• U.S.

BLOWN OUT OF THE SKY

5 minute read
James Collins

CARLOS COSTA, A YOUNG, GOOD-LOOKING pilot, was used to Cuban fighter jets buzzing his plane when he searched for Cuban refugees afloat on the Caribbean. Costa was a member of a Miami-based group called Brothers to the Rescue, which tried to spot boat people from the sky. “You have to be a bit adventurous and nutty to do it,” he told a TIME correspondent before a mission two years ago. “But there’s nothing like saving a life.” Last Saturday afternoon, Costa almost certainly gave his own life when Cuban MiGs shot down two Cessna Skymasters belonging to Brothers to the Rescue. Costa was one of four lost with the planes.

A third plane escaped, and the pilot, Brothers cofounder Jose Basulto, claimed the Cubans began harassing the Skymasters as they were flying in international airspace, which begins 12 miles offshore. U.S. search craft spotted oil slicks some 20 miles off Cuba. A grim-faced President Clinton condemned “in the strongest possible terms” what he described as “the shooting down in broad daylight of two American civilian airplanes by Cuban military aircraft.” He directed U.S. Coast Guard units to conduct a continuing search-and-rescue operation and ordered U.S. military forces “to ensure that it is fully protected.” Clinton also demanded that Cuba give an immediate explanation. Even if it turns out that the planes did violate Cuba’s airspace, the episode will require the Administration to confront Cuba much more harshly.

Brothers to the Rescue, or Hermanos al Rescate, was founded in 1991 by members of Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban exile community as a peaceful protest group. Its technique was to fly over the Caribbean trying to spot rafts. Finding one, Brothers would swoop down close to the water and drop a flare. The orange smoke would guide the U.S. Coast Guard to the raft’s position. The group saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Cubans who otherwise would have drowned.

In May 1995, when the U.S. adopted a new policy of turning back Cuban boat people stopped at sea, the Brothers needed a new mission. Over the past several months, its members have dropped supplies to refugees headed for the Bahamas, and searched for the trickle still coming through the Florida Straits. Twice in the past few years they went in over Havana to drop leaflets expressing support for dissidents. Last summer Havana warned that if Brothers violated Cuban airspace or Cuban waters the group would be attacked, and in August the State Department announced that it took the Cubans’ warning seriously. The U.S. told Brothers to the Rescue and other similar groups that it could not help them if they trespassed into Cuban territory. Basulto denies the mission last week involved any such provocation.

The brutality of military jets downing flimsy unarmed Cessnas, whatever the planes’ flight path, appears to fit all too well with a renewed crackdown by the Castro regime. On the day of the attacks, the Concilio Cubano had planned to hold a conference for members of Cuba’s small, brave opposition groups, until the government refused permission. Instead, at least 100 dissidents were arrested or detained–perhaps the most widespread roundup since the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the U.N.’s 50th anniversary celebrations in New York City last October, Castro conducted an aggressive charm offensive on the American media and business elite, trying to win sympathy for his goal of lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The treatment of dissidents and the attacks negate whatever goodwill he created.

The shoot-down may well put an end to Clinton’s overtures toward Cuba. Over the past few months he has lifted travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, academics, artists, and religious and human-rights groups. That course may now be difficult to pursue, especially in an election year.

In Miami shock was mingled with rage in the Cuban exile community, and many were all but inconsolable. As a crowd behind him chanted “ÃAsesino!” and “ÃLibertad!”, Miami’s city manager Cesar Odio, a friend of one of the lost pilots, said, “If Castro has killed them, this is his biggest act of cowardice ever. There is no question they are heroes. Real Cuban patriots.” Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a distant relation of Castro, was infuriated because Clinton had merely asked for an explanation from Cuba. “This was an act of piracy against unarmed planes in international waters on a humanitarian mission, and it must not go unpunished,” he declared. So the bitter confrontation between the U.S. and Castro goes on. The father of one of the downed pilots, Mario de la Pena, was in despair. “I told him he could lose his life and no change would take place,” said the senior Pena. “The whole world is deaf to our suffering. His death could be in vain. Nothing is going to change while this man is still in power.”

–Reported by Cathy Booth/Miami and J.F.O. McAllister with Clinton

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com