Last Thanksgiving Day I flew my small plane to Cuba loaded with medical donations from the United States. To get permission, I had to overcome considerable nervousness from Cuban authorities. They feared my flight would open a way for more U.S.-sponsored provocation by private pilots, such as the events that led to the shootdown of two planes by Cuba in 1996.
Although a United Nations investigation faulted Cuba for not using means, such as more-effective radio communication, to avoid the shootdown, what has not been widely re- ported is how the U.S. government might have prevented the shootdown by enforcing its own laws. Now, five years later, the case is in a Miami courtroom, where defense attorney Paul McKenna says that his client, accused Cuban spy Gerardo Hernán- dez, is a scapegoat in the shootdown and that José Basulto, the leader of the Brothers to the Rescue, is really to blame. If convicted, Hernández could receive a life sentence.
The American public deserves to know all the facts about the shootdown. On July 11, 1995, the Federal Aviation Administration met with Basulto and warned him that if he violated Cubas territorial airspace, he would suffer ``serious consequences'' and that any violations would be ``vigorously investigated.'' Yet two days later, Basulto was on Miami television bragging about his illegal exploits, calling them ``civil disobedience.''
Viewers saw him ``roaring over Havana at rooftop level,'' as described by the on-board TV reporter, dropping propaganda leaflets and religious medals, which seriously could have injured people below. A Cuban fighter plane flying above him took no action, even though Basulto was flying in a manner later described by the FAA as reckless or careless ``so as to endanger the life and property'' of others.
Unfortunately, the FAA failed to carry out any of its warnings. For example, it delayed the investigation for more than a month while it translated Cubas documentation of the incident, and it never contacted the journalist on board Basultos plane.
We may never know if the tragic shootdown seven months later might have been averted had the FAA exercised its authority to revoke Basulto's pilot's license or seize his aircraft. Despite Cubas numerous warnings that it would shoot down any intruding aircraft, the Brothers continued their efforts to destabilize the Cuban government by flying into airspace controlled by Cuba and dropping political leaflets into the island.
On that ill-fated day, the pilots deviated from their filed flight plan without notifying the aviation authorities. This deviation in flight plan made the Cubans nervous because the aircraft were heading directly toward Havana instead of along the coastline of Cuba as they had promised.
According to the U.N. report, the pilots acknowledged that they were warned in Miami through the FAA and in the air by the Cubans that they would be flying into airspace under Cuban control and ``activated'' by Cuban military during that period. Although all three aircraft were equipped with sophisticated GPS navigational systems, they intruded directly into the activated area.
Basulto told the U.N. investigators that he did not violate Cuba's territorial airspace, but the U.N. report states that radar recordings from both countries showed otherwise. Basulto managed to evade a shootdown by the Cuban military aircraft, but the other two aircraft were not as fortunate.
Rather than point the finger at the Brothers or the FAA for the shootdown, the United States called on the U.N. to condemn Cuba, citing a provision calling for countries to refrain from using weapons against civil aircraft. That same provision was used to condemn the United States in 1988 for shooting down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 passengers.
But the United States itself refuses to ratify the provision. Why? It would require this country to prevent private pilots from using their aircraft to carry out acts of aggression against other nations. Cuba ratified the provision on Sept. 28, 1998.
What if the table were turned? Suppose that a known enemy from abroad was to enter U.S. airspace in a small private plane heading toward Washington, D.C. As several ``administration officials'' told The Washington Post, such an intruder is likely to be shot down quickly over water before it enters the United States because shooting down the plane over a populated area would create ``significant risks to large numbers of innocent bystanders.''
Why did I fly more than $1 million in medical donations to Cuba? Like the aviation incident, the United States is two-faced about health care as well.
The U.S. embargo prevents about half of the most vital medicines from reaching the Cuban people. In a letter dated Feb. 17, 1995, one year before the shootdown, the Organization of American States called the medical embargo a direct violation of international law. Our country is saying to the world, ``Do as I say -- not as I do.''
Anthony F. Kirkpatrick is a physician and pilot in Tampa.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald