A Double Standard on Terrorism

by Saul Landau

In These Times magazine, March 4, 2002



President Bush repeatedly warns other nations of the consequences of harboring terrorists, yet he seems to have forgotten the long list of men- living freely in his brother Jeb's home state-who have terrorized and swear they will continue to terrorize Cuba.

This story begins in 1990, when, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's economy nose-dived. By 1991, lacking jobs and sufficient food, thousands of Cubans propelled themselves toward Florida on inner tubes. In response to this wave of rafters, some of whom died at sea, emerged Brothers to the Rescue, ostensibly a corps of volunteer pilots to spot rafters in the dangerous waters separating Cuba and the Florida Keys and radio their positions to nearby ships.

However, by 1995, after Washington and Havana had agreed to implement a legal migration process, the wave of rafters subsided. Brothers to the Rescue changed their mission from an allegedly humanitarian one to outright provocation.

Brothers to the Rescue was founded by Jose Basulto, a man whom the CIA had trained for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In August 1962, a year and a half after that fiasco, Basulto went on a CIA-authorized raid into Cuba during which he shot at a hotel, fired into a theater, and blasted a Havana residential section. Twenty people died.

More than 30 years later, in June 199S, Basulto filed a false flight plan, claiming a mission to the Bahamas, and instead flew his plane from Florida to Cuba, dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Cuban territory. On July 13, he returned to drop religious medals, dipping his small plane over the rooftops of populated areas.

These flights coincided with a terrorist campaign by other militant anti-Castro exiles to cripple Cuba's tourist economy. Luis Posada Carriles, an exile linked to dozens of bombings and assassination attempts in the past 40 years, told a New York Times reporter that the prestigious Cuban American National Foundation financed a scheme to bomb tourist sites in Havana. Posada Carriles' agents planted more than a dozen bombs, killing one Italian tourist, wounding several people and doing extensive property damage.

However, the FBI showed little enthusiasm in responding to Cuba's request to investigate the Florida-based exiles' role in the tourist bombings. In January 1996, one National Security Council official even wrote a letter on White House stationary to the FAA, requesting that the Brothers' pilots licenses be suspended for having filed false flight plans. But the FAA, like the FBI, did nothing.

After getting little satisfaction from its formal demands that the State Department stop the flights, Cuba covertly sent spies to Florida. Posing as Castro-haters, the spies penetrated some of the violent anti-Castro groups. Cuba's intelligence chiefs directed some of the spies who were pilots to infiltrate Brothers to the Rescue.

On February 24, 1996, after receiving warnings from the U.S. government not to fly over Cuba, and direct orders from Cuban air traffic control not to enter its territory, a trio of aircraft with Basulto flying in the lead entered Cuban airspace. Cuban MlGs shot down two of the three encroaching planes; only Basulto's escaped the missiles. (A debate continues as to whether the actual shootdowns occurred over Cuban or international airspace.)

The FBI had discovered the spy network in 1996 and monitored their communications until arresting them in 1999. At their trial, U.S. prosecutors charged the spies with complicity in murder of the pilots, downplaying the fact that a U.S. official had indirectly informed the Cuban government of the Brothers' flight plan. And Basulto testified that he had changed the violent approach of his youth to that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, except in the case of Cuba where, he maintained, violence was still necessary. A federal judge then handed down sentences ranging from life imprisonment to 15 years.

Yet what would the U.S. Air Force have done-or what would they do now-if unauthorized planes entered our airspace?

In the case of the Brothers, the Cuban government showed patience, giving repeated warnings to the State Department. This soft approach by Cuba was unusual in light of the terrorist air tragedy that anti-Castro exiles had inflicted on a Cuban commercial airliner. In October 1976, Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, another terrorist with strong links to U.S. intelligence agencies, blew up a Cubana Airlines passenger jet carrying 73 people. Both were protected by the U.S. government. And in 1991, George Bush 1, over the objections of the FBI and INS, granted Bosch asylum in the United States.

In a recent speech, Fidel Castro raised this apparent contradiction in U.S. anti-terrorist policy. "We have the right to ask," Castro said, "what will be done about Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, the perpetrators of that monstrous terrorist act ... and about those who planned and financed the bombs that were placed in the hotels in [Havana], and the assassination attempts against Cuban leaders, which haven't stopped for a minute in more than 40 years?"

In short, the Bush administration continues to harbor some terrorists, as if this policy in no way contradicted its profession that terrorism is the world's worst sin. H


Saul Landau is director of digital media and international outreach at Cal Poly Pomona University. His latest film is Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos.

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