By Abraham Riesman
"I'll tell you where she's staying," Yoani Sánchez's friend told me over
the phone. "But this is top-secret, okay?"
He'd been helping me set up an exclusive interview with Sánchez --
Cuba's premier dissident blogger -- during her brief stop in New York
City. And he had reason to be concerned about her location getting out:
Sánchez was in the midst of a massive world tour, and just days before,
she'd faced vicious crowds of pro-Castro protesters in Brazil and Mexico.
Sánchez is used to that kind of fury. Since starting her blog,
"Generación Y," in 2007, she's become the Castro regime's most
internationally visible opponent. Her site gets millions of hits per
month, and hundreds of thousands of people follow her on Twitter, and
she uses those platforms to shed light on life within the western
hemisphere's last true dictatorship. She reports on everything from mass
arrests to the terror of the national census, from sudden spikes in food
prices to the hardships of Cuban victims of domestic violence.
This blogging is especially remarkable because Internet access is
incredibly restricted in Cuba. Partly, that's due to technological
backwardness: the impoverished country has virtually no high-speed
Internet connections, even after the recent completion of Alba-1, a
fiber-optic cable link to Venezuela.
But the scarcity of access is also due to extreme government
restrictions. There are huge legal hurdles that prevent Cubans from
having home computers and public computers usually just connect to
RedCubana, a closed intranet system containing only regime-approved
sites. An estimated 98% of Cubans have no Web access, and the government
shows no sign of reducing that number.
So how does Sánchez do what she does? Not easily. She's been repeatedly
arrested and beaten up by regime thugs. She has to use roundabout
methods to get her blog posts published. And after years of being denied
a travel visa, she was only granted one a few months ago (she says she's
not sure why the government changed its mind).
During her whirlwind trip to New York, full of speaking engagements and
press conferences, we caught up with Sánchez at the hotel where she was
staying under a pseudonym. She only speaks Spanish, so Argentina-born
Motherboard writer Leandro Oliva spoke with her and covered a wide range
of topics. Just a day or so after we were done, she was off to more
cities and countries. her world tour continues, and she doesn't know
what will happen when she eventually returns to her homeland.
Check out our video to learn about Cuba's underground railroad of USB
drives, how to blog without a computer, and how Raúl Castro is getting
craftier at using the Internet as a weapon against dissidents.
By Abraham Riesman
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/yoani-sanchez-dissident-blogger Continue reading
Castro wants money, not a dialogue
BY FRANK CALZON
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, and Raúl Castro is searching for
"investors" in Cuba. Chávez spent billions of Venezuela's petro-dollars
shoring up Cuba's economy but Venezuela's new leaders may not be as
beneficent. Venezuela may cut off its Cuban subsidy, just as new Russian
leaders did after the Soviet Union's demise.
American taxpayers are at the top of Castro's list, but can the Cuban
communist government cash in on its years of political theater
proclaiming itself the victim of American economic aggression while
running its own economy into the ground and training and financing
anti-American insurgencies around the world?
Perhaps it can, given that the collective U.S. memory is rather short if
not wholly forgiving.
Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy visited the Cuban dictator
and returned home saying this is the time "to overcome continuing
obstacles" and " to improve relations" because that would be in the
"best interests of both countries." The senator means well, but his
statements cry out for a more detailed appraisal of U.S.-Cuban relations.
The real questions are: Improve relations for what purpose? And under
what conditions? It might be in America's best interests to improve
relations with North Korea, Syria and Iran too, but the obstacles
standing in the way are similar to those in Cuba. There is no quid pro
quo their leaders are willing to offer.
Granted that while in Cuba, Sen. Leahy managed to wrangle permission
from Gen. Castro to visit Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the
U.S.Agency for International Development, who is serving a 15-year
prison sentence. Gross after-the-fact "crime" was giving a laptop
computer and satellite telephone to a Jewish organization seeking access
to the Internet.
Gross is innocent and also quite ill. Amnesty International reports he's
lost more than 100 pounds in prison, and he has developed a growth that
may be cancerous. Havana won't allow an American physician chosen by his
family to see him.
There are others. Amnesty International says that Calixto Martinez, a
Cuban independent journalist — a reporter not working for state-run
media — was jailed when he went to Havana's international airport to ask
about a shipment of cholera medication sent by the World Health
Organization. He has not been charged nor had a trial. Havana does not
want tourists to hear about a cholera outbreak.
