The families of those killed in the 1996 shootdown of planes belonging to the Cuban-American Brothers to the Rescue charity requested support from Congress on Wednesday in their mission to seek indictments against dictator Raúl Castro and other senior Cuban government officials for their relatives’ murders.
Cuban military pilots shot down Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Mario de la Peña, and Pablo Morales over international waters on February 24, 1996, killing them all while on a mission to find wayward Cuban balseros, or rafters, trying to make it to the United States. While it remained illegal to leave Cuba without the consent of the government for most of the decade, Fidel Castro changed the communist regime’s policies in the 1990s to allow Cubans to attempt the dangerous maritime trek from Cuba to Florida; so long as they made it to Florida, they would not face Cuban prosecution. The result was a mass exodus on makeshift vessels – interlocked inner tubes, modified old cars – of tens of thousands of Cubans and the deaths of as many as 77,000 at sea.
The Brothers to the Rescue humanitarian project worked in tandem with U.S. Coast Guard efforts and did not violate Cuban government airspace. Cuban military planes shot the volunteers down, anyway. Three of the four men killed were American citizens; the fourth was a permanent U.S. resident.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for justice in the case, placing the families of the victims front and center in his 2017 announcement of the reversal of then-President Barack Obama’s friendly “normalization” policy towards Cuba.
“Today we seek additional indictments against many others responsible for the shoot down,” Ana Alejandre Ciereszko, sister of pilot Armando Alejandre, Jr., told the House Oversight Committee and chairman of the hearing Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) on Wednesday. “First on the list is Raul Castro, who at the time of the shoot down was the chief of the Cuban Armed Forces.”
“Castro no longer enjoys protection as head of state and proof of his complicity in the shoot down includes an audio recording of an interview in Radio Rebelde in which he accepts responsibility for these murders,” Alejandre Ciereszko noted. While Castro remains in charge of the Cuban government, he is now the head of the Communist Party of Cuba, not president. The current president is hand-picked ally Miguel Díaz-Canel, who acquired largely ceremonial powers upon assuming the presidency.
“We are also looking for the political will on the part of our government to transmit to Interpol the names of the pilots who shot down the aircraft and the general who gave the order, all of whom have pending indictments in US courts,” Alejandre Ciereszko continued. “We hope that you, this Committee, understand that this is not a Cuban issue. Two of the murdered men were born in the United States, my brother was an American citizen, a Marine, and Vietnam veteran, and the fourth was a US resident.”
Attorney Jason Poblete, an attorney specializing in international law, told the House Oversight Committee that the importance of bringing those responsible for the murders to justice lies in the fact that the Cuban regime, established through a violent takeover in 1959, has spent decades targeting, hurting, and killing American citizens.
“It was, and remains, state policy of the Cuban Communist Party to target American citizens who they deem a threat,” Poblete explained. Impunity, he continued, “invites other autocratic governments to target American citizens.”
Poblete used the example of over two dozen American diplomats suffering brain damage while serving in the American embassy in Havana as an example of how that impunity emboldens more violence. Despite extensive evidence of permanent medical harm in the case of these diplomats, the Castro regime maintains that the incidents were a misunderstanding in which diplomats incorrectly identified insect noises.
Poblete also provided an extensive list of attacks on Americans by the Castro regime:
According to Cuba Archives – one of the leading think-tanks engaged in the documentation of Cuban atrocity crimes and other gross violations of human rights – at least 21 American citizens have been executed, assassinated, or disappeared, scores remain unaccounted for. At least eight (8) Americans have been assassinated by firing squad; another 11 extrajudicial assassinations, forced disappearance and politically-induced suicides. … Many victim advocacy groups believe that the number of Americans harmed by the Cuban Communists is much higher.
He further noted that then-President Barack Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list makes it much harder for victims’ families to seek justice in American courts. Without the designation, the Cuban regime can use the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) to protest that sovereign nations cannot be brought into U.S. court without making exceptions. In contrast, the families of victims of regimes on the list can use that designation to legitimize their lawsuit, as the family of Otto Warmbier has done in the case of North Korea. North Korea returned to the list in November 2017, shortly after Warmbier’s death after imprisonment and torture in the country.
Former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) Roger Noriega argued Wednesday that Cuba should not be treated as a sovereign state at all.
“Mr. Chairman, the U.S. government never accorded legal recognition of the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria,” Noreiga noted. “Castro agents continue their criminal behavior, including narcotrafficking; engage in systematic abuse of international norms, such as political destabilization of democratic governments; and lack political legitimacy to govern Cuba. So why do we continue to recognize them as a nation-state?”
The Brothers to the Rescue murders, he added, were “a premeditated terror attack, conceived by the Castro brothers,” in which ultimate responsibility lies with them.
Watch the Congressional hearing below: