SHOOTDOWN: SOME REFLECTIONS
Nobody would dare fly from a foreign country into U.S. airspace to try to drop leaflets over Washington. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense) would be ready for a shootdown. But for a period of months, Jose Basulto, leader of Brothers to the Rescue, flew from the United States to drop leaflets over Cuba. On July 13, 1995, he also bombarded Havana with religious medals that could have injured people below. Playing games with Cuba's defense forces. Keeping Cuba on alert for what he might drop next. Cuba requested that the United States stop the provocation flights. How long could Cuba allow this continuing violation of Cuban airspace? After all, Basulto is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs who has committed terrorist attacks like shooting up a hotel, a theater, and a residential section in Havana in August 1962, killing 20 people.
Cuba never knows what such terrorist pilots intend to do. In February 1959, less than a month after the revolutionary army marched into Havana, a U.S. citizen was arrested after flying a small plane into Cuba with the aim of assassinating Fidel Castro. That year alone planes landed to unload invaders along with arms and ammunition, bombed sugar mills, killed and wounded people on the streets of Havana, strafed a train full of passengers. In 1960 there were constant bombing raids, primarily on sugar mills but also on Havana, in addition to regular surveillance flights. On April 15, 1961, B-26 bombers began "softening-up" attacks against Cuba before the Bay of Pigs invasion by sea. The CIA wanted the bombers to look like Cuban planes flown by Cubans so one pilot flew a B-26 to Miami and posed as a defector, a cover quickly blown. But defeat at the Bay of Pigs did not bring an end to the terror caused by pilots from the United States. On January 3, 1962, Cuba protested 119 violations of its territory, 76 by planes based at the Guantanamo Naval Base.
The CIA's Operation Mongoose, launched in November 1961, brought more aerial bombardment, weapon drops, sabotage of crops and industry, occasional landings along the coast, and assassinations. Cuba was under a state of siege that has continued to the present day, a war of terror waged from the territory of the U.S. government that is protected by the mightiest armed forces the world has ever known.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower told Admiral Arthur M. Radford, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a secret meeting: "If planes were flying 20 to 50 miles from our shores, we would be very likely to shoot them down if they came in closer, whether through error or not." But the United States Armed Forces have bombed country after country without our citizenry ever knowing what it meant to experience the terror of planes wiping out civilians as if they were meaningless.
On September 11, 2001, that changed. Our own commercial airliners became terrorist weapons. NORAD's F-16s and F-15s scrambled into the skies but not in time to stop the attacks at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. One airliner, Flight 93, remained, heading south toward Washington's forbidden zone above the White House, the Capitol and the Washington Monument. A Secret Service official came on the radios of three F-16s, code-named Huntress: "I want you to protect the White House at all costs." It turned out that they did not have to make the decision for a shootdown of a domestic passenger jet because those passengers, having learned about the attacks on the Twin Towers, heroically thwarted the terrorists' plan for Flight 93.
But now the rules are clear. On high alert, NORAD's planes can be authorized to shoot down any private or commercial airliner that does not follow specific rules. Any deviation from assigned flight paths is suspect. Any failure to respond to commands could mean a shootdown. Now the United States itself must regard every airplane differently, somewhat the way that Cuba is forced to be on alert. Cuba, however, has never authorized shooting down a passenger jet even though it has known the horror of having one of its own passenger jets blown out of the sky, killing all 73 people aboard, on October 6, 1976. The mastermind of that terrorist attack, far from being hunted down by U.S. armed forces, walks the streets of Miami today.
By February 1996, with Basulto continuing his violations of Cuban airspace, the Cuban government had warned that it would be forced to end this kind of threat. Basulto continued his terrorist campaign. On February 24, Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes while a third, flown by Basulto, escaped. In June 1996 the International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] issued its report on the shootdown, concluding that Basulto's plane penetrated Cuban airspace on February 24, 1996.
If that event occurred now, after September 11, 2001, Congress and the President would perhaps not be able to blame such a shootdown for the passage of a horrendously oppressive law like Helms-Burton. Finally, the people of our own country may be able to understand what the citizens of other countries feel when threatened from the air. Helms-Burton was going to be passed anyway--minus Title III, which, in any event, is so outrageous that it hasn't been enforced. How shameful that we as a people have allowed Cuba's defense against terrorists to be used as justification for a terrorist law aimed at starving the Cuban people into submission.
Historian Jane Franklin is the author of Cuba and the U.S. Empire: A Chronological History.
E-mail Jane Franklin: firstname.lastname@example.org