Archive for March 3rd, 2012

Could the February 24 incident have been avoided?

March 3, 2012

Could the February 24 incident have been avoided?

Lázaro Barredo Medina

IN an article published 15 years ago in Trabajadores newspaper, I outlined certain aspects in response to this question on the basis of facts confirmed at the time.

A twin-motor Cessna Skymaster, used by the U.S. Air Force in El Salvador and Vietnam, then handed over to Brothers to the Rescue on the orders of George Bush Senior in the wake of a petition by Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The lamentable incident of the downing of two light aircraft on February 24. 1996 could have been avoided. The government of William Clinton created a highly negative public image of Cuba by manipulating and falsifying information, and distorting events, thus converting the incident into an electoral campaign issue, but it was his administration which could have averted what took place.

Prior to that date, the Cuban side had acted discreetly through diplomatic channels on 24 occasions during the course of 20 months, awaiting a reaction in accordance with the period of détente brought about by the migratory talks which began after the events of 1994.

After violations of Cuban airspace over Havana on January 9 and 13, 1996 by José Basulto and his Brothers to the Rescue, “in order to carry out a plan of civil disobedience, during which they disregarded calls to attention from the Cuban government, as Basulto duly informed the U.S. media, the vast majority of Cubans began to express concern at the possibility of a dangerous escalation on the part of these counterrevolutionary groups, which considered themselves immune to prosecution.

Cuban possibilities of preventing the offenders from pursuing such actions without serious repercussions were already scant, given their steadily escalating and defiant behavior in relation to reiterated warnings as to the dangerous nature of what they were doing.

Cuba was left with three alternatives: one, to appeal to U.S. authorities to put an end to these actions; two, to act; and three, to allow the actions to continue. The last variant was totally discounted. Given the content and tone of the Cuban government’s criticism of these flagrant violations of national airspace, it was evident that the country’s authorities had taken the decision to interrupt the next flight of these pirate aircraft, in order to protect national security and dissuade Miami terrorist groups from continuing such activities.

The last three weeks of January and the first two of February 1996 saw the increased use of diplomatic channels, and a greater utilization of U.S. visits to the country by politicians, businesspeople, labor union leaders, religious figures, etc, to express concerns about these provocations and the necessity of the Clinton administration showing a minimum of commonsense and acting to halt them.

For example, as a deputy to the National Assembly and vice president of its International Relations Commission, I went to José Martí International Airport on January 19 and February 10 to receive Congressman Bill Richardson, who was given detailed information about the danger of these provocations. Richardson met with Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro and, on his second visit, stated that the Clinton administration had confirmed that measures would be taken to prevent a repetition of the incidents.

During January of 1996 the same concerns of the revolutionary government were put to other U.S. Congress members and public figures, and it was later known through Clinton’s advisors that these messages were received in Washington.

In other words, both President Clinton and his National Security Council and State Department advisors were fully apprised of the danger the contemporary pirates of Basulto and his Brothers were provoking, but failed to take necessary action to prevent the provocative incident, despite messages to the contrary.

In his speech during the UN Security Council session on July 26, 1996, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, President of the National Assembly, presented evidence which confirmed that the Clinton administration could have averted the incident. Alarcón noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report on the incident states that on February 13, 1996, the U.S. Department of State had communicated with other government agencies warning them of the possibility of a problem with the aircraft, or some event involving Cuba. In the wake of the ICAO investigation, he also demonstrated certain facts compromising the U.S. government in relation to the incident.

For example, the trial record of the National Transportation Safety Board against José Basulto and his appearance before a U.S. federal judge. There were a number of witnesses in the proceedings, including an official with the last name of Houlihan, who was responsible for recording and controlling flights to or out of the United States. In this voluminous and public document, Mr. Houlihan swore on oath before the federal judge that on February 17, 1966, a week before the incident, he had been called to a meeting with other functionaries at which he was told that, on February 24, Brothers to the Rescue pilots were to fly from Oppa Locka (an airport close to Miami) to Cuba, in order to create a political incident.

Houlihan also admitted to the federal judge that on February 23, he was called to another meeting in which he was told that the group was to take off the next day from Miami and fly over Cuban airspace. In the early hours of February 24 he was once again called to a similar meeting, in which it was confirmed that the flight and the planned incident would take place that day.

Knowledge on the U.S. side of what was going to happen is also revealed in the ICAO investigators report, although in a more tenuous manner. The report acknowledges that, on February 24, the Department of State asked the control tower at Oppa Locka airport if the Brothers to the Rescue had left or were going to leave, and ordered that it was to be kept informed.

That day, Washington was fully informed, minute by minute, of all the movements of Basulto and his Brothers and what they were going to do, but did nothing to prevent their action.

Further facts have emerged since, such as the U.S. claim that radar registers were lost, and that the country has repeatedly refused to hand over satellite images which would throw light on the events of that day.

Clinton and his electoral advisors utilized the incident with total political opportunism and, in order to rid themselves of domestic pressure over the Cuba issue, gave the green light to the worst version of the Helms-Burton Act, which had been conciliated by Congress and was going to be approved in any event.

The neocolonial content of the first two chapters of the act, which essentially define the policy of aggression toward Cuba and U.S. interests in the island’s political future, under the supposition of forcing the Revolution to collapse, have always been approved in all U.S. Congress debates.

However, Clinton did what neither of the hawks Reagan and Bush would have accepted: he renounced the faculty of deciding policy toward Cuba – thus removing it from following U.S. Presidents – and modified the context of the dispute between the two nations, leaving its only possible solution in limbo. With this precedent, nobody knows in a U.S. electoral year who can decide this policy in the United States. Is it the President, Congress, or some provocateur of Cuban origin who boards an aircraft and defies the laws of both countries?

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