Brothers to the Rescue

Brothers to the Rescue

Brothers to the Rescue ( _es. Hermanos al Rescate) is a Miami-based activist organization headed by José Basulto. Formed by Cuban exiles, the group is widely known for its opposition to the Cuban government and, then, President Fidel Castro. The group formed in 1991 and describes itself as a humanitarian organization aiming to assist and rescue raft refugees emigrating from Cuba and to "support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active nonviolence".Website of Brothers to the Rescue - Background and information. [] ]

The Cuban government on the other hand accuses them of involvement in terrorist acts."The Cuban Downing of the Planes. The News We Haven't Been Hearing...." Article from Cuban Solidarity Net [] ] In the course of many flights throughout the early 1990s, the group's planes made repeated incursions into Cuban territory. While these were widely considered airspace violations, Brothers to the Rescue believes that these were acts of legitimate resistance against the government. In 1996, ignoring a final warning by Cuba, two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force, leading to international condemnation.

Rafting missions

In the first years, the group was actively rescuing rafters from Cuba, being credited with rescuing thousands of Cubans who were emigrating from the country. Website of Brothers to the Rescue - Background and information. [] ] Eventually, the group's focus shifted after changes in U.S. immigration policy meant that rafters would be sent back to Cuba. The group's founder has stated that after August 1995 it stopped seeing rafters in the water. Heavily dependent on funding for rafting activities, the group's funding rapidly dropped to $320,455 in 1995, down from $1.5 million the year before. As a result, the group shifted its activities. At least once, the group's founder dropped leaflets on Cuba.Court testimony from the Cuban spy trial, referred in "The Miami Herald" March 13, 2001. [] ]

Juan Pablo Roque

One of the group's pilots, Cuban sleeper agent Juan Pablo Roque (a former Cuban MiG pilot), unexpectedly left on February 23, 1996, the day before the two planes were shot down, and turned up in Havana where he condemned Brothers to the Rescue. Roque, a former major in the Cuban air force, pretended to defect from Cuba four years earlier and was soon after recruited by Brothers to the Rescue where he flew several missions. Despite being dismissed as a Cuban agent by US officials, Roque denied that he worked for the Cuban government. He said he returned home because he had become disillusioned with the methods of the Brothers, including what he said were its plans to carry out attacks on military bases in Cuba and to disrupt its defense communications. Roque appeared on Cuban television on February 26, 1996, where he denounced Brothers to the Rescue as an illegal and anti-Cuban organization the fundamental purpose of which is to provoke incidents that aggravated relations between Cuba and United States. In an interview with ICAO, he stated that the group had planned to introduce anti-personnel weapons into Cuba and blow up high tension pylons to interrupt the energy supply."Report on the shooting down of two U.S.-registered private civil aircraft by Cuban military aircraft on 24 February 1996", C-WP/10441, June 20, 1996, United Nations Security Council document, [ S/1996/509] , July 1, 1996.]

While in Miami, Roque had contacts with and was paid by the FBI. Roque's declarations brought questions about the role of agencies such as the FBI and CIA in the activities of the exile community. However, White House spokesperson David Johnson said that "there does not exist, nor has there existed, any tie between the North American intelligence services and Hermanos al Rescate," adding that the organization is "not a front" for those services, nor is it financed by them./] /]

1996 shootdown incident

250px|thumb|right|The map shows the locations where the two planes were reportedly shot down. Finding many inconsistencies in US and Cuban data, the ICAO investigation determined the most likely location to be that determined from information from the ship "Majesty of the Seas"..