But, back to the benefits of lifting what remains of the U.S. embargo
against the Castros' dynasty: Cuba is broke and has suspended payments
to many creditors.
There is no ban on American companies selling foodstuffs or medicines to
Cuba, which they do on a "cash-and-carry" basis. But Washington won't
provide credit to Cuba, i.e., absorb the loss if the regime fails to pay
its suppliers. Thus American companies selling to Cuba get paid and
American taxpayers aren't on the hook when the regime fails to pay what
Individually, Cubans have no "purchasing power" to speak of. The
government is the island's only "employer" and pays workers the
equivalent of $20 a month. Except for cigars, Cuba now has very little
to sell to anyone. For 200 years, the engine of Cuba's economy was its
sugar industry. It is now in shambles due to "state planning."
Lastly, the United States lists Cuba as a state-sponsor of international
terrorism. It does so, despite the best efforts of Ana Belen Montes, a
high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, who presented Havana
as peace-loving and no threat to anyone. Montes was a spy for Cuba. She
pleaded guilty and is now in a federal penitentiary. Her "reports" are
still used by Castro's advocates.
It is difficult to improve relations with dictatorships that deny human
rights, ban labor unions and abuse and jail peaceful dissidents for
talking about democracy. Visiting members of European parliaments have
been arbitrarily arrested in Cuba.
President Obama tried unilaterally to extend a "hand of friendship"
without success. Today Havana wants money, not a meaningful dialogue
that might lead to a "transition."
Like Sen. Leahy, I wish things could be different, but that requires a
demonstrable Castro initiative to change the nature of his rule in Cuba.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in
http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/04/14/3340674/castro-wants-money-not-a-dialogue.html Continue reading
Posted on April 12, 2013
For someone from Havana, the best thing is to walk the streets in
spring. These March days, Jorge Olivera Castillo, 52, poet and
journalist, is delighted by the green of the trees, the salty aroma, and
the gentle sun.
On any weekday morning, he traces his own journey. Aimlessly wandering
through a maze of alleyways crammed with the facades of propped up
tenements: in these sites reside in the subjects of his stories and
poems. He likes to walk the streets of Central Havana, and places not on
the tourist postcards.
It was in another spring, that of 2003, when the State wanted to break a
handful of peaceful men and women, making arbitrary use of its absolute
power. And sentences were handed out to Cubans, like Jorge Olivera, who
disagreed and disagree with a regime that confuses a nation with a farm,
and democracy with loyalty to a commander.
Olivera was one of 75 prisoners of the Black Spring. Ten years later,
without drama, he recalls those days. "About two o'clock in the
afternoon of March 18, 2003 I was arrested. I had returned from the
hospital, to be seen for a gastrointestinal problem, when a troop of
about twenty violent soldiers appeared. At that time I was director of
Havana Press, an independent press agency. They conducted a thorough
search of every piece of paper I had. They seized books of literature
and my stories and articles. An old Remington typewriter. Family photos,
letters from friends, electric bills and even my phone bill. A clean
sweep. Everything was confiscated by state decree."
When a government says that a man who writes must be prosecuted,
something is wrong with this society. The weapons of free journalists
like Jorge Olivera, Ricardo Gonzalez, Raul Rivero and other reporters
sentenced to 24 years in prison, were the words, typewriters and
landline telephones through which once a week they read the news and
their texts about the other Cuba the regime tries to ignore.
In April 2003, a Summary Court sentenced him to 18 years' imprisonment.
"The trial was a circus. Without legal guarantees. The defense attorneys
were more afraid than we were. The definitive evidence showing that I
was a public threat were my scattered internet writings and recordings
of my participation in programs of Radio Martí," says Jorge.
He slept 36 nights in Villa Marista, headquarters of the secret police,
a former religious school transformed into custody for opponents.
Located in the Sevillano neighborhood, in the 10 October municipality,
Villa Marists is a left over from the Cold War. A Caribbean imitation of
Moscow's Lubyanka Prison from the Communist period. In March 1991, He
was there thirteen days, accused of 'enemy propaganda'. When you enter
the two-story building, with walls painted bright green, a watch officer
sitting behind glass receives you.
