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Posted April 06, 2009 by mattlawrencebooks in Cuba Human Rights

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(Publisher note: This article was submitted by one of the authors, Matt Lawrence, who is a member of the Havana Journal. The management of Havana Journal Inc. has approved of the posting as a courtesy to one of its members. However, all opinions and statements are those of the author and not of the management of Havana Journal Inc.)

March 30, 2009
By Wes Vernon

April is “Cuba month” for the Obama administration.

The Observer, the Sunday edition of the UK’s left-wing Guardian, approvingly tells its readers that the Obama White House “has moved to ease some travel and trade restrictions as a cautious first step towards Havana…raising hopes of an eventual lifting of the four-decade-old economic embargo.”

The report goes on to add that “several Bush era controls are expected to be relaxed in the run-up to [the April] Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago,” thus — in Rodney King “Can’t we just all get along”-style (our words) — signaling “a new era of ‘Yankee’ cooperation.’”

Not so fast

Predictably, the “no-enemies-on-the-left” crowd and a few others — who should know better — are hailing this as a welcome breakthrough, implying that in the great move toward “cooperation,” the onus is on the shoulders of the United States, while poor little Cuba has nothing for which to make amends. In trying to deconstruct that mythology, one hardly knows where to begin. But the cold shower of reality can start with the new book Betrayal: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five. The thoroughly documented bottom line in this shocking exposé is “In the end, Fidel Castro got away with murder” (italics in original). The book has been 13 years in the making — involving painstaking shoe-leather sleuthing and putting it all together in writing.

Cold-blooded murder

Authors Matt Lawrence and Thomas Van Hare focus on the day in early 1996 (Feb. 24) when the Cubans shot down two Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR) planes (and attempted to bring down a third) whose humanitarian mission was to assist and rescue raft refugees fleeing Cuba on the dangerous waters of the Straits of Florida. Many of the rafters never made it to the free shores of America, but freedom-loving Cubans were nonetheless willing to risk their lives to get out of there — a telling commentary on the Castro jackboot-on-the-neck conditions in their homeland.

Fidel’s dictatorship was very sensitive to that public relations black-eye, perhaps fearing that influential touchy-feely saps in U.S. academia and the salons of the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan might experience a twinge of conscience or second thoughts regarding their ideological slavish whitewash of the dictatorship 90 miles from our shores.

To compound the tragedy, many people within our own government that day were aware of the unique danger or — at the very least — knew something was afoot and did not think to pick up a phone and warn the pilots that the Cubans were pro-actively looking that day for an opportunity to target the rescue flights.

In a nutshell

The three planes were unarmed. Two of them carried four doomed Cuban exiles — three of them U.S. citizens (Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, and Mario de la Pena) and the fourth a legal U.S. resident (Pablo Morales, who was working toward citizenship and had a “Green Card”). A third plane (piloted by Jose Basulto, the BTTR leader) made it safely back to Florida. They were chased by Cuban MiGs. The two mercy flights were shot down by the Cubans even though they presented a threat to no one. Theirs was purely a mission of mercy.

What did — and did not — happen

First, what did not happen — realizing that the Cuban government, true to Marxist form, lied in defending the taking of four innocent lives.

Even to begin to justify an interception/shootdown based on an incursion, here is what would have had to happen: 1 — BTTR would have had to be heading south toward Cuba. 2 — BTTR would have had to maintain radio silence, as well as try to sneak across the line to attack Cuba. 3 — In either case, Cuban MiGs would have taken off and begun patrolling in their airspace in case BTTR attempted to fly over Havana or attack Cuba. 4 — BTTR would have had to cross into Cuban airspace and head toward Havana. 5 — In that event, the MIGs would have intercepted and fired warning shots, attempting to force the BTTR to land. 6 — Or, if BTTR attacked Cuba (obviously quite hard to do in unarmed Cessnas), their planes would no longer have been considered non-combatants, and they could legitimately be taken down. 7 — Then, and only then, based on international law, could the MiGs justify shooting at the aircraft.

