Bill Clinton tried engaging Castro. After Havana shot down two U.S. planes, it all fell apart.


"I think we should—we should advocate for the end of the embargo" on Cuba, Hillary Clinton said in an interview this summer at the Council on Foreign Relations. "My husband tried," she declared, "and remember, there were [behind-the-scenes] talks going on." The way the pre-candidate for president recounts this history, Fidel Castro sabotaged that process because "the embargo is Castro's best friend," providing him "with an excuse for everything." Her husband's efforts, she said, were answered with the February 1996 shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes by the Cuban air force, "ensuring there would be a reaction in the Congress that would make it very difficult for any president to lift the embargo alone."  

The history of this dramatic episode is far more complicated than Hillary Clinton portrays it. But she is correct about one thing: Should she become president, it will be far harder for her to lift the 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba than it would have been when her husband first assumed the office. The person most responsible for that, however, is Bill Clinton.

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The beginning of Bill Clinton's presidency marked a change in tone on Cuba policy. Personally, Clinton understood the folly of a hostile U.S. posture toward the island. "Anybody with half a brain could see the embargo was counterproductive," he later told a confidante in the Oval Office. "It defied wiser policies of engagement that we had pursued with some Communist countries even at the height of the Cold War."

The Clinton administration's early initiatives included public assurances that the United States posed no military threat to Cuba—to reinforce the point, U.S. officials began alerting Cuban authorities in advance of routine naval maneuvers near the island and opened low-level discussions on cooperation against narcotics trafficking. U.S. officials also dialed back the anti-Castro rhetoric. In Havana, the Cubans recognized and appreciated the change in tone. "There is less verbal aggression this year in the White House than in the last 12 years," Raúl Castro told a Mexican reporter. Still, the administration worked overtime to assure the exile community and congressional Republicans that no opening to Cuba would be forthcoming. U.S. policy, stated Richard Nuccio, the Clinton administration's special advisor on Cuba, was to "maintain the existing embargo, the most comprehensive we have toward any country."

Hard-liners in Congress were not reassured. Senate majority leader and Republican presidential hopeful Robert Dole declared that "all signs point to normalization and secret negotiations with Castro." In September 1995, the House passed legislation co-sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton that prohibited U.S. assistance to Cuba until the advent of democracy and imposed sanctions against foreign countries and corporations that did business on the island. "It is time to tighten the screws," Senator Helms announced when he first presented the bill to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Congressman Burton predicted that passage would be "the last nail in [Castro's] coffin."

Helms-Burton became a bitter battleground between the executive and the legislative branches. Not only did the bill "attack the President's constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy," according to a White House legislative-strategy memorandum for Clinton, "Helms-Burton actually damages the prospects of a democratic transition in Cuba, and could conflict with broader U.S. interests, including compliance with major international trade agreements … and our commitment to respect international law." Secretary of State Warren Christopher threatened a presidential veto.

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As the Helms-Burton legislation dominated public debate on Cuba policy in the latter half of 1995, a veritable Greek tragedy played out in the skies over Cuba's coast—a tragedy set in motion by repeated incursions into Cuban airspace by a group of Cuban-American pilots known as Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). Since 1991, the Brothers had been flying search missions for distressed Cuban rafters who had begun to flee Cuba for the U.S. by the hundreds, and then by the thousands, notifying the U.S. Coast Guard whenever a small boat or raft needed rescue.

But despite its humanitarian mission, BTTR's founder and director, José Basulto, had a history of anti-Castro violence. In April 1961, Basulto had, along with some 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA, participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion aimed at overthrowing Castro. In August 1962, he had positioned a boat with a 20mm cannon on its bow just off the coast of Havana and shelled the Hornedo de Rosita hotel, where he and his co-conspirators believed Castro would be dining. "I was trained as a terrorist by the United States, in the use of violence to attain goals," Basulto said in an interview with a documentary filmmaker, but he claimed to have converted to nonviolence. "When I was young, my Hollywood hero was John Wayne. Now I'm like Luke Skywalker. I believe the force is with us."

After secret back-channel diplomacy ended the rafters crisis in the fall of 1994, Basulto shifted BTTR's mission from rescue to provocation. On November 10, Basulto dropped Brothers to the Rescue bumper stickers over the Cuban countryside. Repeatedly over the next eight months, BTTR planes violated Cuban airspace. Their most provocative act in 1995 came on July 13, when Basulto's Cessna Skymaster buzzed Havana, raining down thousands of religious medallions and leaflets reading "Brothers, Not Comrades" along the Malecón, Havana's broad seaside avenue. "We are proud of what we did," Basulto exalted on local TV after landing back in Miami. "We want confrontation," Basulto declared, boasting that his bold incursion served "as a message to the Cuban people. … The regime is not invulnerable."

José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue,
in 1996 (Colin Braley/Reuters)

The overflights constituted a direct challenge to Cuba's national security and a flagrant affront to its sovereignty. "It was so humiliating," Castro later told Time magazine. "The U.S. would not have tolerated it if Washington's airspace had been violated by small airplanes." Castro and his generals had long memories of the early years of the revolution when little planes would take off from Florida and drop incendiary devices over the Cuban countryside as part of the CIA's covert war of sabotage.

Given that dark history, Cuban officials made it clear to the Clinton administration that the incursions could not and would not be tolerated. The Cubans filed one diplomatic protest after another, warning in a note after the July 13 incursion that Cuban security forces had a "firm determination to adopt whatever positions are necessary to avoid acts of provocation," and "any boat from abroad can be sunk and any airplane downed." In Miami, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials met face-to-face with Basulto to warn him to stay away from Cuba. State Department officials meanwhile used diplomatic notes to request that the Cuban government exercise "the utmost discretion and restraint and avoid the use of excessive force" in dealing with the incursions.

But BTTR and Basulto continued their provocations. Between August 1995 and February 1996, the Cuban government filed four more diplomatic notes protesting violations of its airspace—only to have the FAA request additional evidence, since the agency had determined Basulto could not be grounded until it had fully completed an enforcement investigative report. Emboldened by his seeming impunity, on January 13, 1996, Basulto again flew his planes over Havana, this time dropping a half a million leaflets exhorting the Cuban people to "Change Things Now." His ability to penetrate Cuban airspace, Basulto bragged on the radio back in Miami, demonstrated that "Castro isn't impenetrable, that many things are within our reach to be done."