They use techniques of intimidation and psychological torture. You're
not a human being. You become an object. A property of special services.
Before a gray dress uniform they undress and humiliate you in front of
several officers. They force you to do squats and open your anus. As in
Abub Ghraib or imprisonment in Guantanamo Naval Base. But in Cuba it has
been applied much earlier.
"They were terrible days. In the cells minimum of four people were
boarded. The beds were a zinc plate fixed to the wall with a chain. The
medicines are placed on a ledge outside the cell. You are called by a
number. I was not Jorge, but the prisoner 666. You sleep with two light
bulbs that never go off. At any time of day or night you can be called
for lengthy interrogations. They lead you through long and gloomy
passageways of packed cells where you do not see any other detainee.
It's like being in the mouth of the wolf," says Olivera.
Some dictators often have a macabre sense of humor. After extensive
tortures, Stalin used trials and self-incriminations as a spectacle.
Sometimes there was no show. They put your back to a wall and gave you
one shot to the temple. If they wanted to prolong the agony and break as
a human being, they sent you to a Gulag.
In Cuba, the agents of the State Security have modeled these methods.
Except the shot to the temple. One of those strokes of ridicule that the
repressive apparatus of the Castro likes, Olivera keeps fresh in his
memory. The condemned of the Black Spring were spread out among the
island's prisons in comfortable air-conditioned coaches, the same ones
used for tourists.
"The height of cynicism. We traveled that day watching movies and they
gave us good food. We were treated like royalty as we deposited in
prisons hundreds of miles from our homes. I was detained in Guantanamo
Provincial Combined, six hundred miles from where my wife and my
children live," he recalls.
The worst experience Jorge Olivera lived through was the prison. "The
food was a mess. Officers beating common prisoners in common. Inmates
self-mutilate. Or commit suicide. Poetry saved me from madness." It was
in prison where Olivera began writing poems. In 2004, due to a string of
illnesses, he was granted a parole.
Technically he is still not a free man. If the government decides, the
Black Spring prisoners remaining in the island can go back behind bars.
Of the 27 independent journalists imprisoned in March 2003, Jorge
Olivera is the only one left in Cuba. Abroad he has published four books
of poetry and two of short stories.
Right now he gives shapes to his latest poems. "Systole and Diastole"is
the working title. He writes for Cubanet and Digital Spring, a weekly
where for six years the best independent journalists have performed.
Along with fellow journalist Víctor Manuel Domínguez, he leads a writers
club. He is an honorable member of the Pen Club of the Czech Republic
and the United States. If people could receive a grade for the human
condition, I wouldn't hesitate to shake his hand to give a ten to Jorge
Olivera. His priorities remain information, describing the reality of
his neighbors in Central Havana, the crisis of values, prostitution and
The author of "Surviving in the Mouth of the Wolf" rejects the 'amnesia'
of newly minted dissidents. "You can not forget history. The rebellious
generation that dominates the new technologies is welcome. But they
should be honest and admit that before them, we were there. Looking at
news on hot news and under constant police harassment. We did not have
Twitter or Facebook, we wrote with pens on the back of recycled paper.
But we never stopped reporting on the precarious life and lack of a
future for the people in Cuba. That can not be relegated or forgotten.
The history of dissent is very long. And before us, were those who were
sentenced to death in La Cabaña. If we forget these stages, mutilate or
distort an important part of the peaceful struggle against the Castro
regime," says Jorge Olivera.
His dream is to do radio, be healthy and live in a democracy. He hopes
the day is not too far off when he can reunite with Raul Rivero and
Tania Quintero, two fellow exiles. Not in Switzerland or Spain, but
walking the streets of Havana in the spring.
31 March 2013
http://translatingcuba.com/jorge-olivera-the-history-of-the-cuban-dissidence-is-long-ivan-garcia/ Continue reading
April 10, 2013
In Cuba, a post-Castro era is looming on the horizon. The Obama
administration should muster the political will to prepare the United
States for February 2018, when neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will remain
at the helm of the Caribbean island.
In 1960, the year Cuba's new first vice president was born, Fidel Castro
had already been ruling Cuba for a year. Neither the Beatles nor the
Rolling Stones had conquered rock-n-roll. Dwight D. Eisenhower led the
United States, becoming the first of eleven U.S. presidents (including
Obama) to apply the failed embargo policy against the Castros and the
political project they represent.
