousand a day, as Cuba was still bottoming out of the sharpest economic crisis in the history of the revolution precipitated by the sudden cutoff of subsidized trade with the Soviet Union at the opening of the 1990s.
Since then, the rising tide of rafters has been reduced to a trickle. According to the New York Times, for example, the Coast Guard picked up only 27 Cubans in the Florida Straits in January of this year.
In fact, the deliberately provocative character of the recent probes against Cuba register a growing frustration among enemies of the Cuban revolution over the fact that economic and social conditions have begun to noticeably improve over the past year.
Brothers to the Rescue has publicly acknowledged that on three occasions over the past six months - in July 1995, and twice in January of this year - it has organized flights directly over the Havana area, scattering leaflets from the air.
On July 13 of last year, 6 planes, 2 helicopters, and 11 boats violated Cuban airspace and waters. The planes flew at low altitudes, with one of them passing directly over Havana's coastal area, and several of the boats came within 10 miles of the shore. After Cuban naval units had turned back the boats, the revolutionary government issued a statement reiterating "its firm determination to take any and all actions necessary to avoid the repetition of incidents like the one which took place yesterday. Once more we warn that any vessel coming from abroad, which forcefully invades our sovereign waters, could be sunk; and any plane shot down."
Pointing out that terrorist assaults against Cuba have been carried out from small planes and boats repeatedly throughout the history of the revolution, the statement continued: "We have confronted this provocation with great patience, but patience has its limits. The responsibility for whatever happens will fall, exclusively, on those who encourage, plan, execute, or tolerate these acts of piracy."
Despite this clear warning, on January 9 and again on January 13, 1996, 2 small planes coming from Opa-locka airport flew over Havana province scattering leaflets.
"One day they drop leaflets, another day maybe they try to introduce weapons into our country," said Ricardo Alarco'n, president of Cuba's national assembly, during a televised February 26 press conference in Havana on the most recent overflights. Alarco'n is the former foreign minister and chief United Nations representative of the Cuban government.
"Why has the U.S. decided that [the planes] were unarmed?" Alarco'n asked. He pointed out that a substantial number of weapons can be and have been carried into Cuban territory in such small craft.
In fact, murderous assaults organized by U.S.-based "civilians," using "civilian" planes, boats, and small weapons, have taken the lives of many workers, farmers, and youth in Cuba ever since their first revolutionary encroachments on the land and properties of U.S. capitalists some 35 years ago.
Basulto seeks to portray Brothers to the Rescue as a "humanitarian" organization that sometimes also engages in Mahatma Gandhi- or Martin Luther King-style nonviolent civil disobedience over Cuban airspace.
A cursory look at Basulto's own political history gives the lie to these claims. In 1961 he trained with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and participated in the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs that was held off by Cuban militia units and then quickly crushed by Cuba's armed forces. Escaping death or capture, he made his way to the Guanta'namo naval base - Cuban territory forcibly occupied by the U.S. government. Basulto's own Cessna still has a large "2506" painted in gold on its side, harking back to his days as a member of Bay of Pigs Brigade 2506.
In 1962, Basulto commandeered a high-speed boat mounted with a small cannon from Miami into Havana harbor and fired on a Cuban hotel.
In the 1980s, Basulto broadened out his counterrevolutionary activities, participating in work to back the U.S.-organized contras seeking to overthrow the revolutionary government in Nicaragua.
It is there, in fact, that Basulto may have encountered a real connection with government-sponsored terror against a civilian aircraft - U.S.-government sponsored terrorism, that is. Washington's choice to organize its supply flights for the contras flown out of El Salvador's Ilopango airport was another Cuban counterrevolutionary named Luis Posada, widely known to have organized (along with Orlando Bosch) the 1976 bombing of a Cubana Airlines commercial flight taking off from Barbados. All 73 passengers on board were killed. The downing of a plane over Nicaragua piloted by U.S. citizen Eugene Hasenfus in October 1986 exposed Washington's Ilopango operation and forced the U.S. rulers to reorganize their support for the contra terror.
Further information about Basulto and his Brothers to the Rescue was provided in an interview broadcast over Cuban television February 26 with Juan Pablo Roque, a former MiG-23 pilot in the Cuban air force who left the island and came to the United States in 1992. While living in Miami, Roque had joined up as a pilot for Brothers to the Rescue. (Roque was subsequently interviewed by CNN as well.) He returned to Cuba in mid-February.