On February 24, 1996 Cuban MiG-23 and MiG-29 jets shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing pilots Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña, and Pablo Morales. A third plane, flown by Basulto, escaped. The planes used were unarmed Cessna 337s, a twin-engine civilian light plane known for its safety and simple operation. A type similar to those owned by Brothers to the Rescue, instead designated the O-2A Super Skymaster, had a decade earlier been used by the United States Air Force, but all of the aircraft owned and flown by Brothers to the Rescue were civilian type Cessna 337 Skymasters, as were those that were shot down that day. Nonetheless, Cuba claimed that the letters USAF were still clearly visible on them. However, the Cuban Air Force pilots' radio transmissions proved that they had been identified as belonging to Brothers to the Rescue before the shootdown.Fact|date=February 2008

The incident was investigated in detail by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The report concluded that the authorities in Cuba had notified the authorities in the United States of multiple violations of their airspace since May 1994. In at least one case (13 July 1995), the pilot had released leaflets over Havana. The United States authorities had issued public statements advising of the potential consequences of unauthorized entry into Cuban airspace and had initiated legal actions against the above-mentioned pilot, which proved to be groundless; Basulto retained his certifications to fly. After Basulto was warned by an FAA official about the possibility of being shot down, he replied, "You must understand I have a mission in life to perform," disregarding the potential danger involved. He would later say he considered the group's activities to be acts of civil disobedience against the regime, and a demonstration that such disobedience was possible.Court testimony from the Cuban spy trial, referred in "The Miami Herald" March 13, 2001. [] ]

According to Cuban authorities, two light aircraft entered Cuban territorial airspace on 9 and 13 January 1996, and released leaflets which fell on Cuban territory. According to the pilot of one of the aircraft, half a million leaflets were released on January 13; he also claims they were released outside the 12-mile (22 km) Cuban territorial limit and the wind carried them to Havana. This version of events was even detailed by none other than Juan Pablo Roque, the man who had returned to Cuba the day before the shootdown and who was later implicated as having helped organize the shootdown as a Cuban spy placed with the group. According to Roque, however, Basulto had dropped the leaflets from 10 miles north of Havana, not the stated 12 miles from a high altitude on a day when the winds would carry them south toward Cuba. Specifically, in a Cuban television interview days after the shootdown took place, Roque, from within Cuba, stated, "I personally have violated air space, specifically the last was on January 9, 1996. where I got a call the day before to participate in a flight to Havana where thousands of leaflets were going to be released from a height of more than 9,500 feet at a distance of less than 10 miles from the coast."

Following that incident, the ICAO report states, the Commander of the Anti-Aircraft Defence of the Air Force of Cuba was instructed to intercept any further flights and authorized to shoot them down, whether or not they had entered Cuban airspace.

On February 24, 1996, the group's planes flew another search and rescue mission. 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. Afterwards, Basulto trespassed into Cuban airspace, still heading east, for less than 45 seconds. The second plane was then shot down, approximately ten miles farther north. Thus, it is beyond question that one plane, Basulto's N2506, entered Cuban airspace that day, albeit very briefly and apparently by accident in the confusion of the events, having spotted the MiG fighters.

Two of the group's three planes flying that day were shot down. The third, with Basulto on board, was also identified for intercept and was to be shot down. Two Cuban Air Force MiG-23 jet fighters were scrambled to chase him northward. Thereafter, based on the timing of subsequent transcripts and Basulto's known position, they chased his airplane across the 24th Parallel and into US airspace before the mission was aborted when Cuban authorities apparently realized that they were running great risks flying that far north. According to the U.S. Military, the fact that no USAF F-15s were launched from Homestead Air Reserve Base was a matter of a "communications error."

It is disputed whether the planes were over Cuban territorial airspace at the time of the shootdown, but it is undisputed that at least one of their planes actually entered Cuban airspace prior to the shootdown. Finding US and Cuban radar-based data on the location in mutual contradiction (see image), 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. Five years later, testimony from a retired US colonel supported Cuba's claim that both Brothers aircraft, along with a third flown by Brothers founder and pilot José Basulto, were only four to five miles off the Cuban coast. [Court testimony of retired US colonel Buchner, reported in "The Miami Herald", March 22, 2001 "Fliers downed by MiGs violated Cuban airspace, colonel says". [] ] However, numerous other U.S. officials, including the sworn testimony of a U.S. Government radar operator, Major Jeffrey Houlihan, himself a former intercept officer who used to coordinate the defense of the southern U.S. border, make it clear that the aircraft were not in Cuban airspace at the time. His testimony was backed up by actual screen prints from his radar displays.Fact|date=February 2008

