A story filed by Associated Press journalist Anita Snow last Tuesday, April 21, included the following sentences: “Obama could suffer serious political fallout if he agreed to swap the so-called Cuban Five — communist agents who were convicted of espionage in Miami in 2001. The ringleader was implicated in the death of four exiles killed when Cuban military fighters shot their planes down off the island’s coast in 1996.”
In a reflection published soon afterwards, Fidel wrote, “Isn’t that…an indirect threat to the president of the United States?”
Indeed it is a curious comment, detached from any person interviewed in the story, and therefore presumably Snow’s original creation. Nevertheless, the fallout Obama might expect to encounter through such a swap would likely rest with the minority of Cuban exiles in Miami who never voted for him in the first place. He won Florida without, or despite, them, and most U.S. citizens outside of Miami have little memory of the February 24, 1996 shootdown and less still of the Miami trial of five Cubans, five years later, where the U.S. Government, the families of the downed pilots and Cuban exiles with a long history of terrorist action against Cuba joined in a simmering fury in search of a victim.
Ultimately they found five victims, but their rage was focused on one in particular: the one Snow pejoratively calls the “ringleader,” Gerardo Hernandez. Hernandez is now serving two consecutive life sentences at the federal prison in Victorville, California for what the U.S. Government contends was a conspiracy to shoot down airplanes belonging to the Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR) in international airspace. His conviction, along with that of his four compatriots has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must decide by May 6 whether or not to hear the case.
The “international airspace” claim is key to the case. The U.S. government has never said that Gerardo Hernandez was involved in a conspiracy to shoot down BTTR airplanes in Cuban airspace, for that would have been completely legal, and the U.S. Government could do nothing about it. Sovereign countries have a right to protect their airspace from unwanted intrusions, however they deem necessary, including shooting the intruders down.
But the tortured mental gymnastics that one must assume to believe that the Cubans would take care to shoot down planes in international airspace rather than Cuban airspace are a subject for another day. (The Cuban government has always denied shooting down the airplanes outside of Cuban airspace and provided the U.N’s International Civil Aviation Organization immediate, comprehensive proof of the actual location of the shootdown, unlike the U.S. Government who delayed, covered up and manipulated the ICAO investigation until the shootdown had been sited where the USG wanted it sited.) For now, let’s focus on Hillary Clinton’s latest remarks on the subject. In her appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 2009, she assured Congress that in her opinion,
“two small, little unarmed planes…[in] our airspace…would have been forced down. I don’t think they would have been shot down.”
Her characterization of the BTTR planes as “two small, little unarmed planes” is disingenuous. To understand why, one must consider how Cubans see it. These were not Cessna 152’s; the Toyota Corolla of civilian airplanes. They were twin engine Cessna 337’s; suitable for military as well as civilian use, and N-2506, the plane flown by BTTR “ringleader” José Basulto had indeed seen previous military duty for the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam as well as Central America. The tail number was also significant – a clear reference to Basulto’s service in the CIA mercenary brigade, Brigade 2506, which invaded Cuba in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. In 1962, Basulto returned to attack Cuba again, firing a cannon at a Cuban hotel, from a boat offshore.
So to put this in context, you’d have to imagine that a handful of Cessna 337’s that had previously been used by the Russians in their war in Afghanistan had been acquired by a group that had a record of armed attacks from civilian planes and boats on the United States and started making flights in those same Cessnas over Washington D.C. or New York from a base in Canada. In the post 9-11 world it seems highly unlikely that they would not be shot down, the Secretary of State’s opinion notwithstanding.
Or, you can just read what Leonard Weinglass, attorney for the Cuban Five had to say about Mrs. Clinton’s comment and decide for yourself once again whether she’s completely uninformed, or actually believes what she’s saying:
The appropriate question for Hillary Clinton is the following:
What would the US do if the following were the undisputed facts?
- The lead plane of the three aircraft involved (two were shot down) was piloted by a man who had previously committed acts of treachery and violence against the US and had been trained by a hostile foreign government in explosives and ordinance; and
- that same pilot, according to US intelligence, had recently been training in dropping, not leaflets, but hand made explosive devices onto a field to test their effectiveness; and
- that he had publicly stated on the radio in his home country two days earlier that the flight of the three planes was “on a mission” that day to destabilize the government of the United States; and
- that the plane he and the others were flying was modeled after, and had the same characteristics, as a military aircraft that was used during the Vietnam war to drop small bombs against an opposing country and was actually navy surplus aircraft that had been recently used for that very purpose; and
- that just prior to the shootdown the U.S. FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] had spoken to the lead pilot by radio and warned him that he was entering a militarily protected zone and should turn back, but the warning was disregarded as the aircraft continued on a course heading directly toward the US Capital; and
- that the thee planes then overflew a designated area of open water that the US had closed due to military exercises, and in accordance with international rules and regulations, warning all aircraft not to enter; and
- that the three pilots belonged to a group of former residents of the US and who had publicly advocated the overthrow of the US Government by force; and
- that the leaflets that had been earlier dropped by this group of pilots had called on Americans to rise up against their government; and
- that after 25 overflights of Washington by this group of pilots in the previous 20 months, all of which were protested by the US to the country that provided them a home base, and that prior to arming its interceptor aircraft, the US called in a high-ranking military officer from that country and warned him that henceforth the US would protect its airspace militarily if need be and urged him to return home and encourage the appropriate agencies to put a halt to those flights; and
- He did just that but despite all the warnings the flights continued until they were shot down.
Under such circumstances was the US justified in downing the aircraft?
Leonard Weinglass, Attorney