Cuban exiles join hands in grief

Havana crisis: Mourners scatter flowers as Castro admits giving order to down `martyr' pilots
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The Independent Online


One week to the hour after four fellow pilots were blown to pieces by Cuban MiG fighters, a dozen Cuban-American pilots circled the site of the shooting in small planes, prayed by radio with an accompanying priest and scattered flowers over the surging waves off Cuba in memory of their colleagues.

Those same 10-foot waves prevented a flotilla of more than 20 private cabin cruisers and fishing boats from reaching the site, 21 miles north- west of Havana, but the Cuban exiles' boats pulled up halfway between the Florida keys and Havana to sing the Cuban national anthem and toss wreaths into the sea before turning back.

As Cuban-Americans remembered the four pilots from the Brothers to the Rescue exile group, who died aboard two Cessna planes shot down the previous Saturday, Cuban leader Fidel Castro admitted he had given the order to shoot the group's planes down if they approached Cuba. He had done so after the group overflew the Havana malecon (seafront) in January, dropping pro-democracy leaflets. "It was so humiliating," an unusually-candid Mr Castro said in an interview in Time magazine.

But for a few radical exiles who had hoped Saturday's air and sea flotilla would spark another incident that might force the United States to take action against Cuba, most exiles expressed relief that the memorial services had passed peacefully. Mr Castro sent out gunboats to protect his waters, taking along foreign correspondents for the first time, "to tell the world the truth" should the exiles have entered Cuban waters.

The deaths of the four exiles, two of them born in the US, two in Cuba, may pale against the 1962 Cuban nuclear missile crisis in which President John F Kennedy faced down Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev. But it has caused the most tension in US-Cuban relations since then and helped unite an otherwise-bickering community of 1 million Cubans in the US.

At the last minute before Saturday's flotilla set out, escorted by a dozen armed US Coast Guard cutters, six helicopters and two C-130 surveillance planes, Mr Clinton declared a state of emergency in southern Florida to prevent boats from leaving local waters without clearance. He also moved three navy warships to within sight of the flotilla and ordered a squadron of airforce F-15 fighter planes to Key West, the closest point to Cuba. The planes sat on a runway, with engines running, throughout Saturday.

As the exiles' boats came and went from each other's view behind giant waves, many participants became seasick, others moved around deck on hands and knees and all were given a glimpse of what it was like for the tens of thousands of Cubans who fled their country on makeshift rafts. The Brothers to the Rescue group, set up to search for refugees, saved thousands of lives but too often spotted eerily-empty rafts.

Before setting off, the group's pilots as always stood in a large circle, this time in torrential rain, joined hands and prayed. Framed photos of the four downed pilots, three of them in their 20s, were held within the chain of hands.

When they returned, the pilots overflew Miami's Orange Bowl football stadium to the cheers of at least 40,000 Cuban exiles, in a sea of Cuban and US flags, taking part in another memorial service. Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, something of a local hero here since she pushed through an anti-Castro resolution, called the MiG pilots "cowards" and described the dead pilots as "martyrs, part of the hallowed list of Americans who died because they loved freedom and cared for their fellow human beings".

In Cuba, where the state media described the flotilla as "a counter-revolutionary show that failed", one woman staged her own memorial service on a beach outside Havana. Nancy Morales was remembering her brother Pablo, 29, one of the downed pilots, who fled from the same beach on a raft four years ago, was saved by Brothers to the Rescue pilots and later trained and flew with them out of gratitude.

As local residents gazed from dilapidated seafront flats, Nancy Morales waded into the sea alone, carrying a Bible, tossed two bunches of flowers into the waves, and recited the 23rd Psalm.