Posted on Tuesday, 06.04.13
The saga of the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes
By Gail Epstein
The fatal shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuban
military pilots was sudden, shocking and heart-breaking. Four Miami men
were killed, and the shootdown became the driving reason the U.S.
government prosecuted and imprisoned five Cuban spies. One of them,
Gerardo Hernandez, was convicted of murder conspiracy in connection with
the shootdown because trial evidence showed he knew of the shooting plan
I was in the newsroom when my phone rang on Feb. 24, 1996, and a law
enforcement source told me that a Cuban MiG had blasted the volunteer
group's Cessnas out of the sky as they flew over the Florida Straits
looking for rafters. I told my editors, who immediately rounded up Miami
Herald reporters in Miami and Washington, D.C.
Staffers hit the streets, still trying to wrap their minds around what
had happened while operating with little information. Where was Jose
Basulto, the high-profile founder of Brothers to the Rescue? What was
the scene at the group's hangar in Opa-locka? Who had been flying on the
downed aircraft? What did the U.S. military know? How would the White
House respond? What would this mean for U.S.-Cuba relations?
Countless questions, as always on the first day of a major story. On
that Saturday and the next day, the Herald produced 14 stories
dissecting every aspect of what was being called the most provocative
action by Cuba since the missile crisis of 1962. But answers were
tougher than usual to come by, because the "other side'' we needed to
hear from was Fidel and Raúl Castro.
Five years later, I sat in a federal courtroom in Miami with Hernandez
and his four comrades — hailed as "heroes'' in Cuba — as a jury
convicted them for spying on Brothers to the Rescue and other exile
groups, and on U.S. military installations. Theirs was a remarkable
six-month trial the likes of which had never been seen, featuring Cold
War intrigue and unprecedented cooperation from Havana, determined as it
was to put Brothers, Cuban exiles and the U.S. government on trial along
with its intelligence agents.
Both stories — the shootdown and the spies — were transformative
chapters in the long saga of Miami's Cuban exile community.