But against the calendar, there are no victories. In 2006, Fidel
Castro's illness forced the first transition in the Cuban leadership
since 1959. Raúl, then age 76, replaced Fidel, who was almost 80.
Despite the fact that it was a succession between brothers of the same
generation, the presidency of Raúl Castro has had important
consequences. Faced with the loss of Fidel's charismatic leadership, the
Cuban Communist Party (PCC) began economic reform and political
liberalization. It was an effort to rebuild their capacity to govern
under the new conditions.
In the last five years, the Cuban government has created an important
institutional foundation for a parallel transition to a mixed economy
(symbolized by the encouragement of non-state-sector firms) and a
post-totalitarian relationship between the state and civil society
(symbolized by relaxed travel restrictions).
With the election of a new Council of State in February, the last phase
of the transition to the post-Castro era began. Raúl Castro was
reelected to the presidency, and for the first time a leader born after
1959, Miguel Díaz-Canel, became his second in command. Although this
gradual transition is unfolding with the same party and president in
power, one can begin to discern a new leadership and changing priorities.
Looking at the Communist Party as a corporation (an analogy that should
not be abused), Díaz-Canel is a manager who has served at various levels
of the production chain. He worked at its foundation, as a university
teacher and youth leader. Later, in the strategic provinces of Villa
Clara and Holguin, he administered the implementation of economic
reforms and directed the opening of the economy to foreign investment
and tourism—all while maintaining party control over both processes.
Díaz-Canel is part of the network of provincial party czars who are
important in the implementation of the proposed changes, particularly
decentralization. Having worked in central and eastern Cuba, the new
first vice president has cordial ties with regional commanders of the
armed forces—the other pillar, along with the Communist Party, of the
current Cuban system. He is a civilian, the first in the line of
succession to have little military experience. But he is steeped in the
networks of power and well versed in carefully managing reform.
Challenges for Cuban Leaders
If Cuba implements the type of mixed economy proposed by the last
Congress of the Communist Party—a new, more vital relationship with its
diaspora and the world—it may also experience a political
transformation. As the economy and society change, the political status
quo cannot hold. The rise of market mechanisms and an autonomous
non-state sector will reinforce the newly open flows of information,
investment and technology. These new sectors will seek representation in
the political arena. Citizens will have greater access to the Internet,
and will be able to associate more horizontally.
For at least the next five years, this does not imply a transition to
multiparty democracy. But economic liberalization will force an
expansion of the current system. Economic and migration opportunities
will channel some of the energy in the direction of new businesses and
travel, but it will not be enough. The party system will be reformed in
order to remain at the helm of social and economic life. Political
liberalization will probably start in the lower rungs of government,
allowing citizens to vent their frustrations at that level. Raúl
Castro's decision to limit leadership positions to two terms, at a time
when the older generation is leaving power by attrition, will result in
a more institutionalized leadership that promotes younger leaders in an
Time for Presidential Action
In this new context, the United States should open a path for those
regime voices who have an interest in backing more serious reforms.
Washington should weaken the naysayers within the Cuban elites by
showing what Cuba can gain through opening up. This requires a U.S.
willingness to test Havana with real incentives in ways it has not done
since the Ford and Carter Administrations.
Washington's current strategy—ignoring Raúl Castro's promarket moves and
using USAID regime-change programs to meddle in Cuba's domestic
politics—is yielding diminishing returns. The United States would gain
more by allowing its own business community to trade and invest in the
emerging Cuban non-state sector and beginning a limited engagement with
the new leaders in Havana. A dynamic Cuban market would whet corporate
appetites and put the U.S. embargo against the island in jeopardy. This
vision lines up with the criticism of Cold War-era U.S. Cuba policy
expressed in the past by President Obama and his new secretaries of
state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
The opportunity to redesign U.S. policy towards Cuba will not last
forever. A failure to respond to Raúl Castro's overtures for negotiation
with Washington would be a strategic mistake. Unfortunately, the 1996
Helms-Burton law codified the embargo as a legislative act, limiting
presidential authority to terminate sanctions in response to changing
conditions. But President Obama still can make a significant difference
in bilateral relations if he decided to lead on the issue by using his
prerogative as a diplomat-in-chief.
