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Cuba’s Downing of 2 U.S. Civilian Airplanes

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The U.N. Security Council is pushing for the U.S. to place blame on Cuba. Cuba accuses the U.S. of lying and says they can prove the planes were inside Cuban airspace at the time. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry was responding directly to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s statements that the planes were over international waters at the time. Cuba says it has a pilot from Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based pilots’ group whose planes were involved in the incident.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Cuba today accused the U.S. government of lying and says it has unequivocal proof that two U.S. civilian planes it shot down Saturday were inside Cuban airspace at the time. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry was responding directly to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said yesterday the planes were in international waters when they were downed.

In addition, Cuba says it has a pilot from the, quote, “group of violators which have carried out so many actions against our country.” The Cuban statement did not specifically say this person was one of the four pilots aboard the downed planes or that he had been picked up at sea. No survivors have been reported so far. The wording indicates the Cuban authorities have with them a member of the Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami-based volunteer pilots’ group whose planes had been involved in Saturday’s incident. The statement said, “Up to a few hours ago, he was with them. The pilot knows a lot.” Foreign diplomats in Havana say it was possible the Cubans were preparing to present a member of the Brothers to the Rescue group who up to now had been working with the group in Miami but was in fact a Cuban government agent.

Joining us to talk about what is going on right now in Cuba and here, and its ramifications for presidential politics, are four people. We’re joined by Miguel Nunez of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. Because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Cuba Interest Section is part of the Swiss Embassy. We’re also joined in the studio by retired Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information. We’re joined also in the studio by Saul Landau, Saul Landau who is a Pacifica news analyst and a Cuba expert. And also on the phone, speaking to us from the Mexican-U.S. border is Reverend Lucius Walker, who is founder of Pastors for Peace, and he is stuck at the border, part of a fast right now, in the sixth day of a hunger fast protesting the fact that U.S. Customs agents have seized 400 computers that his “Cuba Caravan” has been attempting to get to Cuba.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Miguel Nunez of the Cuban Interest Section. Tell us what is the latest. What is your government saying?

MIGUEL NUNEZ: Well, many thanks for this opportunity. I’d like the listeners could excuse my English.

No, I believe that your commentary was accurate. And the reality is that we have proof that the planes were shot down in our airspace, our national airspace, inside of our 12 miles according with our sovereignty. And as in the past, never Cuba told or said lies about the actions. We are responsible — we assume the responsibility for all of our actions in defense of our sovereignty as a country. And as the international community and the people in the United States know, in every opportunity that we could have any kind of confrontation or difficulties with the United States or in other situations, never our country could tell lies or could tell untrue reports about any kind of situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Some are saying that if these planes entered airspace of Cuba, you could have forced them down rather than shot them out of the sky.

MIGUEL NUNEZ: Well, the phenomena with this situation is very awful, because we are in a — during more than two years, we insist we informed, sent diplomatic notes to the United States, put it — put a warning in our media about this provocateur actions that is unaffectable for us. If you take into consideration that in 1994 we report six illegal actions, violations of our airspace, and we report in 1995 two, and more recently, 1996, we report two in January, on January 9th and January 13, that is not only in our waters, it’s intruded — they’re saying that in 1995 over our land, over the Havana province, it’s not fine to tell us that we don’t try to start — or, not to start, to apply the trends, a dissuasive action against all of this provocateurs, terrorist group, that, as you know, during 37 years developed a different kind of actions against of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Miguel Nunez is of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. And in just a minute, we’re going to ask Saul Landau about the history of this group, Brothers to the Rescue, what their record is in Cuba. But I wanted to turn for a minute to retired Admiral Eugene Carroll with the Center for Defense Information, who just a few weeks ago was in Cuba meeting with high-level Cuban officials. In fact, weren’t you asked about the possibility of them shooting down one of these planes?

EUGENE CARROLL: Yes. On the 8th of February, in a discussion with General Rosales del Toro, the chief of staff of the Cuban military, we covered a lot of subjects, but one of them turned out to be: What would happen if we shot down one of these intruding aircraft? And my answer to them was it would be a disaster for Cuba, that public opinion would turn against them, and it would possibly cost them heavily in a political or economic sense. By the way, I brought that information back to Washington that they were at least talking about it, thinking about it. And clearly, the record shows that they have informed our government over and over and over again about these incursions and that they resent them and want them to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, of course, is from the U.S. military. What do you think the U.S. military would do if a Cuban plane came into our airspace?

EUGENE CARROLL: That’s a very good question, and the answer is, the United States isn’t threatened by Cuba. If a plane wandered into our airspace, we wouldn’t really feel we were being threatened in any military sense. And I doubt that we would shoot down an intruding unarmed aircraft. It just isn’t our style or in our ethic.

The Cubans, on the other hand, are under siege, as they see it. You have to look at it from their point of view. They think the United States is preparing to invade Cuba. They see our reconnaissance planes patrolling all the time, collecting intelligence from Cuba. They see our actions militarily elsewhere. They can’t make sense out of this, unless the U.S. is intending to attack Cuba. So these planes are just part of a much bigger picture of threat, as the Cubans see it.

AMY GOODMAN: I was thinking about the Iranian airbus — what, it was a number of years ago — that the U.S. shot down with the USS Vincennes. Now, that wasn’t U.S. airspace, but it was a large civilian plane where hundreds of people were killed.

EUGENE CARROLL: Yeah. The fact is that was a professional error. They received certain information, misinterpreted it and attacked with the missiles, thinking that it was possibly an F-14 fighter plane attacking their ship. So, that isn’t a very good analogy.

I might give you one that is, however. Some years ago, we were operating in the Gulf of Sirte in the Mediterranean, and two Libyan aircraft flew out of Libya into international waters. They took no hostile actions. They had threatened nobody in the United States. But we shot them down because we declared them hostile. Now, this show that hostility apparently lies in the eye of the beholder. And clearly, the Cubans, in this case, interpreted the actions of the Brothers to the Rescue as hostile to Cuban interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Brothers to the Rescue. Saul Landau, a Cuba expert, has done several films on Cuba and written numerous articles. Who is this group?

SAUL LANDAU: Well, I hate to be called an expert on anything. I think of Ely Culbertson, a bridge expert, you know.

But anyway, Brothers to the Rescue was formed back in 1994, ostensibly for the purpose of seeking out the rafters who were leaving Cuba in the late spring and the summer of 1994 to escape to the United States because, mainly, economic conditions had become intolerable in Cuba for many people at that time, and the United States had this welcome mat laid out, saying any Cuban who arrives here doesn’t have to go through the normal procedure of any other immigrant. You come right in, and you’re given a green card fast and so on. So, Brothers to the Rescue, ostensibly, were overflying international waters to spot rafters, and then, of course, notified the Coast Guard or appropriate vessels to pick them up so they wouldn’t drown or be eaten by sharks.

However, some of their statements, and certainly their actions, indicate that they had more than a humanitarian agenda, that they had a political agenda. And very simply, that agenda was to overthrow the government of Cuba, to provoke the government of Cuba. And I think that one of the tactics that has been played out for a long time now is to create an incident whereby the United States Armed Forces are drawn into this conflict, which is the only way that some of these sectors in Miami see of arriving as heads of government in Cuba. And I’m talking specifically about Jorge Mas Canosa, the head of the Cuban American National Foundation, whose relationship with Brothers to the Rescue is more than close.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Saul Landau from the Institute for Policy Studies and a Pacifica commentator here. You know, looking at how this fits into presidential politics, Republican presidential candidates Robert Dole and Patrick Buchanan both accused the administration of pursuing a soft-on-Cuba policy. I want to bring Reverend Lucius Walker into this conversation. You can hear the fuzziness of the phone. You can hear the static there, as he stands at a payphone on the U.S.-Mexico border, where he and a group of others are in the midst of a hunger fast. They’re on their sixth day. They’ve entered it because the U.S. Customs officials have confiscated 400 computers that they’re attempting to bring into Cuba. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reverend Walker.

REV. LUCIUS WALKER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe President Clinton’s policy as soft on Cuba?

REV. LUCIUS WALKER: That’s not been our perception — of course, relative to what may be the rest of that question. We think that there is no clear indication that President Clinton is moving towards normalization of relations or ending the blockade. And it would appear that his position in the presidential election period, or the campaign period, is to try to appear a little on the tough side and to throw some crumbs to the Cuban right wing in an effort to win the Florida primary and, ultimately, to have their support for the presidency.

We think it’s unfortunate that domestic politics is really interfering in a fairly significant, in our judgment, international policy issue, which could have been resolved years ago, early on in Clinton’s administration. I think he had a golden foreign policy opportunity when he was not really distinguishing himself by foreign policy and could have had this issue behind him. But, unfortunately, he didn’t, and now it plagues all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just describe in a minute what has happened to you and the people that you’ve been with in this Cuba Caravan both in California, as you attempt to go down through Mexico to Cuba, and in Vermont in this past two months?

REV. LUCIUS WALKER: Since January 31st, on three separate occasions — two in California, one in Vermont — we have had well over 800 people involved in the effort to deliver approximately 400 computers to Cuba as a part of their INFOMED, a educational informational system, which would link all of their hospitals online for the purpose of providing inventory information and technical information for operations and — for surgical operations and hospital procedures. In the past, we have delivered computers for this system and computers for educational systems and for use by churches.

The government response on this occasion has been to throw the most massive show of force we have ever seen. In fact, I’ve not seen this kind of force since the height of the civil rights struggle. We estimate over 1,000 forces from various departments and agencies used sophisticated surveillance equipment, helicopters, various specialized operations of trying to infiltrate. We threw out at least four persons that we suspected were being agents provocateurs, one of whom showed up at the Vermont border in uniform. So, we’ve been under siege, as it were, by our own government and two different states, agencies from two different states.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to —

REV. LUCIUS WALKER: And they’ve confiscated all of the computers. And we’re now in the sixth day, as you said, of the fast for life, which we intend to continue until the computers are released.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Lucius Walker, we just have a minute. We want to give people last comments. Let’s go to Saul Landau. Saul, what about President Clinton’s Cuba policy? You think this will be a major issue in the presidential campaign?

SAUL LANDAU: I don’t think it’ll last through the presidential campaign. The Florida primary is March 12th. But the policy is the same policy. It’s crisis management. There is no Cuba policy. The Cuba policy was privatized back about 15 years ago by President Reagan. And President Clinton has never been able to seize control of that policy. The only time things happen is when crises occur and he is forced to respond. And until he takes charge or some president takes back that policy out of the hands of private forces and out of the hands of congressional toadies who are paid off by those private forces, things aren’t really going to change with Cuba as Cuba policy, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, would you describe President Clinton as soft on Cuba?

EUGENE CARROLL: No, he’s not soft on Cuba. He’s very courteous and supportive of the Cuban émigrés who want to see Castro out of office. The lesson, I think, that should come from this tragic event — the loss of four lives, apparently — is that our policy toward Cuba is a failure. It isn’t really a policy. It’s a domestic political issue. And we should be taking positive and constructive steps now to restore a form of normal relations with Cuba in order to prevent unnecessary events, violence in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Miguel Nunez, we have 15 seconds. Your response?

MIGUEL NUNEZ: Well, if you see the situation now, it’s not easy to say that President Clinton is happy with Cuba. I think it’s not possible to permit that little group of people in Miami —

AMY GOODMAN: On that —

MIGUEL NUNEZ: — to dictate the foreign policy of the United States toward Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we want to thank you very much for joining us, Miguel Nunez, Eugene Carroll, Reverend Lucius Walker and Saul Landau. That’s it for today’s edition of Democracy Now! Tomorrow, a look at how anti-immigrant sentiment is steering the Arizona primary and how anti-gay and anti-abortion politics will play out in South and North Dakota. I’m Amy Goodman. Join me again tomorrow for another edition of Democracy Now!

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