Instead, this is what actually took place:

1 — BTTR (unarmed) headed south toward Cuba, but presented no threat, as was the case with the thousands of previous, identical mercy missions that they had previously flown. 2 — The Cuban MiGs took off and headed north into international airspace, hunting BTTR aircraft. 3 — BTTR openly communicated with Havana Air Traffic Control and stated its intention to fly a routine search and rescue mission. 4 — All BTTR aircraft then turned east to fly parallel “track lines” as they did on any regular search mission. 5 — The Cuban MiGs flew past the first BTTR aircraft (Seagull One), apparently not seeing it, to attack and shoot down the second one (Seagull Charlie) — and were seen by the first plane. 6 — BTTR’s first aircraft (Seagull One) crossed (inadvertently) into Cuban airspace in the confusion of events — while headed east, i.e., not toward Cuba. 7 — The Cuban MiGs then shot down another BTTR plane (Seagull Mike). 8 — The first BTTR plane (Seagull One) then flew toward home to attempt an escape from the hunting MiGs. 9 — Two additional Cuban MiGs were sent out to chase and shoot down the last plane. They failed. Their murderous mission was reluctantly aborted, but not before they had come within three minutes of South Florida, having illegally crossed into U.S. airspace on an attack mission aimed at murdering U.S. citizens.

NO justification, period

And most significantly: 10 — No warning shots were fired. Nor were there any attempts to force BTTR to land. It was outright, cold-blooded murder, author Van Hare reiterates in an e-mail to this column.

Attempted cover-up begins

The BTTR plane that made it home was piloted by Jose Basulto. The minute his aircraft landed safely and shut down its engines inside its hangar at Florida’s Opa-Locka Airport, he was met by a man who was awaiting his arrival and who claimed to be a U.S. Customs official. He demanded that Basulto hand over the plane’s taped intercom conversations. Basulto refused.

No one in the U.S. government claims to have authorized anyone to meet Basulto and demand the taped conversations. The true identity of the stranger is unknown to this day. He could have been someone from an agency of the U.S. government whose top brass do not want to be identified. Author Thomas Van Hare believes it is more likely that the man was a Cuban agent posing as a U.S. government official.

U.S. spectators and another mysterious disappearance

Major Jeffrey Houlihan, a highly rated U.S. Customs radar operator, saw the airborne killing spree on his radar screens as the events were unfolding. Of all those in the U.S. government watching the whole thing on radar screens, only Major Houlihan made a “911” call for help.

Testifying later in court, the major said while all this was going on, he ended up talking to the Senior Director Technician at Southeast Air Defense (SEADS):

“What I told him was do you see [the Brothers to the Rescue] aircraft? and he said yes, we’ve been briefed.”

Leading up to: “I said well, it looks like a MiG-23 to me heading directly to the United States. I think that’s important. And the [Senior Director Technician] responded we’re handling it, don’t worry.”

The authors document that instead of following “Standard Operating Procedure,” for the duration of the shootdown and subsequent hunt of the third aircraft, the USAF ready F-15 jet fighters, which should have launched in intercept, were taken off battle stations, and were ordered to taxi back to their hangars and shut down their engines. The book notes that the U.S. Military later justified that inaction, by claiming it to be a “communications mix-up.”

“Mix-up” indeed. The authors also publish that the USAF squadron commander was on the phone with SEADS literally pounding on the desk and begging for authorization to launch — which was repeatedly denied.

Later, Maria Fernandez, a Clinton-appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, told a congressional committee that the name of the Senior Director Technician who took the call that day was one Col. Frank Willy, an Air Force officer. She also noted at the time that the colonel had since “retired.”

Here’s another unsolved mystery: Van Hare tells this column, “[W]e searched for Col. Frank Willy — in all 50 states — using White Pages look-ups, Internet name searches, and more. We never found him. Perhaps in publishing this book, he will finally be found and make himself available for an interview.”

That alone begs the suspicion that the colonel was told by some authority to disappear into utter oblivion as part of a cover-up. But — ever cautious — as is the case with the authors all throughout Betrayal — Van Hare tells me, “I do not believe there were any stone walls erected,” and that “maybe he passed away or has an unlisted number. We would have loved to speak with him, but never found him.”

Yet another loose end

Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fired off a letter to then-Defense Secretary William Perry demanding an explanation as to why nothing was done — either to respond when the MiGs apparently were 3 minutes off the U.S. coast, or to prevent the tragedy and alert the civilian pilots. The senator asked 11 detailed questions. The authors could find no record that the letter was ever answered. Moreover, when the House International Relations Committee held a hearing on the tragedy, a Customs official “with significant knowledge of the incident was prohibited from testifying in open session,” according to Helms. Here, the word “stonewall” unmistakably applies.

The evidence

Over their 13 years of research, the authors of Betrayal were able to amass and document evidence, which they present in their book, that high officials in the U.S. government — including several senior staff at the Clinton White House — had advance knowledge of the shootdown, yet did nothing to prevent the incident. This is not to say, authors add, the U.S. authorities were legally “complicit” in the murder of the four BTTR pilots — but it is nearly equally damning.

“Nonetheless,” Betrayal charges, “even if unwittingly, they effectively condoned the shootdown murder of U.S. citizens.”

