US-Cuba relations came tumbling down along with the two Miami-based planes shot down over Cuban airspace Feb. 24. Although the US State Department had repeatedly warned the anti-Castro Cuban-American group "Hermanos al Rescate" 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 last Saturday, 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 civilized country." He threatened unilateral US actions against Cuba, and the Clinton administration is calling for UN sanctions against the island as well.
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 when 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-defense against pirate attacks in Cuban air space and over Cuban territorial waters," Cuban leaders claim.
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. Cubans have not indicated when they will present this key witness.
Cuban Foreign Ministry spokespeople insist that the crucial issue is violation of Cuban air space. "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 voices in the US Congress have spoken out in opposition to the Clinton administration's position. Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York told CNN that "No North American group has the right to penetrate into Cuban air space and drop antigovernment propaganda in violation of the laws of the United States and Cuba."
Christopher's assertion on Sunday that the planes had been over international water baffled Cubans. Reuters had earlier quoted an unidentified government spokesmen as describing a White House meeting of Clinton advisers "to jointly examine all the evidence we've got" as to whether or not the aircraft had violated Cuban air space.
Apparently they didn't wait to see Cuban evidence of the incursions before handing their decision to the press: 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" that were recovered from Cuban waters on Feb. 24.
Cubans say the US was irresponsible in not stopping the repeated violations of their own and international law by the "Hermanos de Rescate" and similar anti-Cuban groups based in Florida. The groups have held press conferences gloating over their acts of piracy, Alarcon stated.
Jorge Dorrbecker, Chairman of the Cuban-American Pilots Association, affirmed that the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) had issued 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," a warning that was repeated by Cuban civil aviation authorities.
National Assembly President Alarcon pointed out that this incident "didn't occur out of the blue." The Cuban government has presented the US government with a long list of violations of Cuban territory over the last 203 years, he said, and they have been acknowledged. "We have warned them repeatedly that we would be forced to take action," he said. "Patience has its limits," he added, 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 Clinton State Department expressing disagreement with the illegal actions of the Cuban-Americans and wanring them against continuing their incursions.
"Just a year ago," Alrcon stated, Christopher's department sent us a note saying they were investigating the possible violation of international law by Jose Basulto's group. Basulto was accused of vioalting FAA regulations, they said, and Cuba was asked to supply information to prove these allegations.
Despite Cuba's complete cooperation, no formal 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."
"Just last month", he added, "they conducted a press conference in Miami, rejoicing at their exploits."
And on Saturday, February 25, they took off again from Opa-Locka airport. 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 civilized activities," he asserted. They were in violation of numerous international laws that the US should be concerned about. This group has for years been promoting illegal immigration, and the US is supposed against illegal immigration," Alarcon contended.
"The US knows that drugs are flown into its territory in small craft like these, yet they allow these planes to illegally depart and reenter 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."
When a journalist asked if the Cuban government had any proof the planes had been armed, Alarcon retorted, "Can you guarantee that they weren't? Could Warren Christopher? Did he talk with them before they took off, inspect their planes?"
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.
Cubans were clearly very angry at this about-face by the Clinton administration, after several months of an apparent warming trend. When asked what he thought was behind Christopher's reversal, Alarcon snapped, "It is difficult to ascertain why a liar is lying. And even if he answered you, I wouldn't trust his answer." In a calmer tone, the parliamentarian and former Foreign Minister indicated that Christopher was obviously voicing a position Clinton's advisers had decided on, one which possibly had to do with domestic politics in an election year.
The Cuban government was clearly not ready to reveal who the pilot in their custody is or what information he has. When pushed on this point by several journalists, Alarcon replied, "We are in the midst of a situation we didn't create. We are hearing statements full of lies and distortions. We have to consider our steps carefully, wait and see what President Clinton and Warren Christopher are going to say and do. Christopher contradicted his own instructions [to not make any statments until they had fully investigated the incident]. We don't do that. It's a matter of style."
The Cubans were also particularly irked at the US's 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 the 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.
"And 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."
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