A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.
On February 24, 1996, a lamentable event took place in front of the Malecón in Havana. Two small planes belonging to a terrorist group in Miami were shot down by anti-aircraft defenses when they violated Cuban national territory. Dozens of similar violations had taken place that year and the government had publicly warned it would not tolerate repetitions of such actions.
The event greatly increased tensions between the United States and Cuba and was the subject of intense debates within the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the UN Security Council.
On May 7, 1999 — more than three years and two months after the event– the government of the United States, irresponsibly and capriciously, used the incident and turned it into Count No. 3, Conspiracy to Commit Murder, against Gerardo Hernández Nordelo alone.
The proceedings against the Five focused mostly on this charge. To this accusation the court devoted most of its sessions, experts and witnesses Relatives of the men who lost their lives on February 24 were present every day in the courtroom, made public demonstrations, and gave press conferences right then and there in front of the members of the jury.
This issue was the focus of the media campaign. Thousands of articles and comments were produced about it for the press, radio and television.
Strangely, the media paid great attention to Count No. 3 even before it existed. It can be stated without a doubt that the charge was the result of a conspiracy between the government and the terrorist groups responsible for the event. In this conspiracy, the “journalists” paid by the government had a decisive role.
In September 1998, when the FBI arrested the Five, the US Attorney pressed charges against the accused. Count 3 was not there, there was no mention of aircraft incidents, shot-down planes or anything of the sort. The accusation against Gerardo was added more than seven months later when he and his comrades were in solitary confinement, isolated from the world, in their first visit to “The Hole” that lasted 17 months.
An analysis of the Miami press between September 1998 and May 1999 is evidence of the previous statement. We can find many declarations by leaders of terrorists groups widely spread and amplified by “journalists”, asking the government to add the new allegation. Among other things we can read extensive information on the meetings between prosecutors and terrorists, from which the “Second Superseding Indictment” would emerge to take the place of the first and include Count 3.
A reading of both documents from the US Attorney would make any self-respecting journalist be surprised and feel an obligation to enquire. According to these documents, the FBI had managed to discover who Gerardo Hernández Nordelo was really, and what he was doing in the United States, at least since 1994, more than two years before the 1996 incident. They had been able to decipher his communications with Havana; they knew what he was doing and what he was being instructed to do. Thus, they did not act against Gerardo and his comrades, because they knew his work was not at all damaging to the US or the American people.
They also knew that Gerardo had nothing to do with the 1996 events. In those days, there was a great uproar, not only in Miami, but also in Washington. Bill Clinton, the president at the time, has written that he had received proposals even of a military attack against Cuba. The more aggressive groups in South Florida ranted night and day, calling for war. The complicity of these groups with the local FBI is well-known. Can anyone believe they would have done nothing against “the culprit” for the shooting down of the planes? That they would have done nothing against him if they had had him right there, surveilled by the FBI, in Miami?
And Cuba? None of the communications between Havana and Gerardo, in the FBI’s possession and presented at the trial, suggest that there was even the slightest concern about his safety or the need to protect him from the risks he could face if he had had any participation in the incident. Gerardo continued his work in Miami for almost three more years. He came to Cuba for vacation and nobody thought he should stay here to protect his life.
When he was arrested in September 1998, he was not charged with anything related to the 1996 events simply because the FBI knew, at least since 1994, what Gerardo was doing and therefore knew he had nothing to do with that unfortunate incident.
However, in 1999 they came up with the unbelievable slander of accusing him of first degree murder – with malice aforethought – and they did this – the FBI, that is, the government– to satisfy the wishes of the terrorist mafia and their lip-servicing buddies in the media who were also on the government payroll.
So weak was the charge that the US Attorney understood later they could not prove it and asked to withdraw it. This would have made front page news in any other case, but not in the case against the Five.
A FABRICATED “MURDER” II
No 3, added in May 1999, against Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, almost
eight months after his incarceration is based on a false –more than
false, absurd’- premise: the made-up existence of a Cuban Government
plan to attack US planes in international airspace. This is equivalent
to saying that Cuba wanted a military confrontation with its powerful
neighbor. Can anybody believe that such was the intention of a country
that had never attacked anyone and, at that moment, was going through
the worst economic crisis in its history? What could it win from a war
with the United States?
The first problem in fabricating something so feverish is that there
is plenty of documentation proving exactly the opposite. Apart from
denouncing it publicly, Cuba protested through diplomatic notes each
violation of its territory. These notes requested Washington to act in
order to prevent repetitions of such actions. Simultaneously, we
conducted discreet contacts at very high level with the State Department
and the White House where we expressed our concern and requested their
help to avoid a confrontation. President Fidel Castro personally
participated in these efforts. Bill Clinton promised the provocations
would not be repeated.
In response to our diplomatic notes, the State Department informed us
they had started the process to take away the pilot´s license of Jose
Basulto –the leader of the group of provocateurs– and asked for
additional information, which they received and formally acknowledged in
Mr. Basulto, by the way, took his stupidity as far as declaring
openly that the deterioration of Cuba’s economy was such that the
country had no means to protect its borders, and promised to continue
February 24, 1996 was a lukewarm and sunny
day: a pleasant Saturday when nobody could foresee the tragedy. Along
the Malecón many were watching a speedboat competition. Others were
busily preparing the penultimate parade of the carnival. Many others
were heading to the stadium to enjoy a decisive baseball game in which
the team of the capital would be facing its main rival. At the
University we had just celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the creation of the Revolutionary Directorate of FEU (Federation of University Students) and at noon, old combatants and students were celebrating the date together along the shore.