The buck stops where?

“There is no direct evidence [italics mine — WV] that President Bill Clinton himself had prior knowledge of the plan.” But advisors “at the highest level of his administration knew of Cuba’s plans,” as did “members of the U.S. military, and of the State Department Diplomatic Corps” and “many of these senior advisors knew for months or at least weeks what was coming, but failed to act.”

The Betrayal multi-year probe adds, “It is also questionable as to whether President Clinton was kept fully in the dark,” and then concludes, “There have been some who’ve wondered aloud how the president could not have known [again, italics added].”

Sandy Berger — again?

Lawrence and Van Hare name Clinton’s then Deputy National Security Advisor — none other than Sandy Berger — as “the man who most likely could have stopped Brothers to the Rescue from flying that day had he answered his phone or checked his e-mails in the final hours of February 23, the eve of the tragedy.

Another obvious red flag came during a meeting in Cuba between Cuban and American officials. In that discussion, Cuban officials bitterly complained about BTTR. A Cuban cosmonaut and Air Force general directly asked former Ambassador Robert White about the reaction of the U.S. military if Cuba were to shoot down one of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. Quoting the book: “The most that was said by any members of the delegation was that the shootdown would be a public relations disaster for Cuba and would further serve to endorse the validity of the views shared by hardliners within Miami’s exile community [italics in original].”

So the public relations angle — rather than the savagery of the act — was all the U.S. delegation could consider in response. God forbid that we give any PR ammunition to those freedom-loving “hardliners” — the mutual concern of both the Cuban government and — apparently — the Clinton administration!

Verdict, but no justice

Cuba was found guilty in a U.S. court, and the Castro government fumed and stomped its feet in angry denial (fake anger is also a part of the Marxist playbook). But the evidence was plain — especially after the transcript of the Cuban communications was cited where Havana’s control tower and the MiG pilots ghoulishly savored the opportunity to commit their unprovoked cold-blooded murder — even screaming joyful celebration as they fired their missiles to down the little unarmed Cessnas.

For all that, Cuba not only suffered little punishment for its acts, but has insisted the shoot-down was justified. The clear record, however, exposes the Cuban dictator Castro followed the Marxist culture wherein lies, lies, and damn lines are virtuous if the end result is the advancement of the Communist cause.


There are several other angles to all this. Readers of Betrayal will find them fascinating. One in particular is worthy of note here:

The murder of the unarmed civilians was facilitated by spies. This case has served to spotlight a Cuban spy network as pervasive as any of the old Soviet spy rings at the highest levels of our government before and during the Cold War.

That in and of itself deserves a separate column. Later.

For now, all I’ll write is that reading Betrayal: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five has been one of the highpoints of the year so far. I’d recommend you purchase your copies (http://www.mattlawrencebooks.com)  before the book mysteriously disappears from the online bookstores. Oh, no, of course, that could never happen — or could it?

© Wes Vernon

  1. Follow up post #1 added on April 08, 2009 by grant

    Tell us how does a plane land in the ocean? The pilots were warned by the US coast guard not to approach Cuba. Note the chief of the Brothers stayed well away from any danger.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on April 08, 2009 by Darby

    Betrayal: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five is up on Amazon.com’s best seller list in the category Espionage, I just saw.  So now reading this review, I think its time to buy a copy - obviously, something interesting going on here, something very interesting….

    On thing for sure, the shootdown is a story of “betrayal”, the authors of that book have that point right on.  I just never realized that the betrayal was on both sides of the Florida Straits.  Thanks again to Bill and Hill, no doubt.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on April 08, 2009 by grant with 48 total posts

    This is a joke piece. I was in Havana when the planes were shotdown.  Spoke with a Minister of Government.  The warning was common knowledge, come again and you will be shotdown. Orders of Fidel and Raul.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on April 10, 2009 by Anatasio

    The point is that they didn’t cross the 26th parallel into Cuban territory. They were shot down over international waters - radar and eyewitnesses on water craft attest to this. It’s rather open and shut - in that there really isn’t much to argue.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on April 10, 2009 by Darby

    Grant wrote:
    “The warning was common knowledge, come again and you will be shotdown. Orders of Fidel and Raul.”

    Dude, that’s some twisted logic—what country do you live in where that’s justifiable?

    Putting it in perspective, is it even okay there to threaten your neighbor with death if he walks down the public sidewalk?  And does it make it even more okay to murder the guy because he ran into the street and didn’t listen to your threats?

    I’ve heard that sort of logic before from Al Qaeda - a sort logic that goes, “we warned you three times, so now we’re justified committing terrorism.”

