Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remembering some of the victims of Cuban communism: Four victims of the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue Shootdown

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

Murdered by the Castro regime on February 24, 1996
 Some psychologists argue that as the number of victims increase into the hundreds, and thousands that compassion collapses out of the human fear of being overwhelmed. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin put it more succinctly: "When one man dies it's a tragedy. When thousands die it's statistics." In the case of Cuba the communist regime has killed tens of thousands, and many have become numb in the face of this horror. Therefore on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first communist regime in Russia, that caused so much harm around the world, will focus on the small corner of Cuba and on an infinitesimal sampling of some of the victims of Cuban communism.

In this fourth entry will focus on an act of state terrorism that could have ended in an armed conflict between the Castro regime and the Clinton Administration. Four men were killed for trying to save lives in the Florida Straits in 1996 in an elaborate conspiracy carried out by Cuban communists involving espionage and Cuban warplanes.

Previous entries in this series where about Cubans trying to change the system nonviolently. The first entry concerned Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a humble bricklayer turned courageous human rights defender who paid the ultimate price in 2010 for speaking truth to power. The second entry focused on Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, a Catholic lay activist, nonviolence icon, husband, father of three and the founder of a Cuban opposition movement that shook up the Castro regime with a petition drive demanding that human rights be respected and recognized in Cuba. This action and speaking truth to power led to his extrajudicial killing in 2012. The
third entry focused on one of the great crimes of the Castro regime that has been well documented by international human rights organizations and reported on ABC News Nightline that claimed the lives of 37 men, women, and children. They were trying to flee the despotism in Cuba to live in freedom and were extrajudicially executed.

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

Who were they? The four individuals who were killed represented all aspects of the Cuban diaspora: Armando Alejandre Jr, a child who arrived with his parents from Cuba in 1960, Carlos Costa, born in Miami Beach in 1966 and Mario Manuel de la Peña, born in New Jersey in 1971 the children of Cuban exiles. Pablo Morales 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.  

15-year-old Gregorio Perez Ricardo in 1991
 How and why Brothers to the Rescue formed
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 shocked the moral imagination of several pilots. This was not an isolated event. Academics Holly Ackerman and Juan Clark, in the 1995 monograph The Cuban Balseros: Voyage of Uncertainty reported that “as many as 100,000 Cuban rafters may have perished trying to leave Cuba.” Anecdotal evidence documents that some of them were victims of the Cuban border patrol using sand bags and snipers against defenseless rafters. 

It was within this context that on May 13, 1991 Brothers to the Rescue was founded with the aim of searching for rafters in the Florida Straits, getting them water, food, and rescued. In December of 1993 Brothers to the Rescue inaugurated their permanent hangar naming it after Gregorio.

Brothers to the Rescue by November of 1995 was collaborating with the Florida Martin Luther King Institute for Non-violence and took part 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.”

Coretta Scott King and Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue
 Why the Castro brothers wanted to destroy Brothers to the Rescue
They 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 both the failed violent resistance and appeasement approaches in order to embrace strategic nonviolence.  This path followed the way of Martin Luther King Jr. with both civil disobedience and a constructive program. What was the end result? Brothers to the Rescue saved more than 4,200 men, women, and children ranging from a five-day old infant to a 79 year old man, and rescued thousands more during the 1994 refugee crisis.
One year after the July 13, 1994 tugboat massacre in which 37 men, women and children were killed Cuban exiles organized a flotilla to travel in a civic non-violent manner to the spot six miles off the Havana coastline where the "13 de Marzo" tugboat had been attacked and sunk to hold a religious service for the victims. The Brothers to the Rescue overflight of Havana, where they dropped bumper stickers in Spanish that read "Comrades No. Brothers" was in response to Cuban gunboats ramming the lead boat of the flotilla.

Brothers to the Rescue also served as a bridge between a nonviolent civic movement inside of Cuba and an exile community seeking a different approach. Cuban dissidents announced on October 10, 1995 the intention to hold a national gathering of the opposition in Cuba on February 24, 1996. The coalition of over a 160 groups named themselves the Cuban Council. Brothers to the Rescue in an open and transparent manner sent $2,000 of privately raised assistance to this coalition on February 13, 1996. In the days leading up to February 24 over a 180 dissidents were imprisoned in a nationwide crackdown. 
Humanitarian supplies provided by Brothers to the Rescue
The events surrounding the February 24, 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down began weeks in advance with the dictatorship planning out the shoot down and using its spy networks to obtain information to carry out this act of state terrorism while blaming the victims in the media coverage. It was a conspiracy to destroy Brothers to the Rescue while at the same time taking attention away from a crack down on a national gathering of the democratic opposition in Cuba. This was taking place in the midst of a profound crisis for the Castro regime following the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 and a warming relationship in 1994 between the Clinton administration and the Cuban dictatorship that included secret joint military exercises. However, none of this changed the brutal nature of the Cuban dictatorship in how it dealt with Cubans on the island or the continuing hostility of the Castro regime for the United States.  
Castro brothers planned out the February 24, 1996 shoot down
Two Cuban intelligence agents infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, providing information to the Castro regime on the group, disinformation to the FBI, and their Cuban spy ring leader, Gerardo Hernandez warned the two infiltrated agents not to fly during a four-day period that included the day of the premeditated attack. Six days before the attack a Cuban pilot saw Cuban MiGs rehearsing the shoot down.  
On February 24, 1996 at 3:21pm and 3:27pm two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by two Cuban MiGs over international airspace killing four. Two more MIG’s chased a third plane to within three minutes of downtown Key West, but that plane made it back and provided critical information on what had occurred.
The Brothers to the Rescue shoot down case in the U.S. courts
U.S. courts found the Cuban government guilty of premeditation in the February 24, 1996 shoot down. Family members of the four men have over the past twenty years pursued and continue to pursue justice. They have had concrete results.
  1. On November 14, 1997 U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King found Cuba guilty in civil court of planning the shoot down before the actual attack, and noted that there had been ample time to issue warnings to the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft if these had been needed. 
  2.  A jury in criminal court presided by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard on June 10, 2001 found Cuban spy Gerardo Hernandez guilty of conspiracy to commit murder because of his role in providing information to the Cuban government on the flight plans of Brothers to the Rescue. 
  3. On August 21, 2003 a U.S. grand jury indicted the two fighter pilots and their commanding general on murder charges for the 1996 shoot down. Indictments were returned against General Ruben Martinez Puente, who at the time headed the Cuban Air Force, and fighter pilots Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez. The defendants were charged with four counts of murder, one count of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and two counts of destruction of aircraft. They are still at large.
There has been a lack of political will on behalf of the The White House to pursue justice in the premeditated, extrajudicial murders of these four men. The Obama administration commuted the double life sentence of Gerardo Hernandez, the one man actually imprisoned for conspiracy to commit murder in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down on December 17, 2014 setting him free and returning him to Cuba. Nevertheless, the families of Armando, Mario, Carlos and Pablo continue their struggle for memory, truth, and justice on behalf of their loved ones. This means “the indictments of the military officials involved, from Raul Castro, Minister of the Armed Forces, down the military chain of command” and documenting what happened.

Source for additional information
Official page of Brothers to the Rescue on the shoot down
Official page of the Families of Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo

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