On Feb. 24, two small planes belonging to the rightwing Miami-based group Brothers to the Rescue went down off the coast of Cuba; the crew of a third plane which made it back to Florida said the two planes had been shot down by Cuban Air Force jets. Four people were said to be missing. The US Coast Guard dispatched helicopters and boats to an area about 12 miles north of Cuba--where Cuban territorial waters end and international waters begin--to search for wreckage or any survivors. [Washington Post 2/26/96; New York Times 2/25/96]
Cuba admitted on Feb. 25 that it shot down the planes, arguing that they had invaded Cuban airspace. The crew of the plane that escaped harm claimed that the planes had not entered Cuban airspace. [1010 WINS Radio 2/25/96]
The US Navy appeared ready on the night of Feb. 24 to assist in any rescue operations. "We don't consider this any sort of a threatening action to the US," said Navy Capt. Craig Quigley. [WP 2/25/96] But US president Bill Clinton, speaking in a televised address the same night, called the Cuban action an "aggression" and said that US troops were being sent to support the search and rescue operation. [Channel 11 (NY) TV News 2/24/96]
Brothers to the Rescue was founded in the early 1990s, when large numbers of Cubans began leaving the island on rafts headed for the US. The group of volunteer pilots patrolled the waters around Cuba looking to rescue the immigrants. But since an agreement between the US and Cuba stemmed the flow of immigrants last year, Brothers to the Rescue has focused on more overtly political actions against the Cuban government. [NYT 2/25/96] On Jan. 9 and 13 of this year, small planes from Florida dropped leaflets over Miami; an official statement published in the weekly trade union newspaper Trabajadores warned that any future flights would meet with a stronger response from the Cuban government. According to Inter Press Service, Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose Basulto admitted at the time having distributed half a million pamphlets over Havana urging residents to take "nonviolent direct action" against the government of President Fidel Castro [see Update #312].
Retired Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information said on the night of Feb. 24 that during a visit to Cuba 10 days earlier, Cuban authorities asked him and others in his group how the US government would react if Cuba shot down exile planes that violated Cuban airspace. Carroll said he took the question as an indication that Cuban military officials were considering such an action. He said he told the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) about it when he returned. [WP 2/25/96]
Carroll was in Cuba Feb. 5-9 leading a delegation of four former US military personnel and two civilians, including former US ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, now with the Center for International Policy. A key focus of their trip was a tour of the partly-finished Juragua nuclear facility in Cienfuegos province. Carroll told the press: "There is nothing in Cuba that threatens US security," and said he and the other delegation members "did everything possible to convince [the Cubans] that there is no possibliity the US will invade Cuba." [El Diario-La Prensa 2/11/96 from EFE; Radio Havana Cuba 2/6/96; Inter Press Service 2/8/96]
In related news, Michael and Robert Kennedy, nephews of former US president John F. Kennedy, met with President Fidel Castro on Feb. 17 to discuss alternative energy and the future of the Juragua nuclear plant. The Kennedys were in Cuba as part of a delegation of the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); the trip was led by NRDC president John Adams. [ED-LP 2/20/96 from EFE]