From the Herald archives: Downed at Cuba’s door: MiGs blast 2 exile planes

Irma Roman joins hundreds of others protesting Feb. 25, 1996, against Cuba shooting down Brothers to the Rescue planes. The were outside the Brothers to the Rescue hangar at Opa-Locka Airport.
Irma Roman joins hundreds of others protesting Feb. 25, 1996, against Cuba shooting down Brothers to the Rescue planes. The were outside the Brothers to the Rescue hangar at Opa-Locka Airport. Miami Herald Staff

Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Miami Herald on Feb. 25, 1996.

Cuban MiG fighters streaking over the Straits of Florida on Saturday shot down two single-engine planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, U.S. officials said. American warships steamed close to Cuban waters Saturday night.

Four crewmen were missing and presumed dead. A spokesman for the exile group identified them as Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario de la Pena and Armando Alejandre Jr. All are from Miami.

Coast Guard and Navy planes and helicopters searched into the night, but found only oil slicks. President Clinton instructed U.S. military forces to support the rescue operation "to ensure that it is fully protected."

U.S. officials told The Herald that the planes apparently were shot down over international waters but in an area under the jurisdiction of Cuban air traffic controllers.

A third plane returned safely to South Florida. Aboard that plane was Jose Basulto, who created Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue in 1991 and has been its most visible representative.

U.S. officials questioned Basulto for many hours Saturday night. Then, eyes moist, he appeared outside the exile group's hangar at Opa-locka Airport and spoke to an increasingly restless crowd that chanted protest slogans, sang the Cuban national anthem and waved Cuban flags.

"Something very tragic that we dreaded for a long time happened today, " Basulto said. "We lost our first pilots."

He said he saw flares and smoke and a Cuban MiG diving perilously close. Then he lost contact with the two other planes.

"Complete silence, " he said. "I kept calling them. I feared something dreadful had happened. But we never thought the government of Castro would come to the point of assassinating unarmed citizens."

Basulto and other Brothers officials said Cuban authorities knew the planes were looking for wayward Cuban rafters in international waters. They said the planes never violated Cuban airspace.

"At no time did they veer into Cuban airspace, " said Guillermo Lares, a Brothers pilot who was not on Saturday's flight. "It was a search-and-rescue mission. I guarantee you they were in international waters."

But a Pentagon official told The Associated Press that early indications suggested the planes may have been heading to Cuba to pick up people and fly them out of the country.

The Cuban exile group has specialized in humanitarian missions but recently turned provocative with two overflights of Havana since July. Cuban President Fidel Castro warned that any aircraft violating Cuban airspace risked being destroyed.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said F-15 fighter planes were scrambled to provide air cover for the rescue operation, which was centered about 15 miles northwest of Havana, close to Cuba's 12-mile limit.

Air Force reserve pilots were summoned to fighter squadrons at the Homestead Air Reserve Base, The Herald learned. A heavily armed Navy cruiser and other naval vessels steamed to the search area.

President Clinton, addressing the nation Saturday night, said he demanded an explanation of the incident from Cuban officials. "I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms, " he said.

Top administration policymakers from the National Security Council, State Department and other agencies were to meet this morning to discuss the matter.

Details of the incident were sketchy and somewhat contradictory.

McCurry, the White House spokesman, said three small planes took off from Florida and filed flight plans saying their destination was the Bahamas. He said they apparently were en route to Cuba.

"They apparently were engaged near the territorial waters" of Cuba, McCurry said.

"It would be hard to imagine an adequate explanation of an event of this nature, " he said.

Basulto said he and his crews intended to go to the Bahamas, but changed their minds midflight and decided to search for Cuban rafters.

McCurry said U.S. officials had been unaware of that change in plans. "They clearly had detoured" from their flight plan "if they were in this vicinity, " McCurry said. "We would not have accepted flight plans indicating Cuba as a destination."

In any event, Basulto's single-engine planes were no match for the jet-powered MiGs. The exile group's Cessna Skymasters cannot exceed 200 miles per hour; MiGs can exceed 800 mph.

As news of the incident raced through South Florida and the nation, the Cuban-American community in Dade County and elsewhere mobilized for protests -- and for prayers.

"What we feel is indignation, " said Armando Perez, one of many people who gathered in Miami's Little Havana to monitor preliminary reports of the incident. "The planes weren't going to attack Cuba. They didn't have arms. It was very dangerous, but they just went there to give the Cubans some hope.

"The only thing we can do is to cry. That's the only thing we can do."

