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9 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

FOR WEEKS, FIDEL CASTRO’S AIDES had been urging him to relax. Engaged in a one-year campaign to improve relations with various nations around the world, including the U.S., Cuba’s President, now 69 years old, had been working too hard and traveling too much. So on Saturday, Feb. 24, he claims, he decided to take the day off. He retired to one of his Havana-area homes and began paging through My Truth, a book that tells how Mikhail Gorbachev, in opening the door to reform, failed to control dissent and wound up losing power. These days, Castro will tell anyone willing to listen how determined he is to avoid the Soviet leader’s mistakes. As a senior U.S. official says, “There is nothing more threatening to him than a perception in Cuba and around the world that the old man after 37 years ain’t what he used to be.”

Just how far Castro is willing to go to prove that he is still tough and in control became apparent that Saturday, when his phone began ringing around 4 p.m. It was his chief of staff calling to tell him that 40 minutes earlier, three small, unarmed Cessna planes piloted by Cuban-American exiles from Miami, members of a group called Brothers to the Rescue, had penetrated Cuba’s airspace with the apparent intention of dropping antigovernment leaflets over Havana. Castro’s Air Defense Force had just blown two of the planes out of the sky, killing four men.

This is how Castro tells it, anyway; some claim that he must have known about the shoot-down and given clearance for it himself. In any case, he had certainly approved the directive handed down several weeks earlier that if planes flown by the Brothers to the Rescue appeared to be trespassing on Cuban airspace, as they often had in the previous year and a half, they must be stopped by any means necessary. The brutality of the attack on the defenseless Cessnas seems to have been of little consequence to Castro. But from the point of view of his own self-interest, the assault was irrational. It destroyed any hope for warmer ties with the U.S., and will probably chase away foreign investment that he needs to revive his moribund economy.

So why did he do it? Last Wednesday night, in an exclusive interview with TIME lasting 4 1/2 hours, Castro offered some insight into the reasons behind his decision. His bristling sense of nationalism was offended by the flights, and beyond that, he felt humiliated. Even before the shoot-down, Castro said, he was incensed about a homegrown dissident group that was hoping to exploit the new openness of Cuba’s economy as a way to reform its political system. Since the beginning of February, his security forces have rounded up or harassed some 150 dissidents. His anger was exacerbated by Brothers to the Rescue, which was founded in 1991 with the intention of helping Cuban boat people but had turned in recent months, Castro noted, from humanitarian missions to a more overtly political agenda.

Last July, Jose Basulto, a Bay of Pigs veteran with CIA connections who piloted the only plane that escaped the Feb. 24 attack, buzzed Havana, dropping leaflets that exhorted Cubans to overthrow Castro. Cuba complained to the U.S., and the Federal Aviation Administration launched a probe, still ongoing, into whether Basulto’s license should be suspended. But that did not deter him from his anti-Castro campaign. According to records the Cuban government provided TIME, the Brothers entered Cuban airspace more than a dozen times in 1994 and ’95, and Cuba said it made a diplomatic protest on most occasions. Then, on Jan. 9 and 13 of this year, Basulto repeated his stunt of dropping leaflets on Havana. “It was so humiliating,” Castro told TIME. “The U.S. would not have tolerated it if Washington’s airspace had been violated by small airplanes.”

By February, Castro admitted, his patience had run out. In the absence of a response from the U.S, he decided to take action. “We instructed the armed forces that we would not tolerate it again,” he said. The Cessnas’ fate was therefore sealed the minute they decided to venture back near Cuban airspace. On Tuesday, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., read from transcripts of intercepted radio conversations between Cuban ground control and the pilots of the two MiGs that blew away the Cessnas. Just after he fired a missile, one pilot gleefully spoke of shooting off his target’s “cojones.”

