A viewing of Christina Khuly’s beautifully crafted documentary whose inciting incident was the shooting down of a pair of unarmed light aircraft over the Florida Straits by Castro’s deadly-accurate MiGs on the 101st anniversary of the beginning of the war that would send the occupying Spaniards home (February 24, 1895) begins by generating anger and outrage before sinking into global despair as the consequences are revealed.
Until the U.S. amended its immigration policy in the early ‘90s, the one-in-four “rafters” who landed alive in America following their arduous 90-mile voyage were welcomed as political refugees from the totalitarian regime (“The ocean is black, not blue” … “You realize your life came back to you,” say the gritty survivors). To assist their desperate journey, José Basulto (a CIA-trained freedom fighter based in Miami) founded Brothers to the Rescue: a group of pilots who scour the waterways for Cuban emigrants and liaise with the U.S. Coastguard to intervene as required. Many lives were saved. But after the wily Castro saw political advantage in flooding Florida with “job takers,” the regulations changed so that unless persecution could be proved, the asylum seekers were sent home: those awaiting a hearing did so at the still infamous Guantanamo Bay institution.
Accordingly, added to the Brothers’ mission to save lives, send a message of solidarity to the Cuban government and its citizenry was a third goal: to be an advocate for democracy in Cuba. This allowed the mercy flights to continue even if the cozy relationship with the coastguard became limited: no sense tipping off the military as to the whereabouts of the now illegal immigrants. Soon, leaflets were being dropped over Havana, but the hoped for insurrection never materialized.
There were dissidents who organized and opted to stay rather than flee (“Why leave rather than resolve it?” wondered Mario—one of the hapless pilots—through one of the many interviews with surviving family members, but most of them were rounded up and put in jail—especially in the run-up to February 24, 1996 celebrations.
On that day, despite some vague warnings that Cuba was becoming greatly annoyed with the frequent fly bys, Basulto authorized a mission that included three planes (he was one of the pilots).
With everything from actual screen prints of the radar, to first-rate “video-game” graphics, to eye witness accounts from persons aboard a passing cruise ship, the screen fills with the horror of four utterly defenceless men being pulverized by the jubilant fighter pilots (special kudos to Malcolm Jamieson’s seamless editing; Ed Bilous’ mallet-rich, original music is also a constant pleasure). Countless wars have started for less. Not a single U.S. plane was launched to investigate. Castro gloated that one of the pilots had been captured, but it turns out he was a mole who had infiltrated the Brothers and very conveniently left town on a “business trip” the day before the murders in the sky.
What did Bill Clinton do with an election just coming months away? Passed another piece of embargo legislation (Helms-Burton Act).
What did the bereft families do once they realized their government was not interested in justice? Launched a civil lawsuit against Cuba and won a large settlement which was paid out of the renegade island’s frozen assets.
What did former senior foreign policy advisor Richard Nuccio (who is happy to appear in the documentary) say when reflecting on the loss of life despite having sent a warning e-mail to Basulto? “I did everything I could.”
Finally, what has changed for Cubans? For the majority who remain, their poor lives continue even with Castro out of the scene; for the “exiles” (“We’ll never be fully integrated,” explains a young Cuban-American) the good life stateside continues (not a speck of material hardship to be seen in the land of the free) and perhaps the nagging thought of what life might have been like after the revolution if more had stuck to their principles then and stared the opportunistic, ruthless dictator down. As Castro says in defence of his policies, “You’re either with me or against me.” Now where have we heard that line before …? JWR