MIAMI - (CBS4) - February 24, 2011 marks the 15th anniversary of the most seminal events in US-Cuban relations after the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960's.
It's been 15 years since Cuban MIG fighter jets shot down two civilian planes flown by the humanitarian group "Brothers to the Rescue." Four people on board those civilian planes died.
For two years the CBS4 I-Team's Stephen Stock has been reviewing once secret and classified government documents to uncover what really happened in the days before the shoot down.
In the latest of a series of reports, Secrets Behind the Shootdown, Stock talked with major players in the Brothers to the Rescue story and uncovers secret and once classified documents that show US officials might not have taken the threat of Cuban action seriously.
Two decades ago Alexis Garcia never dreamed he'd be here in South Florida living the American dream. Today Garcia is a physical education instructor who teaches and trains children in order to fight childhood obesity.
"I risked everything (to flee Cuba) but I needed, I wanted a better future," said Garcia.
That's why Garcia risked drowning and starvation by navigating the harrowing crossing of open water in the middle of the Florida Straits in a kayak back in May 1992.
"For every five of us who left Cuba only one made it," said Garcia.
Alexis Garcia was the one out of the five to survive. He was the one who lived despite spending fifty-five hours in the open ocean, fleeing an oppressive Cuban regime, willing to die in order to be free.
Those moments will forever live in his memory.
"We were lost the last 18 hours. We didn't have water, no food. We were hallucinating," said Garcia.
And then, Alexis Garcia says he heard an angel. It was an angel in the form of a small Cessna airplane. An airplane flown by the group Brothers to the Rescue.
"When we saw that plane waving from side to side it was the most beautiful sight I've ever seen," said Garcia.
Mayte Greco-Regan was co-piloting the plane that saved Alexis Garcia.
"There's nothing like saving that life," said Greco-Regan. "You're that hand you gave them, that hand to pluck them out of the ocean… giving them a whole new hope."
The flight that rescued Garcia was one of 2,400 Brothers to the Rescue missions that saved approximately 4,200 people during the 1990's.
"You look down and you see a wave you really don't believe you're going to find anybody you know," said pilot Conrad Webber.
Webber flew dozens, if not hundreds, of Brothers to the Rescue flights.
"It wasn't the fame," said Webber. "You were doing it to save somebody's life."
"We were to save lives, not to cause anybody any harm," said Webber.
"I owe what I am right now (to them)," said Alexis Garcia. "I owe my life to Brothers to the Rescue."
That's why it shocked the world when on February 24, 1996, Cuban MIG fighter jets shot two Brothers to the Rescue search and rescue planes out of the sky over international airspace in the Florida straits.
"We're trying to find out why we weren't told (of the danger)," said Webber.
Over the last two and a half years, the CBS4 I-Team has examined more than two thousand pages of once classified, secret documents: cables, memos, communiqués, which were circulated among White House officials, international diplomats, the FAA, FBI and US Coast Guard regarding Brothers to the Rescue and their flights between the US and Cuba.
Click here to read some international communiqués.
Click here to read Concilio Cubano crackdown
Many of the documents were once classified and secret but were declassified by United States officials at the request of the I-Team.
The declassified documents show a failure of diplomacy as well as a failure by American diplomats including those directly inside President Bill Clinton's Administration, to take the situation as seriously as perhaps they should have.
Click here to read memos showing how government officials were powerless to stop some events.
Click here to read FAA powerless/hesitant to act
Click here to read FAA fax
The documents and subsequent interviews with some US officials, show that clearly, few in President Bill Clinton's administration thought or even imagined that Fidel Castro would order military jets to shoot down civilian planes.
For instance: take a series of Memos marked "Urgent" which were circulated among FAA and US State Department officials dated in late 1995 and early 1996.
In early December 1995, the FAA got warnings from Cuban government officials about violations of Cuban airspace.
But the documents were in Spanish and no one at the FAA apparently spoke or read Spanish. It took nearly a month to send the warnings to Washington and get them translated.
Click here to read some of those memos and an official timeline of what happened to get the Cuban documents translated to English.
And then it took another month, February, 1996, before the FAA got the translation. Clearly no one was in any hurry to address the warnings or threat from Cuban officials.
