On January 16, 1996, the Cuban government filed yet another official protest with the U.S. State Department urging American authorities to stop anti-Castro exiles from violating Cuban airspace… again.
Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based anti-Castro exile group, had been racheting up its provocative flights since July 13, 1995 when founder José Basulto first buzzed Havana in his Cessna 337 aircraft, dropping medallions and bumper stickers from the aircraft to encourage “civil disobedience” among the locals. To publicize his illegal actions, Basulto even brought along a Miami-based TV crew. He’d flown over Havana twice more, including just a few days earlier, on January 13.
Though the Cuban diplomatic note acknowledged Washington had been trying to stop the flights—the Federal Aviation Administration even launched an investigation into the Brothers group—Havana called on the American government to do more.
According to the Miami Herald, a State Department spokesman did acknowledge the over-flights were “definitely a violation of both international and Cuban domestic law” and insisted “we take this [violation] very seriously.”
Despite American government pressure—and Havana’s public declaration that it had the right to “interrupt” future flights—Basulto remained not only unrepentant but also publicly announced plans for more such flights.
On February 24, 1996, the Cuban government made good on its threat—shooting down two Brothers to the Rescue planes off the Cuban coast and killing all four aboard. (The International Civil Aviation Organization would later determine that, on this occasion, the planes were actually in international waters when they were shot down.)
The shooting down of the Brothers aircraft would later become a central issue in the trial of the Cuban Five. The prosecution claimed Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the spy group, not only knew about the plan to shoot down the plane but was also involved in the decision to do so. Despite the fact that the prosecution offered no evidence to back up that claim, a Miami jury convicted him of conspiracy to commit murder as a result.
“The crazy idea the prosecution invented,” Hernandez would later tell American journalist Saul Landau, “is that not only did I know they [Cuba] were going to shoot the planes down—I did not know that—but I knew would do so over international waters; that Cuba was conspiring, not just to shoot down these planes invading Cuban air space, but over international waters. That’s the most absurd idea that anyone could ever invent. But the trial was held in Miami, and therefore I would be found guilty of any charge at all.”