The president can begin by taking Cuba off the State Department list of
state sponsors of terrorism. It would be a positive gesture towards
Havana and a signal to the world that he meant what he said when he
advertised a new diplomatic approach towards U.S. adversaries. It will
not be a concession to Cuba, since Havana has not been connected to any
terrorist actions for at least the last twenty years. The misuse of the
list to serve the agenda of the pro-embargo lobby undermines its
credibility against real terrorist threats.
Taking Cuba off the State Department terror-sponsor list also will
provide a framework to negotiate the Alan Gross affair. Gross, a USAID
subcontractor, is serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Havana. He
was arrested by Cuban authorities because of his covert mission
providing satellite access to internet to several Cuban civil-society
groups, circumventing government controls. The Cuban government admits
that Gross was not a spy but found that his actions could make Cuba
vulnerable to cyber warfare by the United States. Gross's activities are
provided for under section 109 of the Helms-Burton law, a program
designed to promote regime change on the island.
Negotiation on the Gross case is held up because of the false premise
that he is a hostage of a terror-sponsoring nation. But the situation
might become manageable if the two countries negotiate an agreement that
could be face-saving for both governments. Such an agreement could be
the first step in a course of engagement and people-to-people contact.
If the United States is to have some influence during the transition to
a post-Castro Cuba, it must start this process today.
Arturo López-Levy is a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of
International Studies at the University of Denver. He is coauthor of the
book Raúl Castro and the New Cuba. Twitter: @turylevy.
http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/getting-ready-post-castro-cuba-8316 Continue reading
Complicity in Murder: Shades of Cuba in Benghazi
By Janet Levy
Almost seven months have passed since the attack on the Benghazi
consulate building and nearby CIA annex by al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar
al-Sharia, in which four Americans were murdered, including U.S.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Despite demands for further information
into why the Obama administration and the military failed to act to
defend and protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya even as they had
intelligence of increasing Islamic violence, no answers have been given.
Many Americans rightfully wonder whether or not the truth will ever
come out about the murders at the American diplomatic mission in Libya.
The American public, in fact, has been shamefully left before without
answers in the face of obvious government failures, as illustrated by
the shoot-down 17 years ago by Cuban military jet fighters of two
civilian planes and the deaths of four Cuban-Americans rescue pilots.
Like the Benghazi attacks, no answers were ever given about the murder
of four members of the activist group Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), and
the lack of action by U.S. military and government authorities to defend
and protect them.
According to an in-depth interview with Jose Basulto, BTTR founder, and
the examination of official documents and other sources, here is what
occurred in that earlier example, on Feb. 24, 1996, of governmental
failure. It serves as a reminder that until we demand a full accounting
and require action on the part of our government and military, Americans
will be left unprotected and vulnerable, even in mortal danger, by
government authorities who fail in their duties to protect and defend
while, in effect, even engaging in deathly complicity with our own
Brothers to the Rescue
In 1991, after learning of the death of a 15-year-old Cuban rafter who
died following his rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard, Cuban-American Jose
Basulto decided that it was time to act. That same year, Basulto, well
aware of the desperate situation faced by citizens of Castro's
repressive regime and their dangerous journey to freedom on flimsy rafts
through the Florida Straits, founded Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). The
group, a humanitarian search-and-rescue mission, would directly save
over 4,000 lives.
Basulto's efforts to free his beloved Cuba date back to his return to
the island from college in Boston to join pro-democracy groups opposed
to Castro. Later, as a Cuban exile, he was part of the failed Bay of
Pigs 1961 invasion of Cuba. Decades later, with the founding of BTTR,
Basulto saw another avenue to help his beloved, besieged country of origin.
BTTR volunteer pilots, from 19 different nationalities, patrolled from
the skies for desperate Cubans seeking to escape the brutal Communist
government and risking their lives in makeshift rafts and boats without
adequate food and water, exposed to the elements. Later, BTTR dropped
leaflets over Cuba, sending messages of hope and information about
peaceful resistance. Their activities embarrassed the Cuban government,
puncturing the myth of a socialist paradise. Castro clearly worried
about their potential to cause internal problems and, on occasion,
threatened to shoot down BTTR planes.
