A review of the book by Fernando Morais
On February 24, 1996, three small planes set off from Florida, planning to enter Cuban airspace over Havana and drop propaganda leaflets. They were piloted by members of Brothers to the Rescue, one of the many anti-Castro organisations that were then not only trying to reverse the revolution in Cuba but create havoc in the country through terrorist attacks on hotels, beaches, tourist offices and even international flights. It was far from the first time the Brothers had overflown Cuba: and on each occasion although they’d been warned of the consequences they’d ignored the warnings. This time, because the overflights were to draw attention to the cancellation of a planned protest assembly in Cuba itself, they had not only been warned against flying by the US authorities, but the licence of José Basulto, the lead plot, had been suspended.
Nevertheless Basulto was at the controls of the third plane that crossed into Cuban airspace, and he was perfectly positioned to see what happened to the other two. This time, on being spotted by Cuban radar, the MIG jets sent to intercept them did not merely hassle the planes as they crossed the invisible frontier, but destroyed the first and then the second with air-to-air missiles. As he turned his own plane away to avoid the same fate, Basulto was heard on the radio to burst out laughing: the Cuban government had over-reacted and inadvertently given a huge boost to the Brothers’ propaganda activities.
The US authorities ignored the proof supplied by Cuba that the planes had been downed in Cuban waters, claiming instead that they had still been in international airspace. Cuba was able to put in front of the news media a defector from the anti-Castro groups, Juan Pablo Roque, who said he personally had been warned against flying that day by the FBI, who already knew that the Brothers and the other groups had been smuggling explosives and weapons into Cuba. Not long afterwards, Fidel Castro sent his opposite number Bill Clinton a 200-page dossier detailing the crimes carried by terrorist groups in Cuba. Soon after it was delivered, one of the groups destroyed the Cuban tourist office in Mexico City.
The downing of the two planes was to have huge consequences. First, Clinton set about intensifying the embargo against trade with Cuba which had been in place since 1962. By signing the Helms-Burton Act, he made international companies subject to the same sanctions as US ones, and this would eventually lead (for example) to the Credit Suisse bank being fined over half a billion dollars for so-called ‘trafficking’ with Cuba. Only a few similar interventions were needed to ensure that Cuba had – and still has – extreme difficulty in trading internationally, not only with the US itself.
Another consequence was that the US continued to turn a blind eye to growing terrorist attacks on tourists in or travelling to Cuba: there were 127 incidents in five years, including the machine-gunning of passenger ships and thirteen hijackings of Cuba-bound flights. As well as a number of deaths, there was severe damage was to the tourist industry which had become an important source of foreign income after the collapse of the Soviet Union (the main market for Cuba’s sugar). Despite regular protests that the attacks were being coordinated from Florida, the US government asserted they were internal incidents carried out by Cubans. Of the men behind them, operating freely in the US, the most notorious was Luis Posada Cariles who years earlier had been found guilty in Venezuela of organising the bombing of a flight to Cuba in 1976, which killed all 73 passengers and crew. (He lives in Florida to this day, now aged 87, despite having admitted to the New York Times that he organised many of the attacks).
A third consequence of the downing of the Brothers’ planes would not become apparent until later. It turned out that Juan Pablo Roque was not a turncoat, but a spy planted by the Cuban authorities, one of a dozen men and two women who were part of the ‘WASP’ network, operating clandestinely in the US to thwart the terrorist attacks coming from Florida. Another of the Cuban agents, Rene González, had been due to pilot one of February 24 overflights but managed to excuse himself after a prior warning from Havana. Rene originally left Havana in 1990, in a set up in which he posed as a deserter who stole a Cuban airforce plane and landed it in Florida. This apparently daring feat had given him huge credibility with the dissident Cuban groups, and he had soon been able to join them and start to spy on their activities. However, unknown both to the agents and to the groups they had joined, by 1994 WASP was being monitored by the FBI. Investigators had rented an apartment opposite the one where Rene lived, solely to keep watch on him.
Nevertheless, the agents continued their work and by 1998 had amassed a huge dossier of evidence on the Florida-based groups. In negotiations involving Gabriel García Márquez (a friend both of Castro and of Clinton), the cache of evidence was handed over to a high-level FBI delegation who made a secret visit to Havana in June that year. The implied understanding was that they would act on it by arresting leaders of the dissidents. Instead, however, in September of the same year, following a series a dawn raids, they charged and placed in custody all but three members of the WASP network. Some of those detained made plea bargains, but the group who would soon become known as the ‘Cuban Five’ were put before the courts and eventually sentenced to a range of prison terms from 15 years to life. The longest sentence was imposed on Gerardo Hernández, who was found guilty of sending the information to Havana that signalled the overflights of the three Cuban aircraft in 1994, and who was therefore held culpable for the four deaths when two of the planes were shot down (despite the plans for the flights being widely known and the pilots having been specifically warned against flying). All were found guilty of espionage against the US government, even though they had only ever targeted Cuban terrorists.
This book by Morais tells the story in detail, up to the time of the trial (with notes on what subsequently happened, including their release). He had the collaboration of Cuban authorities and access to a large part of the FBI evidence. It is a gripping read, and is likely to remain the definitive account of a story which, eventually, had a reasonably satisfactory conclusion. Needless to say, twenty years after the events described here, Cuban tourism is prospering, despite the prolonged but failed efforts of Cuba’s enemies in Miami.
The international campaign to free the ‘Five’ was eventually successful (after intervention by Pope Francis) when the three that had not yet completed their sentences were released on December 17, 2014. I am proud to say I was watching Cuban TV that day, rather stunned, as Raul Castro made the announcement that the Five were already back in the country. I saw the delight on the faces of Cubans, young and old, in the days that followed. As it happens, I’d met one of the Five, Fernando González, in Nicaragua after his release a few weeks before. I’d also met the mother of Rene González, Irma Sehwerert, when she visited Nicaragua in the period before Rene’s release from prison in 2011. Framed on the wall of our house in Masaya we have a poster of Obama which calls on him to ‘Give Us Five’. Eventually, he did.