Said Regla Juviel: "Ay, Dios mio. He (Castro) is crazy. What's going to happen now?"

The search area was centered in the Straits of Florida, about three miles north of the 12-mile limit claimed by Cuba, according to the Coast Guard.

Petty Officer Scott Carr said two oil slicks, possibly from the downed planes, were spotted in the area before darkness descended. He said the first report of the downing came to the Coast Guard at 3:45 p.m. from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The U.S. Navy dispatched all available rescue ships and aircraft to the area.

"U.S. Atlantic Command Forces are responding to the reported downing of two civilian aircraft by Cuban fighters, " said Navy Capt. Craig Quigley, with the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va.

There was no immediate statement from Cuban officials in Havana or at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Cuban citizens with access to satellite television services first learned about the incident from American news programs.

Reserve pilots assigned to Homestead Air Reserve Base were summoned to duty on an emergency basis, friends and relatives told The Herald. It was unclear if they were on alert for rescue work -- or for other, more ominous duty.

Throughout the night, supporters of Brothers to the Rescue descended on the blue-gray hangar at Opa-locka Airport that serves as the group's headquarters. U.S. government agents spoke inside with group officials, some of whom huddled in a corner of the hangar, speaking on cellular phones, appearing pale and frightened.

Two U.S. Customs agents stood outside the front door, blocking access to most civilians.

"I need to get inside, I need to get inside, " said one desperate man. He was rebuffed.

Another supporter, Jorge Bringuier, president of the Rescue Legion, a Cuban exile group, also was denied entry. "I have four planes I can put in the air for the rescue, " he said. "I have four planes. Let me inside."

The Brothers have sponsored thousands of missions across the Florida Straits, generally steering clear of Cuban airspace as they searched for rafters.

But after the United States announced last year that it would repatriate rafters, the organization had to redefine its role -- and its actions turned more provocative.

At least twice, pilots dropped leaflets over Cuba as part of a campaign to incite revolution. Basulto said his group was responsible for dropping the leaflets, but he has not admitted that his people overflew Cuba.

"It's another step, and there are many steps required, toward planting the seed that will lead to our people demanding what is rightfully theirs, " Sylvia Iriondo, a Cuban-American activist and Basulto ally, said last year.

Still, the Brothers missions were almost universally regarded as humanitarian. The one exception -- the Cuban government.

According to Jorge Dorrbecker, president of the Cuban American Pilots Association, who has flown missions with Brothers pilots, FAA authorities issued new advisories on Cuba about three weeks ago.

"All pilots were told that if you cross the 24th parallel without a flight plan, the Cuban government would not be responsible for your personal security, " he said. "They said they had military operations in the area and anti-aircraft guns were operative."

American officials said the Cubans radioed the exile planes Saturday and said: "The area north of Havana is active and dangerous, and you must remain north of the 24th parallel." There was no indication the Brothers planes responded to the Cuban warning, according to U.S. officials.

The 24th parallel cuts through the Florida Straits about halfway between Cuba and Key West. According to Dorrbecker, Cuba has international policing authority beyond that point and a Cuban air traffic dispatcher takes control of all flights.

"That means if you enter there without permission, they can come out and identify you, " he said. "Maybe they will waggle their wings, ask you to identify yourself, maybe even make you follow them and land in Cuba.

"But to shoot them down, that is a major transgression of international law. They were on a peaceful mission. They were unarmed."

Herald staff writers Susana Bellido, Jane Bussey, Henri Cauvin, Joanne Cavanaugh, Ina Paiva Cordle, Marilyn Garateix, Glenn Garvin, Bill Gato, Jennifer Gonzalez, Ishia Granger, Rick Jervis, John Lantigua, Christopher Marquis, Sue Mullin and Joseph Tanfani and news researcher Lily Hernandez contributed to this report.

The following are excerpts from President Clinton's speech on Saturday night:

Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been briefed by the national security adviser on the shooting down today in broad daylight of two American civilian airplanes by Cuban military aircraft. We are continuing to investigate the circumstances of the incident, including the airplane's flight plan and the flight route and what, if any, warnings were given.

This afternoon I ordered the following actions: First, I directed the United States Coast Guard units in the area to conduct search and rescue operations. That is now under way in the waters off Cuba. Second, I have ordered United States military forces in the area to provide support for the search and rescue operations and to ensure that it is fully protected. Third, I have instructed our Interest Section in Havana to seek an immediate explanation for this incident from the Cuban government.

I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. And as events unfold and we know more we will do our best to answer your questions.