Not surprisingly then, BTTR was infiltrated by a former fighter pilot
and member of the La Red Avispa ("Wasp Network") Cuban spy network, Juan
Pablo Roque, who staged his defection from Cuba in 1992. That year,
Roque swam to the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) and sought
asylum. Earlier, fellow La Red Avispa member and BTTR infiltrator Rene
Gonzalez had "defected" in Florida by "stealing" a plane from a Havana
airfield. At some point after his arrival, Roque became a paid FBI
informant, although the Bureau was apparently aware of his membership in
the subversive Cuban group, and his actions were suspect, viewed as an
attempt to infiltrate the agency.
U.S. Political Situation
Around the same time as BTTR was active, President Clinton was
"normalizing" the U.S. relationship with China -- which included
providing 11 million pages of classified data for the Chinese to
modernize their missile and nuclear technology -- and also trying to
engage Castro. The president met in Martha's Vineyard with author and
Castro emissary Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who relayed that the Cuban
dictator wanted an end to negative publicity from the balsero crisis --
the torrent of Cubans desperately taking to the high seas in barely
seaworthy crafts to seek freedom in America. BTTR, which had a
reputation of goodwill among Cubans, was viewed as a serious threat to
Cuban government stability. Besides rescue operations, BTTR was
introducing principles of strategic nonviolent action and attempting to
unite Cuban citizens with Cuban exiles to overthrow the repressive
regime and usher in a return to democracy.
Events Leading to Shoot-Down
In 1995, then-Clinton confidant and U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson
(D-NM), a frequent envoy for Clinton's various foreign policy missions,
was asked by Castro to visit Cuba. Richardson, following a briefing by
Richard Nuccio, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and
Clinton's adviser on Cuba, traveled there in January 1996. Richardson
met Castro and other Cuban officials and, allegedly, negotiated the
release of American political prisoners in exchange for a U.S. promise
to end BTTR missions to Cuba.
A CNN report published shortly after the incident stated that Castro
issued the order to take action against Brothers to the Rescue after two
anti-Castro leaflets drops over Cuba the month before. Castro admitted,
"We gave the order to the head of the air force. They shot the planes
down. They are professionals. They did what they believe is the right
thing. These are all people we trust, but I take responsibility for
what happened." Cuban MiGs began test firing air-to-air missiles and
practicing attack maneuvers against slow-moving aircraft similar to the
Cessnas flown by BTTR. Although U.S. government officials obtained
radar evidence of these practice runs, BTTR was not informed.
In early February 1996, U.S. Navy Admiral (ret.) John Shanahan -- who
would later advocate reduced U.S. defense spending, including the demise
of the F-22 program -- hosted a delegation of diplomats and retired
Pentagon officials to Cuba. The U.S. contingent was directly and
shockingly asked by Cuban intelligence and military heads how the United
States would respond if Cuba shot down BTTR planes. Upon their return
here, the delegation discussed this threat with officials from the U.S.
State department, the Center for Defense Information and Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA), but again neglected to inform BTTR.
Allegedly, no U.S. response to Castro was given, which could have led
him to conclude that no significant repercussions would be forthcoming.
The Day of the Shoot-Down
The BTTR flight of Feb. 24, 1996 began like most of their others, as a
planned search-and-rescue operation in international airspace following
all established protocols. On Feb. 23, the day before, double-agent
Roque suddenly and suspiciously returned to Cuba. Although the state
department was aware of his departure, it was never communicated to
BTTR. Also, that same evening, U.S. radar and monitors had been placed
on alert to follow the scheduled BTTR flights the next day. Local
military had also been alerted to coordinate flight plans and departure
times with the watch supervisor and to trace BTTR transponder codes for
as long as possible.
On Feb. 24, BTTR flight plans filed for a 10:15 a.m. takeoff were
transmitted to Miami and Cuba. Circumstances delayed the BTTR flight
until the late afternoon, yet a Cuban military commander reported that
Cuban MiGs were nonetheless sent out at BTTR's anticipated arrival time
to intercept three unidentified aircraft violating Cuban airspace. The
U.S. commander in charge ordered a military aircraft response in
accordance with standard operating procedures, and the MiGs returned to
Inexplicably, however, U.S. reports did not show any unidentified
aircraft or Cuban military aircraft activity during that time interval.