The Cuban MIG's shot down the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft later that same February.
Then there is a memo issued the day after the shoot-down which summarizes President Clinton's reaction and orders. The same memo also mentions that the Brothers to the Rescue might have also flown over Havana, violating Cuban airspace only a month earlier on January 13, 1996, even though BTTR denied that. Clearly Cuban officials had voiced concerns about that, to high Clinton officials. But the FAA could not substantiate that and, according to the declassified records, apparently made little effort to try until after the civilian planes were shot down.
Click here to read that POTUS memo.
"The Cuban government had been protesting the flights for at least 17 to 18 months prior to the shoot down," said Dr. Brian Latell who reviewed the documents at length for CBS4.
Dr. Latell is a University of Miami professor and one of the leading American authorities on US Cuba relations and Cuban history. Dr. Latell worked in the Clinton administration before the shoot-down.
"There was nothing they (American officials) could do to stop the flights," said Dr. Latell. "They (American officials) were able and did warn the pilots and the leaders of Brothers to the Rescue. They warned them. I guess there was no other legal means to shut down the flights."
The documents show that American officials even discussed taking action, but concluded they could do nothing legally.
In fact, a declassified memo of a teleconference among air traffic controllers from August 1995, proves exactly that: "The group wanted to devise something that would stop the (Brothers to the Rescue) aircraft from going (into the Florida straits.)"
And the memo goes on: "...it was discussed that we couldnot (sic) stop the aircraft..."
Click here to read that teleconference summary memo.
Other documents show that the FAA started action to take away the pilot's license of the leader of Brothers to the Rescue, Jose Basulto. But for some reason, that effort stalled. And the documents show that the FAA only moved to revoke Basulto's license after the civilian planes were shot down by the Cuban MIG fighter jets.
Click here to read preliminary actions by FAA to take away Jose Basulto's pilot's license.
And yet, while some top officials didn't seem concerned, other US officials worried about an escalation.
One memo in particular between FAA officials shows that concern,
It could be called the 'smoking gun' and reads in part: "Worst case scenario is that one of these days the Cubans will shoot down one of these planes and the FAA better have all its ducks in a row."
Click here to read that memo.
Another memo states: "(US Department of) State has also indicated that the Government of Cuba would be less likely to show restraint... this time around..."
That last memo was issued between US government officials only one day before the shoot-down.
Click here to read that memo.
"There was something terrible happening. We could have gotten our a-- really in trouble that day," said pilot Webber.
Despite the fact US officials say Brothers to the Rescue was warned, to this day pilots and activists say they received no serious warning or they now say, they would have acted differently, especially if they had known about the warnings contained in those classified memos uncovered by the I-Team.
"You darn right we would have stayed out of the way," said Webber. "We didn't know because no one would tell us what was going on and their excuses for calling us in didn't hold water."
"I don't know. It was just maybe too much information too many departments that one just didn't let the other one know," said Greco-Regan. "(Maybe it was) just a chain of events that made it happen. That maybe the communications weren't clear. Or maybe it's just like you know 'This stuff doesn't really happen.' We had no warning."
"I know there was some tension going on," said Aaron Podhurst, one of the world's leading aviation attorneys who represented the families of those who died in the shootdown.
Podhurst reviewed some of the declassified documents and said the back and forth between Washington and Havana was to have been expected given the volatility of the times.
"I'm not surprised there was back channeling going on," said Podhurst.
Podhurst represented the families of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots in lawsuits against the Cuban government. He won a $180 million court verdict for the families and collected about half that money from frozen Cuban assets here in the United States.
"I don't think our government did anything intentional. They missed the boat, we all missed the boat many times," said Podhurst.
Former President Bill Clinton declined our invitation to sit down and discuss this chapter of his presidency.
The Secretary of State at the time, Madeleine K. Albright and President Clinton's US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson also did not return our requests for an interview to discuss these events.
There have been several books written recently about these events, including one that's shed light on the entire Brothers to the Rescue operation titled "Seagull One" written by journalist Lily Prellezo.
Prellezo helped the I-Team contact survivor Alexis Garcia who was saved by Brothers to the Rescue, some twenty years ago.
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