In a strange twist to the story, Juan Pablo Roque, a Cuban military pilot who had defected to the U.S. in 1992 and flown dozens of missions with the Brothers, suddenly returned to Havana. He appeared on Cuban television to denounce his former colleagues as provocateurs and potential terrorists. Roque, it turned out, had acted as an informant for both the FBI and Cuba. His wife Ana in Miami had had no idea of his double life. In an interview with TIME, she said that a few days before he left, he told her he had taken his clothes to the cleaner’s. But he apparently plans to get his cleaning done in Cuba from now on. When TIME asked Roque in Havana what he missed about Miami, he said the only thing was his Jeep Cherokee.

After the attacks, President Clinton immediately lashed out at a regime he labeled “repressive, violent, scornful of international law.” The initial steps he took were relatively mild; they included suspending air travel and asking Congress to compensate the victims’ families with money taken from $100 million in frozen Cuban assets. The real bite came, however, with Clinton’s sudden support for the Helms-Burton bill, which will probably pass Congress this week. The President had been resisting the bill, but Castro ordered the planes shot down during an election year, and Clinton feels he cannot afford to alienate Cuban Americans in the crucial states of Florida and New Jersey.

The bill is an extraordinary document. Though the U.S. has imposed trade sanctions on Cuba since 1961, the Helms-Burton bill would make them harsher than they have ever been–harsher than when Cuba was a well-subsidized client of the Soviet Union, harsher than when Cuba fomented revolt in Latin America. One provision would allow Cuban Americans whose enterprises were taken over during the revolution to file suit against foreign companies that purchased those assets in order to do business on the island. Another provision would deny a visa to any foreigner with a stake in property that once belonged to a Cuban American and was expropriated by Castro.

Those articles threaten a blizzard of lawsuits for Cuba’s trade relations with other countries. But the bill’s most remarkable feature is the way it codifies into law the U.S. embargo against Cuba. This is an unprecedented incursion into the White House’s foreign-policy prerogatives: in future, any U.S. President will find it impossible to loosen the boycott without getting a green light from Congress. This has the effect, says Harvard government professor Jorge Dominguez, of tying Clinton up in a “legal straitjacket.”

Helms-Burton will please the powerful Cuban-American lobby, but it forestalls an approach to Cuba that may promise more success in ensuring that the country will be friendly and free in the post-Castro era. For 35 years the American embargo has not only failed to bring Castro down but allowed him to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for Cuba’s problems. Helms-Burton is a stronger dose of the same poison, with which the bill’s advocates hope to paralyze Cuba’s economy. This contrasts with America’s policy toward other communist countries; in places like China and Vietnam, Washington has argued that a bigger flow of commerce and ideas is the best way to plant the seeds of political reform in a brutal dictatorship. But the policy now is to crank up the confrontation with Castro by increasing Cuba’s economic misery, hoping to provoke the overthrow of a man who has spent four decades trumping this very strategy.

In catering to Miami’s impassioned exiles, Clinton feels that he may have a chance to salvage a state he narrowly lost in 1992. That unlikely hedge, however, has been bought at a stiff price. U.S. businesses are deeply frustrated over Helms-Burton. Some of America’s largest trading partners, including Mexico and Canada, are livid over the effect it will have on their trade relations with Cuba. The argument that the bill is a breach of international law will probably soon be heard before the World Trade Organization, which could require the U.S. to pay compensatory damages. And finally, by isolating Castro, the U.S. has gone against the desires of Cuba’s dissidents, who favor dialogue. “This bill casts into concrete a policy mistake that is not going to be easily undone,” said Lee Hamilton, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

Last Saturday the Brothers tried to stage a memorial service by sending boats and planes into the Florida Straits near the site of the shoot-down. U.S. Coast Guard cutters accompanied the flotilla, and American fighter-jets were in the area. Their mission was not only to protect the mourners but to discourage grandstanding on their part. As it happened, the risk of another incident was minimal, since bad weather forced the Brothers’ boats and planes to head back to Florida before they got close to Cuba. The damage has been done, however, and it seems nothing can stop Cuban-American relations from sliding back to the depths of the cold war. And there they seem destined to remain, frozen until the day Castro no longer rules.

–Reported by Cathy Booth/Havana, Tammerlin Drummond/Miami, J.F.O. McAllister and Mark Thompson/Washington

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