As he flew his Cessna on that day, Basulto reported detecting aircraft
north of the 24th parallel, the line which marks the U.S. airspace
boundary. He also crossed paths with a U.S. Navy Orion aircraft,
something he had never seen before during any of his missions. Per
protocols and well-established procedures followed over the previous
five years and 1,800 search-and-rescue missions, Basulto notified Havana
of a five-hour stay in the area once he arrived at his airspace destination.
Meanwhile, in California, senior detection systems specialist Jeffrey
Houlihan, with the U.S. Customs Service Domestic Air Interdiction
Coordination Center, saw something amiss as he read and interpreted
information from multiple antennae and Aerostat balloons. A seasoned
radar and air weapons control expert and former Air Force pilot,
Houlihan became alarmed as he observed Cuban interceptors operating
without transponders, flying at high speeds, and making rapid maneuvers
in and out of radar range. Much to his astonishment soon thereafter, he
detected Cuban MiGs far out in international airspace flying directly
above BTTR. Armed with the knowledge that an emergency response could
be forthcoming from Tyndall Air Force Base in South Florida, he made a
frantic call for help. Momentarily satisfied by the information that
the Air Force base had been briefed and was handling the situation,
Houlihan returned to his watch. As he continued to monitor the
situation, he was astonished to see that no American interceptor
aircraft showed up in the area to protect BTTR from attack, which would
have been in accordance with standard operating procedures.
Little did he realize at that time that he was to witness the senseless
murder of four dedicated BTTR pilots. Houlihan later recounted that the
Air Force Base had been on battle stations alert at the time of his
"911" call. The alert was inexplicably lifted at some point shortly
The shooting down of BTTR planes without warning began with Cuban MiGs
reporting visual contact and confirming planes registrations with
Havana. As documented as part of an investigation conducted by the
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), no warning passes or
redirecting or escorting procedures, required by international law for
civilian aircraft, were attempted. According to Basulto's account,
later denied by U.S. authorities, after shooting down the two planes of
his fellow pilots, the Cuban MiGs chased Basulto for 53 minutes over the
24th parallel within three minutes of U.S. airspace. Upon Basulto's
safe landing back in Florida, U.S. Custom officials' top priority was to
obtain the video and audiotapes made by Basulto of his flight, which
they demanded immediately. Later investigations revealed that the
Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force and Navy were all
on alert and had monitored the events of that fateful day.
For his humanitarian efforts, Basulto incurred accusations by Castro of
"being involved in terrorist acts" and "subverting the internal order
of the island." In an interview with television journalist Dan Rather,
the Cuban dictator admitted to planning and ordering the shoot-down and
misled the American public with false statements that BTTR had committed
"serious terrorist actions" and had been warned on several occasions
about flying in Cuban airspace. Basulto was punished by the U.S.
government, losing his pilot's license for six months. Plus, he was
censured, discredited, and misrepresented as an agitator.
Following the BTTR shoot-down, U.S. policy on balseros underwent a
dramatic change. In the year of the shoot-down, Clinton's Attorney
General Janet Reno warned that rafters discovered in the Florida Straits
by the U.S. Coast Guard would risk being stopped and prosecuted by the
U.S. government. A serious indictment of the Castro regime was that
refugees reported preferring their internment at GITMO to the oppressive
life in their native land.
By 1995, U.S. policy toward the balseros became more restrictive, and
the Clinton administration began sending them back to Cuba if they
failed to reach dry land. The U.S. resolved to curtail exile
demonstrations thought provocative to Castro and sought a reduction of
hostile rhetoric between the two countries.
In early 1998, the Pentagon released a report concluding that Cuba "does
not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries
in the region."
Yet, later that year, a mere two years after the shoot-down, The Cuban
Five, part of La Red Avispa, were arrested in Miami. Their arrests shed
light on their activities: the successful infiltration of the U.S.
Southern Command (SEADS) and Cuban-American groups. Their subversive
activities contributed to the BTTR shoot-down, and the five were viewed
as national heroes in Cuba.
It is also worth noting that on the day of the BTTR shoot-down,
convicted Cuban spy Ana Montes was the senior intelligence expert on the
Cuban military at the Pentagon. According to Scott Carmichael, a senior
security and counterintelligence investigator for the DIA, military
officials looked to Montes, as the designated Cuban expert, for answers
on the day of the shoot-down. Thus, she was in a prime position to
provide false information and pass military plans onto the Cuban
government (True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana
Montes, Cuba's Master Spy, Scott W. Carmichael, Naval Institute Press,
Annapolis, Maryland, 2007).
