IN the Security Council, the item under final consideration was entitled 'The Shooting Down of Two Civil Aircraft on 24 February'. Two days later, the General Assembly discussed the same issue, now recast as 'Item 140: United Nations Decade for International Law'. The US had hoped for a full-scale diplomatic show-down _ but however much power Washington may wield in the Security Council, the South-led General Assembly is not yet the OK Corral.
For the US, the crisis began on 24 February, when two of three Cessna 337s piloted by Miami-based Cuban exiles from the militant anti-Castro organisation Brothers to the Rescue were shot down by Cuban fighter jets inside the airspace of Cuba's territorial waters. But for Cuba the crisis had begun long before. Violations of Cuba's national airspace by US-based planes have a long history. In his General Assembly speech Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina reported that from 'South Florida, exactly as nowadays, one of the first acts of violence against the Cuban Revolution originated on 21 October 1959, when small pirate airplanes dropped subversive propaganda and bombed the capital of the country, an aggression that cost our people valuable lives.'
More recently, just in the 20 months from May 1994 until January 1996, the Cuban government reported (and officially protested to the US Interest Section in Havana) 25 separate violations of airspace by Brothers to the Rescue alone, each flight coming from the United States. Earlier incidents, including two in 1992 and 1994 by Cessnas identical to those involved in the recent events, involved unauthorised flights over restricted Cuban zones where military training was underway, with what Cuban authorities called 'the risk of provoking accidents of unpredictable consequences'. The Cuban government insured, however, that no such accidents occurred, and its opposition to the continued violations was limited to diplomatic protests to US authorities.
But in early 1996 the provocations escalated. On 9 and 13 January, planes belonging to and piloted by Brothers to the Rescue flew directly over Havana, dropping leaflets calling on the population to revolt against the Cuban government. When they returned to the US, the exile organisation publicised their actions throughout the US media. As in the past, Havana lodged an official protest with the US government. But Cuba realised that the stakes were increasing, and according to Robaina, 'we actually begged the United States government to do all in its power to prevent those flights, which violated not only our laws but also the laws of the United States. It was an additional and special request. We can certify that our persistent request reached even the highest instances of the Government of the United States responsible for taking decisions. We were assured that everything possible would be done to prevent it.'
It was clear that at least some US authorities were not pleased with the escalating provocations by the counter-revolutionary Cuban-Americans. In a series of diplomatic notes from the summer of 1995, the State Department indicated its concern with past and planned actions of Brothers to the Rescue. On 5 October in Note 553, the US Interest Section in Havana advised the Cuban Government that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had accused the organisation's leader of 'having violated federal aviation regulation (FAR 91-703) by piloting an airplane with US registration number within a foreign country without complying with the regulations of that country, and regulation 91-13 by negligently or recklessly piloting an airplane, thus endangering other people's lives and property'.
The president of the Association of Cuban-American Pilots, Jorge Dorrbecker, told the Mexican news agency Notimex that FAA authorities had issued new warnings three weeks earlier regarding intrusions into Cuban air space. 'All pilots were warned,' he said, 'that if they trespassed Parallel 24 [the limit of Cuban territorial water] without a flight program, the Cuban Government would not be responsible for their personal safety.'
But ultimately US officials did nothing. Whatever the concerns of the aviation authorities, the political and electoral considerations that guide Washington's Cuba policy remained pre-eminent, and the US did nothing to actually stop the illegal flights. And by now both public and official outrage in Cuba was high, and the government in Havana gave instructions to the Cuban Air Force that future events like those of 9 and 13 January 'could by no means be tolerated'..........
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