In 1993, Roque said, Basulto asked him "for information on specific stretches of highway in the city of Cienfuegos to land on and unload explosives that would be placed in high- tension towers in order to blow them up, damaging the National Energy System." In November 1994 and again in April 1995, Roque said, Basulto consulted with him "on antipersonnel ammunition that was to be introduced into the country in order to carry out assassinations" of Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders. Direct CIA involvement in assassination attempts against Castro were documented in official U.S. Senate committee investigations in the 1970s.
Roque said that he personally reported all the information he had on the Brothers' activities and plans to the FBI (he cited the name and beeper number of the agent during the interview). On February 28 the FBI acknowledged that Roque had provided them information on Brothers to the Rescue but denied they had any foreknowledge of its planned operations on Saturday, February 24.
On February 27, Basulto announced plans to send two planes and a flotilla of boats to the area outside Cuban airspace and waters where he claims the two Cessnas were shot down. The display, during which Basulto says he will strew flowers on the sea, is scheduled for Saturday, March 2, a week after the initial events.
"We are going to continue confronting the Castro government," Basulto said at a rally of several hundred at the Opa-locka airport covered by the ABC television affiliate there. "You have our pledge on that. We have more planes and pilots left."
But another Brothers to the Rescue pilot told Miami's WSVN-TV, "We might have to rethink what we are doing."
Washington's stepped-up assault on the Cuban revolution provided stump-speech material for the candidates vying for the Republican Party 1996 presidential nomination.
U.S. senator Robert Dole, for example, suddenly renamed the "Helms-Burton bill" the "Dole-Helms bill," and said the Cuban government's action in shooting down the Cessnas was the product of the Clinton administration "coddling Castro."
A more telling response came from Patrick Buchanan, who is as concerned about gathering cadres for his incipient fascist movement as he is about the outcome of this year's Republican primaries and summer nominating convention. Buchanan once again demonstrated that his virulent "America Firstism" and isolationism have nothing to do with opposition to the use of U.S. military might abroad, as his views have sometimes been mistakenly portrayed in the capitalist media.
Interviewed on the CBS Sunday morning news program Face the Nation, Buchanan said he believes "American fighter aircraft should be patrolling international waters ... and if Cuban planes came up to shoot down people who are in international waters, we would shoot down the planes."
"It's got to be United States policy to remove Fidel Castro from power," he said. "I'm not recommending an invasion, but I am recommending the kind of overall pressure and plan - diplomatic, political, and otherwise - which would remove Mr. Castro from power as rapidly as possible."
Pressed by a reporter to explain why he wasn't advocating immediate military action against Cuba, Buchanan replied: "I don't recommend an invasion because I think the cost in life, Cuban and American, would be extraordinary."
That's the conclusion virtually all U.S. bourgeois political figures reluctantly came to at the time of the October 1962 missile crisis, which Democratic president John Kennedy initially hoped might provide the pretext for such an assault. According to previously classified government documents released in the past several years, however, the administration scrapped those plans when informed by the Pentagon of its estimate that more than 18,000 U.S. casualties might be sustained in the first 10 days of fighting the armed and determined Cuban people.
It was that political reality about the revolutionary preparedness and conviction of Cuban working people - not the Kremlin's nuclear arsenal, let alone the U.S. rulers' claims to respect national sovereignty - that forced Washington to shelve its hopes for a second, more successful Bay of Pigs.
The February 27 reply by the Cuban foreign ministry to the Clinton administration's new hostile measures referred back to this lesson from the history of the socialist revolution.
"Cuba neither fears nor accepts threats," the statement said. "We have known them for more than 35 years and have never trembled before them, not even when they took on the character of potential nuclear destruction....
"These events occur as we approach the 35th anniversary of the victory at Playa Giro'n [Bay of Pigs], with our total and unbreakable determination to once again confront and crush any similar or expanded attacks, if circumstances force us to do so, guided by the permanent principle of waging a defensive war that would never end in success by the aggressors."
As part of its efforts to marshal bourgeois public opinion behind its campaign of threats and slanders against Cuba, Washington called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Cuban government for its actions.
Despite efforts by the delegation from China to schedule the meeting at a time when it could be addressed by Cuban foreign minister Roberto Robaina, Washington's chief delegate, Madeleine Albright - also the rotating president of the 15-member UN body in February - insisted that the council not adjourn February 26 until a statement had been agreed to.