According to a December 24, 2000 article by Knight Ridder reporter Gail
Epstein Nieves, who reported on the spy trials of the five, "[t]he FBI
intercepted clandestine communications between Havana and its South
Florida intelligence agents that forecast a potentially violent
confrontation between Cuba and Brothers to the Rescue more than a week
before the planes were shot down[.]"
One of the intercepts instructed the two BTTR Cuba spies, Roque and
Gonzalez, to refrain from flying on particular days. Former Clinton
Cuba advisor Nuccio, although admitting to concerns about a shoot-down
by Cuba, said there was no "hard evidence" of an impending attack and
claimed ignorance on the intercepts. Yet Nuccio wrote an e-mail on the
day before the shoot-down to Clinton's national security adviser Sandy
Berger warning of a possible incident.
Today and Conclusions
The events that took place around the shoot-down of two BTTR rescue
planes on February 24, 1996 amounted to a cover-up of major proportions.
Despite significant prior information and forewarning, the Clinton
administration's failure to warn BTTR, a civilian search-and-rescue
operation and peaceful advocate of democratic change in Cuba, was an
unconscionable travesty resulting in the tragic loss of four lives.
Furthermore, the decision not to initiate a defensive military response
-- the ordering of a military stand-down -- smacks of complicity in this
This was indeed puzzling in light of previous U.S. government assistance
to BTTR. During the Bush Sr. administration, the Coast Guard provided
cover from above for a rescue mission in the water and, on another
occasion, called on defense forces to rescue BTTR from a potentially
Today, Obama has liberalized travel to Cuba and allowed religious,
university, and cultural groups to visit the island. He has lifted
restrictions on remittances to the island. In addition, he has failed
to challenge efforts by the successors and allies of Castro and Hugo
Chávez, enemies of the free world, to expand their sphere of influence
in Latin America.
Despite mainstream media portrayals that herald Cuba under Raul Castro
as leading to economic reform and political liberalization, Cuba ranks
next to last, just above North Korea, on the Heritage Foundation's
latest index of economic freedom. This is "exactly where Cuba's has
been since Raul's 'reforms' commenced," said Cuban-American author
Humberto Fontova, who agrees with the ranking.
"In fact, Cuba is currently undergoing a wave of terror, a 20-year high
in political beatings and arrests. This wave of terror and repression
coincides with record tourism to the island," Fontova says.
The lack of action and the outright dissembling of information so
prevalent in the BTTR shoot-down appear to have been at play in
Benghazi. Although officials at the Pentagon, U.S. State Department,
FBI, and other government agencies were almost immediately informed that
the jihadist group had perpetrated the attack, the Obama administration
initially credited it to a spontaneous eruption of anger against an
anti-Muslim film posted on the internet. This charade was maintained
for several weeks, with the U.S. government going so far as to place
$70,000 worth of apology ads on Pakistani TV and for then-Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton to extend duplicitous words of comfort to the
father of a fallen Navy SEAL with "We'll make sure that the person who
made that film is arrested and prosecuted."
Following the attack, it was revealed that the late Ambassador Stevens
repeatedly pleaded for extra security personnel, citing a "troubling
increase in violence and Islamist influence," but was denied additional
support by the state department. Tragically, American drones were
overhead at the time but did nothing to stop the attack, in deference to
the political expediency of Obama's pre-election portrayal of a
successful U.S.-led operation toppling the Libyan dictator and
furthering the "Arab Spring." Later revelations uncovered that Stevens
was aiding Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda operatives, and supplying
them with weapons to fight Bashar al-Assad's regime as part of a
Curiously, FBI investigators arrived at the attack site almost a month
later and spent only three hours collecting evidence. At this point, 33
survivors have not yet been heard from, and some speculate that they
have been silenced by threats.
The Benghazi attacks may well come to parallel the BTTR shoot-down.
More than 17 years after that incident, the use of misinformation, the
unavailability of potential witnesses, and the omission of vital
evidence to perpetuate a cover-up of massive wrongdoing still haunt the
survivors of this tragic event.
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