BY ANGEL LARISCY
MIAMI - A federal judge in Miami ruled December 17 that the Cuban government is liable for paying $187.6 million to families of members of Brothers to the Rescue who were shot down by the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces while invading Cuban airspace in February 1996. Brothers to the Rescue is a Florida-based group led by Cuban-American counterrevolutionaries, many of who have long histories of armed action against the Cuban government dating back to the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion organized by the CIA. This outfit, which claims that its primary purpose is to conduct flights to look for rafters who have left Cuba and are heading to Florida, publicly acknowledged that on three occasions - in July 1995 and twice in January 1996 - it organized flights directly over the Havana area to scatter leaflets from the air.
The Cuban government noted that on Feb. 24, 1996, the planes were shot down after coming within between five and eight miles of Cuba's coast, and being warned once against violating Cuban airspace. Cuban officials added that the nation had faced 10 other violations of its airspace in the 20 months prior to these incidents.
Washington used the downing of the planes as a pretext to intensify the embargo against Cuba's socialist revolution. Within days of the event, President William Clinton announced his support for the misnamed Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity bill, also known as the Helms-Burton bill. The law tightened the embargo of the island, closed U.S. ports to ships that have docked in Cuba within six months, and further restricted the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. The bill was passed into law on March 12, 1996. "The Cuban government fully assumes the responsibility of the patriotic action carried out in legitimate defense of the sovereignty and security of our country," Cuba's foreign minister Roberto Robaina declared on March 6, 1996, before a special session of the United Nations General Assembly. "We exercise the same sovereign right of all states to defend the territorial integrity of our country, its sovereignty, and the peace of our citizens."
The ruling on damages here was carried out under the Anti- Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which allows U.S. citizens or their relatives to take legal action against a country if they are the victims of an "act of terrorism" sponsored by that country's government. It was the first time that a federal judge has found a foreign nation liable for a supposedly terrorist act under the law. Senior U.S. district judge James Lawrence King called the shooting of the two planes by the Cuban air force an "outrageous contempt for international law" and "callous murders," and collectively awarded the families of Armando Alejandre, Carlos Alberto Costa, Marios Manuel de la Peña $49.9 million in compensatory damages, as well as $137.7 million in punitive damages. The fourth pilot killed, Pablo Morales, was not a U.S. citizen, so his family was not eligible to file suit.
From the beginning of the trial, Cuba has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the court. The court declared Havana to be in default and allowed the trial to continue. Throughout the proceedings efforts were made to slander the Cuban government and brand it as an outlaw state. Stephen Schnably, a University of Miami international law professor testified, "Cuba is certainly obligated by human rights treaties to respect the right to life." Charles Leonard, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator and Air Force fighter pilot claimed in his testimony that "at no time were these aircraft in Cuban territorial airspace." The Miami Herald asserted during its coverage of the trial that the planes were shot down "without warning."
In an editorial the Miami Herald called the verdict in this rigged trial "a stunning moral victory." A White House official noted that the that the ruling "has ramifications well beyond Cuba - there is a need to consider the implications for Syria, Iran and Libya."
The day after the judgment was announced, Alejandro González, a spokesman for Cuba's foreign ministry, declared, "The supposed conclusions of the judge are illegitimate, are contrary to international law. And Cuba, of course, does not feel any obligation" to comply.
Speaking at a weekly foreign ministry news conference, González noted, "This court proceeding was orchestrated by sectors hostile to Cuba."
The families have announced they will try to collect the
punitive damages awarded to them from some $148 million in
Cuban assets that Washington has held frozen in U.S. accounts
following the expropriation of U.S. capitalist holdings on the
island in 1960. President William Clinton distributed $300,000
to each of the four families from these assets last year.
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