Remembering a Cuban Tragedy

Mention the word "Cuba" in the United States and many people will immediately think of Bacardi, Montecristos and Guaguanco. To others, Cuba conjures images of Elian Gonzlez, the poor boy who has been the focus of an emotional tug-of-war. And to those who look forward to his deportation, perhaps images of Fidel Castro, Ch Guevara, and the wonders of Communism parade in their minds.

Nevertheless, yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of a tragedy that may be but a blur, if even that, in the mental landscapes of many people. On February 24, 1996, at 3:21 p.m., two unarmed civilian planes were shot down by Cuban MiG's in international water space over the Florida Straits. The four pilots, three American citizens and one legal alien, were members of a humanitarian group called Brothers to the Rescue. In more than 1,800 missions over the last nine years, the group has assisted the Coast Guard in locating desperate refugees and saving them from a watery grave.

Four years ago, Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario de la Pea, Pablo Morales, along with Jose Basulto, the group's leader, set out for a typical search and rescue mission. But only Basulto's plane would return. As reported on the Brothers' website (), the planes "identified themselves with Cuban radar control as was customary and continued to radio their position to Havana tower periodically throughout the flight.

"Without warning, and while flying in international waters, two of the planes were shot down by Cuban MiGs. These were brutal, premeditated murders committed without warning and in broad daylight. A complete disregard for the values and rights of human lives and the principles of international law and civilized societies. The four men killed in this heinous attack were volunteers of Brothers to the Rescue and committed to individual freedom, human rights and non-violence."

Beyond the assault on American planes, controversy still surrounds specifics of that day: How much did the United States government know before Feb. 24? Why weren't the pilots aided by U.S. planes, who were already in the vicinity, on alert? Why was notification from a U.S. Customs officer in California's March Air Force Base, the equivalent of a 911 call, brushed off by the commanding officer at the Southeast Air Defense Sector at Tyndall Air Force Base, who was also monitoring radar reports? These questions stem from testimony given before the National Transportation Safety Board on June 27, 1996, yet further delays and equivocations by the Clinton Administration have provoked the anger and frustration of the Cuban-American community and especially of Brothers to the Rescue and the families of those slain. When will we see justice?

I urge the campus to take a few moments and remember that day. Six minutes were all it took to murder four innocent men, one of them just older than some seniors on campus. How many seniors here would ever be willing to risk their lives to save others adrift at sea, hoping to reach a land where basic freedoms are taken for granted, fleeing a country where political prisoners are beaten and detained unfairly in decrepit prisons?

Remember, Cuba is more than the rum, cigars and music. There are issues that loom larger than a child custody battle. Regardless of what you see at Cultural Rhythms this weekend, as you pass by the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association's table of Cuban cuisine and listen to music playing in the background, realize that bittersweet mementos will never assuage the hurt of a people under the scourge of a tyrant.

Jorge Alex Alvarez '01 is the co-president of the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association.

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