Sunday, January 31, 2016

Brothers to the Rescue Martyrs Remembered 20 Years Later: A legacy of Love and Freedom

“There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends.” – John 15:13 

Four men were killed when the two planes they were flying in were shot down on a Saturday afternoon at 3:21 and 3:27 on February 24, 1996 over international airspace while engaged in a search and rescue flight for Cuban rafters. Their planes were destroyed by air-to-air missiles fired by a Cuban MiG-29 aircraft on the orders of Raul and Fidel Castro. The purpose of this essay is not to analyze how they died but more importantly understand who they were and why they felt it necessary to be on those planes searching the Florida Straits for Cuban rafters despite the dangers.

Who were they?
The four individuals killed represented all aspects of the Cuban diaspora: a child who arrived with his parents from Cuba in 1960, another born in Miami Beach in 1966 and a third born in New Jersey in 1971 the children of Cuban exiles. The fourth was born in Cuba in 1966, raised there and was saved by Brothers to the Rescue when he was 26 years old while fleeing the island on a raft. Two were from Havana, one was from New Jersey and the other from Miami Beach.

The oldest of the four, Armando Alejandre Jr. born in Havana, Cuba on April 16, 1950 who was nine years old when Fidel Castro came to power. He arrived in the United States with the rest of his family at the age of 10. He graduated from high school in Miami enlisted in the military, out of gratitude for the United States providing refuge to Cubans fleeing the Castro regime, serving two tours in Vietnam. Following his military service, he attended Florida International University, which is my alma mater, and following graduation went to work in Metro-Dade Transit Agency in Miami. At the time of his death he was 45 years old leaving behind his wife of 20 years, Marlene and an 18-year-old daughter Marlene Victoria. Armando became a U.S. citizen and was a Cuban-American.

Mario Manuel de la Peña, the youngest of the four was born the township of Weehawken, New Jersey on December 28, 1971 when the Castro regime had already been in power 12 years. He was a son of Cuban exiles. Mario received his degree of Associate in Science in Professional Piloting Technology from Miami-Dade Community College at age 21. In 1996, he was completing his senior year at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Following the shoot down, Embry Riddle conferred upon Mario the degree of Bachelor of Aeronautics honoris causa. At the time of his death he was just 24 years old and is survived by his parents and brother.

Carlos Costa was born on June 23, 1966, in Miami Beach, FL, to Cuban exiles and attended Monsignor Pace High School. He was a graduate of Embry-Riddle University of Aeronautics, where Carlos obtained a bachelor of science in airway science and was licensed as a commercial, instrument, and private pilot, as well as a flight instructor and multi-engine flight instructor. Carlos worked at Miami International Airport, where he trained employees on aviation rules and enforced Federal Aviation Administration standards. Carlos Costa was 29 years old when the shoot down occurred. Carlos is survived by his parents of Cuban origin, Mirta and Osvaldo Costa, his sister, Mirta Mendez, one niece and two nephews.

Pablo Morales was born in Havana, Cuba, on May 16, 1966 and was the same age as Carlos Costa but with a different life experience. He studied cartography and obtained a degree as a geodesics technician. In August 1992, Pablo fled Cuba on a raft and after three days at sea, was spotted in the ocean by Brothers to the Rescue. This experience motivated him to join the previously mentioned organization. He was a passenger in the aircraft with Carlos Costa when they were shot down. Pablo was survived by his mother Eva Barbas, who passed away in 2013, a sister, and a brother. He was a Cuban citizen at the time of his death with residency in the United States and was just 29 years old.

One month from today, January 24, 2016, friends and families will be observing the 20th anniversary of this terrible crime, an act of state terrorism, in which four humanitarians were murdered trying to save the lives of fleeing rafters. As this essay is being written a group of Cubans sent by the dictatorship gathered outside of the Havana headquarters of the Ladies in White, a human rights movement, in order to harass them and burn a pile of copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A document that today as in 1996 remains a taboo to possess in Cuba.

15-year-old rafter Gregorio Perez Ricardo died of dehydration in 1991
Why where they there?
Mario and Carlos were both volunteer pilots of the nonviolent and humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue. In February of 1991 news accounts of the death by dehydration of 15-year-old Gregorio Perez Ricardo, a rafter fleeing Cuba, as U.S. Coast Guard officials tried to save his life deeply touched several pilots. A 1995 monograph by academics Holly Ackerman and Juan Clark, The Cuban Balseros: Voyage of Uncertainty reported that “as many as 100,000 Cuban rafters may have perished trying to leave Cuba.” There is anecdotal evidence that some of them were victims of the Cuban border patrol who used sand bags and snipers against defenseless rafters.

It was within this context that on May 13, 1991 the previously mentioned group of pilots founded Brothers to the Rescue with the objective of searching for rafters in the Florida Straits, getting them water and food, and rescued. Armando and Pablo were observers who would fly with the pilots and look out for the rafters below. The core group of the organization was made up of 70 pilots, observers and volunteers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, England, France, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, the United States, and Venezuela.

In addition to the humanitarian mission, Brothers to the Rescue in November of 1995 took a two-day course at the Florida Martin Luther King Institute for Nonviolence and marched in the King Day parade in 1996. On February 8, 1996 The Miami Times reported “that this group has come around to the belief that change can be brought about in Cuba in the same way that it was brought about by Dr. King in the United States.” The Miami Times concluded in the editorial “Spreading King’s Message” that “In throwing Dr. King's principle into the volatile mix of Cuban exile politics, Brothers to the Rescue is showing a willingness to be creative. But it is unlikely to accomplish much until there is wider commitment in the exile community and leaders emerge who are willing to do as Dr. King did and stake their lives on their belief.”

Coretta Scott King and Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue
A legacy of freedom
Armando, Mario, Carlos and Pablo risked their lives in the Florida Straits to rescue Cuban rafters and at the same time Brothers to the Rescue challenged the Cuban exile community to abandon a failed violent approach in order to embrace strategic nonviolence following the path laid out by Martin Luther King Jr. The end result was that Brothers to the Rescue saved more than 4,200 men, women, and children ranging from a five-day old infant to a 79 years old man, and the rescue of thousands of others during the refugee crisis of 1994.

Two rafters holding plastic container & letter thrown down by BTTR pilots. (BTTR Archives)
At the same time the organization served as a bridge between a nonviolent civic movement inside of Cuba and an exile community seeking a different approach after the failure of armed resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. These are the reasons why these four risked and lost so much when they were extrajudicially executed on the orders of the Castro brothers on February 24, 1996. They did not die in vain and their martyrdom is remembered inside and outside of Cuba and will continue to be so wherever free Cubans gather.

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