Notably, the aircraft that were shot down were both very near (and, in one case, directly above) a U.S fishing vessel named Tri-Liner.Fact|date=February 2008 Also nearby was the cruise ship Majesty of the Seas, from which the smoke cloud from the shootdown was videotaped.Fact|date=February 2008 Both vessels possessed GPS navigation systems, and so were not likely within Cuban waters. Sworn depositions were taken from the crew members and captain of these vessels as to their location and what they saw that day.Fact|date=February 2008

The ICAO report also states that means other than interception, such as radio communication, had been available to Cuba, but had not been utilized, and that this conflicts with the ICAO principle that interception of civil aircraft should be undertaken only as a last resort. Nor did the Cuban Air Force make any attempt to direct the aircraft beyond the boundaries of national airspace, guide them away from a prohibited, restricted or danger area or instruct them to effect a landing..Fact|date=February 2008

Reactions to the incident


Following the incident, the United Nations Security Council passed Security Council Resolution 1067 (1996), a U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Cuba. Dissenting members believed that the resolution was singling out Cuba for condemnation, and instead should have issued a call which urged states both to refrain from shooting down civilian airplanes as well as to prevent the improper use of civil aviation. [United Nations press release SC/6247: Security Council condemns use of weapons against civil aircraft; calls on Cuba to comply with international law. 27 July 1996 [] ] In the European Union, the incident was also condemned.Fact|date=February 2008

United States

In the United States, the incident led to widespread and sharp condemnation of Cuba, and the incident in turn prompted the adoption of the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthens and continues the United States embargo against Cuba.Fact|date=February 2008 The high-profile and controversial trial of the "Cuban Five" on espionage and conspiracy charges resulted in convictions and long prison sentences for five Cuban agents.Fact|date=February 2008

In Miami, reaction from the exile community was swift. The late Jorge Mas Canosa, co-founder and leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, condemned the attack: "For two warplanes from the Castro government to shoot down two unarmed civilian planes with American flags on a humanitarian mission should be considered an act of war against the US"./]

Cuban response

Miguel Alfonso Martinez of the Cuban Foreign Ministry stated in an interview that during the previous 20 months, planes belonging to the Hermanos group had flown into Cuban airspace 25 times. He asked, "What would happen if an unidentified, or an identified, aircraft piloted by declared enemies of the US was detected flying over Washington? What would the US authorities do? Would they allow it to continue flying undisturbed?"Fact|date=August 2008

Martinez also said that the two aircraft that were shot down were "not common civilian aircraft," as suggested by the US. "This is not the case of an innocent civilian airliner that, because of an instrument error, departs from an air corridor and gets into the airspace of another country". "These people knew what they were doing. They were warned. They wanted to take certain actions that were clearly intended to destabilize the Cuban government and the US authorities knew about their intentions". "U.S. TIGHTENS SANCTIONS AGAINST CUBA AFTER DOWNING OF TWO EXILE PLANES OFF CUBAN COAST". In NotiSur - Latin American Political Affairs ISSN 1060-4189, Volume 6, Number 9 March 1, 1996 [] ]

Groups sympathetic to Cuba, while not approving the shootdown, noted "the policies of the United States government of indefensible hostility against the island of Cuba that sit at the heart of the matter", citing constant threats and a history of military and paramilitary attacks on Cuba from the US and paramilitary groups./]

"Shootdown," a documentary film that illustrates the incident from the Brothers to the Rescue perspective was released January 25, 2008. It was directed by Cristina Khuly, niece of downed pilot Armando Alejandre Jr.Fact|date=February 2008

ee also

*Cuba-United States relations
*List of Cuba-US aircraft hijackings


External links

* [ Brothers to the Rescue Homepage]
* [ Shoot Down] , a 2006 film about the shootdown, co-produced by the niece of one of the four victims.

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