After meeting 16 hours, council members unanimously accepted a "presidential statement" between 3:45 and 3:50 a.m. in the wee hours of the morning, Tuesday, February 27. According to a note by the Cuban foreign ministry released later that day, the U.S. State Department issued a visa to Robaina less than one hour later; Robaina was traveling to New York through Mexico on his way to present Cuba's position before the session.
The statement said the Security Council "strongly deplores the shooting down by the Cuban air force of two civil aircraft ... which has apparently resulted in the death of four persons." It called on "the governments concerned to cooperate fully" with an investigation into the incident by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which it requested to prepare a report for Security Council consideration "as soon as possible."
The Cuban foreign ministry note on the Security Council action points out that "the statement is quite different from what the United States intended." The U.S. government had initially proposed a resolution to "condemn" the Cuban government's "unlawful use of force" as a "threat to international order." And the so-called presidential statement was issued without a formal vote, although accepted unanimously by all 15 members, including the permanent delegations from China and Russia and the three member governments with rotating status that are members of the Movement of Nonaligned Countries: Chile, Honduras, and Guinea- Bissau.
Prior to the Security Council session, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Grigory Karasin issued a statement saying that "concrete measures should be taken, not in small part by the Americans, to avert conscious violations of Cuban air space, since this is a provocative factor." And after the Russian delegation agreed to the presidential statement introduced by Albright, Russian president Boris Yeltsin remarked that while, "I regret this incident.... I think the UN Security Council was right in letting, in a civilized manner, the United States understand that it cannot declare war over every such incident."
The February 28 note by the Cuban foreign ministry denounced the Security Council's statement and the refusal to postpone acting on it for just a few hours so that Robaina could participate. It said the Security Council "has a terrible history of acting in a biased manner, subordinate to the interests of the big powers" and that it has "become a dependency of the U.S. State Department,... a kind of universal high court to judge any country which disobeys its designs." The note said that "the United States, always supported by the Western Allies," uses its troops "under the UN flag like a police corps with planetary duties."
After he arrived in New York, Robaina called for the convening of a special session of the UN General Assembly, in which all member countries have delegates, to hear the Cuban government's position and the facts it has gathered.
Refuting the premise of the Security Council statement, the Cuban foreign ministry note pointed to the "need to clearly define what a civilian aircraft is. Many crimes have been committed against our nation by so-called civilian aircraft coming from the U.S. With `civilian aircraft' counterrevolutionary pilots bombed Havana and other places in Cuba," the note said. "With `civilian aircraft' they have dropped explosives and incendiary devices on our sugar cane plantations and our economic facilities. `Civilian aircraft' have been used to introduce spies and saboteurs in our country, or, what is worse, biological warfare has been carried out."
U.S.-sponsored bombing of Cuban canefields and sugar mills, using "civilian planes," began as early as October 1959, less than a year after the victory of the Cuban revolution. In February 1960, for example, U.S. pilot Robert Ellis Frost was killed when his aircraft exploded while trying to bomb a sugar mill. (See the excerpt from a September 1960 speech by Fidel Castro to the United Nations on page 13 of this issue. It is reprinted from the Pathfinder book, To Speak the Truth: Why Washington's `Cold War' against Cuba Doesn't End, a collection of speeches by Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara before various UN bodies.)
Just a few years ago, in October 1992, a "civilian" speedboat was used by Florida-based "civilians" to spray a tourist hotel on Cuba's northern coast with rifle fire. The year before, three Cuban counterrevolutionaries had been captured on the island's northwestern coast, equipped with a stock of weapons and explosives. They had been dropped off in Cuba from a pleasure craft. Their mission, they acknowledged, was to set off bombs in movie theaters and recreation areas, as well as oil refineries, sugar mills, and elsewhere.
The February 28 foreign ministry note concluded by stating that the Cuban government would cooperate with the investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization called for in the Security Council statement. This was true, it said, despite the fact that the inquiry was "part of the United States' maneuver to bring this issue before the Security Council."
"We don't fear [an investigation]," the note said. "On the contrary, we accept it and demand that it be speedy and impartial."
"Nevertheless," the note concluded, "there is something Cuba will discuss neither with the Security Council nor with experts of any organization: our right and duty to protect the sovereignty of the country, preserve our frontiers, and defend the independence of our homeland at whatever cost is necessary."
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