    But in civil societies, issuing a threat on the level of “I’ll murder you if you do that again,” is patently illegal.  And I don’t see how carrying out the threat and actually committing murder makes Fidel and Raul any less guilty here.

    Murder is still murder—so this isn’t a “joke piece”.

  6. Follow up post #6 added on April 12, 2009 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Cuban spies penetrate Washington, call the shots on U.S. policy

    For 32 years, the Soviet Union infused money and know-how into Cuba — its client-state just 90 miles from U.S. shores — until the flag went down on the Soviet empire. The history of failed states from the former Soviet “experiment” is paved in lives. Yet that final flag has yet to drop on Fidel Castro’s Communist dictatorship, which was well schooled in the Soviet arts of spying and undermining the government of the United States. (Their job, after all, was half done early on, considering their many troops — witting and unwitting — right within the United States (i.e., don’t worry about those naïve, trusting Americans, comrade; the ACLU will take care of them).

    A long history…

    Cuba consulting services

  7. Follow up post #7 added on April 15, 2009 by Cassandra.Says

    Printing this rot was a bad editorial decision. There may be two sides to a discussion of the shootdown, but this isn’t one of them. Any article that describes BTTR as a purely humanitarian mission is selling an absurd lie—there are no “rafters” afloat in the streets of Havana, which BTTR overflew.

    In fact, I’ve never understood what benefit a “rafter” would receive from a plane flying overhead. If the Brothers also had a rescue craft it might make sense but they didn’t.

    If the Cuban-American elite had a genuine belief that those planes were resting in international waters, they have plenty of money to go find them and prove it.


  8. Follow up post #8 added on April 15, 2009 by Cassandra.Says

    BTW, the shootdown was investigated by the ICAO and the UN, neither of which agencies supported the interpretation being hawked here.

    They found the conflicting evidence of location inconclusive but also had difficulty with the notion that these were civilian aircraft. They were (previously owned) military aircraft, manned by persons with terrorist ties and/or history, and Basulto himself had said publicly that his sorties into Cuban airspace were designed to test Cuban air defenses and demonstrate that they were easily penetrated. (To what end?)

    The facts (not here in evidence) suggest to me, and to some of the bereaved, that Basulto set up his “Brothers” to provoke an incident in support of the Cuban Democracy Act, written by the Bacardi lawyers and pending before Congress.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on April 15, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    So Cassandra, in your opinion it is ok for a goverment to shut down a Civilian aircraft?

  10. Follow up post #10 added on April 15, 2009 by Darby

    Cassandra’s statements are completely backwards from the conclusions actually reached by ICAO and the UN.  So it would appear that she is little more than typical provocateur.

    With regard to where the planes were when shot down, this is what I found on a search was revealing and quite worth taking the time to research:

    “According to the ICAO report, the Cuban Air Force shot down the first plane while all three planes were north of the 12 mile limit of Cuban airspace.”

    The ICAO reports concludes that the planes were on a routine search mission, heading east at the time of the shoot down, not toward Havana at all.  You can find the report online and read it yourself.  Thus, for Cassandra to so obviously make up lies about the official record is a bit disturbing to say the least.

    Of note, here is what else I found:

    The Cuban Government issued hand drawn position charts that showed the planes to be just a couple of miles off the Cuban coastline.

    The US Government issued radar plot print outs, showing all of the aircraft, including the Cuban MiGs, to be well north of Cuban airspace and clearly in international waters.

    Thus, the position is “officially disputed”.  One of the two countries is lying as to the location—but which is it?  Are the hand drawn Cuban charts false or the print outs of radar plots from the USA false?

    The answer comes from an incredible coincidence—the actual position is confirmed by passengers aboard a cruise ship who witnessed the entire thing from well out in international waters—it was the cruise ship, the Majesty of the Seas, out in international waters at the time.  There was also a US fishing boat called the Tri-Liner, whose captain witnessed the shootdown directly overhead his vessel.

    “The ICAO used the known positions of the cruise liner Majesty of the Seas and fishing boat Tri-Liner to locate the incidents at 10 to 11 miles (18 to 20 km) outside Cuba’s 12-mile limit. That is two to three miles (4 to 6 km) from where the U.S. radar tracks put them, and roughly 16 to 17 miles (30 to 32 km) from where the Cuban government claimed that the planes went down.”

    CNN carried video of the black smoke from one of the planes that was shot down, filmed from the deck of the cruise ship, so there’s no doubt that the cruise ship passengers watched the shoot down - there is even a record of it on video.

