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The saga of the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes

The fatal shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuban military pilots was sudden, shocking and heart-breaking. Four Miami men were killed, and the shootdown became the driving reason the U.S. government prosecuted and imprisoned five Cuban spies. One of them, Gerardo Hernandez, was convicted of murder conspiracy in connection with the shootdown because trial evidence showed he knew of the shooting plan in advance.

I was in the newsroom when my phone rang on Feb. 24, 1996, and a law enforcement source told me that a Cuban MiG had blasted the volunteer group’s Cessnas out of the sky as they flew over the Florida Straits looking for rafters. I told my editors, who immediately rounded up Miami Herald reporters in Miami and Washington, D.C.

Staffers hit the streets, still trying to wrap their minds around what had happened while operating with little information. Where was Jose Basulto, the high-profile founder of Brothers to the Rescue? What was the scene at the group’s hangar in Opa-locka? Who had been flying on the downed aircraft? What did the U.S. military know? How would the White House respond? What would this mean for U.S.-Cuba relations?

Countless questions, as always on the first day of a major story. On that Saturday and the next day, the Herald produced 14 stories dissecting every aspect of what was being called the most provocative action by Cuba since the missile crisis of 1962. But answers were tougher than usual to come by, because the “other side’’ we needed to hear from was Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Five years later, I sat in a federal courtroom in Miami with Hernandez and his four comrades — hailed as “heroes’’ in Cuba — as a jury convicted them for spying on Brothers to the Rescue and other exile groups, and on U.S. military installations. Theirs was a remarkable six-month trial the likes of which had never been seen, featuring Cold War intrigue and unprecedented cooperation from Havana, determined as it was to put Brothers, Cuban exiles and the U.S. government on trial along with its intelligence agents.

Both stories — the shootdown and the spies — were transformative chapters in the long saga of Miami’s Cuban exile community.