Thousands of Havana residents were involved in these various
activities, carefree, without the hint of an idea that, somewhere beyond
the sea, somebody was planning to fly over the city to confirm the
foolish hypothesis of our helplessness.
Others, across the Florida Channel, did know what was about to
happen. According to the information Washington would later hand out to
the delegation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
that investigated the incident, the State Department had asked an
official to be in permanent contact with the Opalocka Airport before the
fatidic flight took off. Afterwards, when the National Transportation
Safety Board, discussed the issue –because they finally took away
Basulto’s license- an official by the name of Houlihan, in charge of
monitoring the US radars from the control center in California,
testified that a few weeks earlier and the day before February 24, he
had been alerted by Washington to watch carefully the flights of
Basulto’s group on the 24th, because there was going to be an incident.
Somebody knew what might happen, but did nothing to prevent it –as was his duty– nor alerted Cuba.
Yes, there was a plan, but it was not a plan of the Cuban Government and much less of Gerardo Hernández Nordelo.
Gerardo probably was, as many fans of the Industriales [the baseball
team of Cuba´s capital city] waiting to see his team win. He did not
know, as nobody else in Cuba did, of the incoming airborne provocation.
He could not have guessed that what others were planning would be having
so serious consequences for him.
He knew nothing of what was going to happen on that day. He could not have imagined that this beautiful early spring afternoon would, years later, be transformed into
the infamous slander that would drive him through a real hell.
A Fabricated “Murder” III
A Strange Investigation
On March 6, 1996, at its headquarters in Montreal, the International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council designated a commission to
carry out an “investigation on the February 24 incident in all its
aspects, taking into account all the factors that conditioned the
incident and led to it” and charged the commission with the presentation
of a report 60 days later. On March 19, the president of the
commission sent a communiqué to the governments of Cuba and the United
States indicating the data and information that would be required, while
simultaneously requesting permission to visit both countries.
Cuba responded immediately and received the investigators a few days
later, on March 24. The commission worked intensely until the 31st of that month. From there, it went on to Washington, from April 2 to 4, and to Miami, from April 14 to 19.
But by May 6, the report wasn’t ready. The Commission could only
report what it had done during its visits to the two countries and had
to ask for an additional month to collect the information that remained
What had happened? With respect to Cuba, the commission stated the
following: “by March 30, 1996 the Cuban authorities had fully met all
the requests formulated by this team regarding interviews and
declarations by civilian and military personnel involved, interviews and
declarations by witnesses, civilian and military data, documents and
letters, as well as communications registers and transcripts.” In regard
to the United States, however, it mentioned that it had met with
authorities on a number of occasions, had met with only one witness –
José Basulto – and was still waiting to receive US radar data. Even at
that level it had still not been handed over.
The ICAO, of course, extended the commission’s mandate for another
month, until June 6. But by the second week of June, the report had
still not appeared. The Council continued to wait and the Commission did
not present its report until the end of June, to be considered at the
last meeting of the Council before its summer recess.
What the Commission had done after it left Havana, the only place
where it was able to collect all the necessary information three months
earlier, was also evident. According to the final report, the
Commission did not return to Washington or Miami. It met only with US
officials, in Montreal, on May 2, 3, 6, 7 and 9, and again on June 3 and
4. One need not be an oracle to figure out that these secret conclaves
facilitated the final drafting of the report.
Even the data from the US radar stations was surprising. From one,
the data had been destroyed, from another it was lost, from others it
was confused, while generally coinciding with Washington’s official
version, which was that the event had occurred outside Cuban airspace,
although very near to it.
In Cuba, certainly, not only did the investigators receive radar data
promptly, they also visited installations, checked equipment and
interviewed operators. They were unable to do anything of the kind on
the US side.
In view of the circumstances, the ICAO commission decided to forget
the radar information. In a moment of rare lucidity, it asked
Washington to deliver the images taken by its special satellites. But
the request was rejected. Although it made no complaint, the ICAO
recorded the curious negative response.
Instead, the commission preferred to use the captain – of Norwegian origin but resident in Miami – of the Majesty of the Seas, a tourist cruise line that, it was said, had been in the area on the day of the incident. He was made available thanks to the kind selection
of US authorities, who recommended him and set up the meeting. No
other crew or passengers were interviewed. The commission chose, as
though at random, the visual observation of a person who said that the
downing had occurred ootside the Cuban airspace. The investigators were
prudent enough to clarify that they had been unable to make an
independent determination of the real location of Majesty of the Seas.
But they did not mention that this ship belonged to a company located
in Miami and that its owners and executives were among the founders and
largest donors to the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the
main promoter of anti-Cuban terrorism, and the group that provoked the
incident on February 24, 1996. Nor did they recall that in a report on
the CANF published in 1995 by the New York Times, the same Majesty of the Seas boss had said “We want to help the Cuban community here in their efforts to move Mr. Castro out.”
In effect, the intrepid sailor lost no time making good on his promise.