    The transcript of the Cuban MiG pilots even includes a reference to the cruise ship because they are worried it might be a US Government ship out in international waters with the customs department’s radar balloon hanging off of it.  That so obviously amounts to a full recognition by the pilots of the MiGs that they are well outside of Cuban airspace.

    And the list of facts goes on and on and on….

    People like Cassandra are just pushing their own bit of Cuban propaganda—whether they know it or not, based on a script originally created in Havana by Castro.  That’s sad.

    The facts here speak for themselves.  I’m glad I did the research, it was time well spent.

  11. Follow up post #11 added on April 15, 2009 by Darby

    Also, I just reread Cassandra’s post in which she writes:

    “They (UN and ICAO) found the conflicting evidence of location inconclusive but also had difficulty with the notion that these were civilian aircraft. They were (previously owned) military aircraft, manned by persons with terrorist ties and/or history….”

    None of that is in the UN or ICAO reports.  The aircraft are on record as being Cessna 337 Skymasters.  They were never owned by the military and were always in private hands from the day they were built to the day they were shot down and destroyed.

    As for the claim that they were “manned by persons with terrorist ties and/or history”, the four guys killed were never accused of terrorist activities or history of terrorism.  One was a Vietnam veteran.  Three were US Citizens.  The fourth guy was a former rafter who had a green card and was working toward his US citizenship.  Between them, they had saved hundreds of lives out in the Florida Straits, all Cuban balseros rowing north to freedom and escaping Cuba.

    In other words, in making these outrageous lies and claims, Cassandra is either smoking something here or is a willing patsy of the Cuban Government.  Amazing that there are people still dumb enough to hold a candle for Castro-style communism and oppression.

    “Useful Idiots,” I believe that was the term used by Fidel himself to describe such people as Cassandra.

  12. Follow up post #12 added on April 15, 2009 by Cassandra.Says

    “Good heavens! “Useful idiots” huh? Is that still around? My, what an insight into your mind, Darby. Neither Castro nor Lenin, to whom this quote is falsely ascribed by everyone but Darby, ever said any such thing.

    I stand by the post. The ICAO report says “IF” the liner was where it said it was the planes were shot down in international waters. The U.N. report specifically questioned whether the planes were appropriately described as civilian. It depends on the mission—the planes that hit the towers were civilian passenger planes.

    I do not rule out your description of the four shot down, except that they certainly had ties to Basulto himself, who was a terrorist. As for “accused” I presume you mean “indicted.” In your take, the terrorist leader of the expedition, Basulto, after screaming “F.U., we’ll go where we want to” in response to repeated warnings, then hit the deck and smoked for home, leaving four innocent patsies aloft to face their fate. As I said above, that is my take also.

    Read about Basulto’s participation in DRE, Contras, etc. here:


  13. Follow up post #13 added on April 15, 2009 by Cassandra.Says

    I think a good case for “murder” used loosely can be made against those, including BTTR and some posters here, who beaver away popularizing the myth that you can get to Florida from Cuba on a raft.

    If you go into the water off Cuba on a raft, the Gulf Stream picks you up and delivers you 200 miles out into the Atlantic to a slow, agonizing death.

  14. Follow up post #14 added on April 15, 2009 by Darby

    Cassandra, you’ve done it again - playing very loosely with the record of what actually happened.  Now you’ve got one plane leaving the others to the horrible MiGs, my, my.  Except it didn’t happen that way either.  According to the ICAO report, the two planes were shot down and then the third flew home, chased by two other MiGs that, if the pilots weren’t so incompetent, would have shot the last down.

    As for your “case for murder”, wow.  That’s astonishing.  Are you claiming that anyone is encouraging rafters to try to row to Florida?  They come.  Some make it, some don’t.  If you live in South Florida, you’re probably familiar with rafts washing up on the beaches.  Very sad.

    Even more sad is that in 1994, Fidel Castro told the people of Cuba that they could leave if they wanted to - but only on board rafts.  He didn’t allow them to fly out or book passage on a large cruise ship.  He told them they could only go on rafts.  About 21,000 took him up on the offer and perhaps a few thousand died trying.

    The history of modern Cuba is replete with horrific tales of abuses on the part of the Government.

    But hey, that’s okay - they’ll probably open the doors to you, Casandra.

    You must really enjoy misleading and lying to people—but who is to benefit from that?  That’s the real question the average reader here at HJ is probably asking themselves.

    Have a good life.  Your posts aren’t worth bothering with any more, just falsehoods heaped upon falsehoods masquerading as the “So-Called Truth”.

    Anyone who reads the ICAO report, as I did, will come away with one conclusion - Cuba murdered those guys, plain and simple - and it was inexcusable, illegal and immoral.

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