CubaBrief: How injustice of 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, and 2010 Orlando Zapata Tamayo killing is impacting Venezuelans today

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama on April 16, 1963 to fellow clergymen that were criticizing his nonviolent protests the postulate that ” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Sadly, the case of Cuba in Latin America demonstrates the proof that he was right. The world was rightfully horrified in the early years of the Castro revolution when news got out about firing squads, extrajudicial killings, and mass exoduses of Cubans.

However decades into the dictatorship, too many Latin American leaders began to normalize the Castro dictatorship, and invite Fidel and Raul Castro to official events, engage the regime diplomatically and trade with them.

Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, Castro, and Spain's Felipe Gonzalez

Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, Castro, and Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez

Mary O’Grady pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, in her July 17, 2017 piece “How Cuba Runs Venezuela” that “in 1989 Fidel was even a special guest at the inauguration of Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Today the ‘special guests’ are brutalizing Venezuela as the world wonders what went wrong.”

In 1992 Hugo Chavez was involved in a failed coup against the government of President Andres Perez. Pardoned by Perez’s successor, Rafael Caldera, in March 1994 Hugo Chavez made his way to Cuba later that same year where he was received by Fidel Castro as a hero not a failed coup plotter.

In 1993 U.S. officials charged that Cuban marine patrols were repeatedly tossing grenades and shooting at fleeing swimmers and recovering bodies with gaff hooks, within site of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This did not stop the President Bill Clinton from pushing for normalization of relations with the Castro regime. This outreach, seeking to follow their Latin American allies embrace of Castro began in 1994 with regular contacts between U.S. and Cuban military, including joint military exercises.

Venezuela's last democratic President, Rafael Caldera, with Castro in 1994

Venezuela’s last democratic President, Rafael Caldera, with Castro in 1994

This thaw with Cuba would coincide with the massacre of 37 men, women and children in the July 13, 1994 “13 de marzo” tugboat attack and sinking. Less than two years later on February 24, 1996 the Clinton Administration was nearly dragged into a war with Cuba when the Castro regime shot down two civilian planes in international airspace over the Florida Straits in a premeditated attack killing Armando Alejandre Jr. (45 years old), Carlos Alberto Costa (29), Mario Manuel de la Peña (24), and Pablo Morales (29).

The “normalization of relations” did not have the desired effect either in Venezuela or in U.S.-Cuba relations. Hugo Chavez would continue to be mentored by Fidel Castro, the regime’s intelligence services and achieve power in 1999. 

Ten years later the Obama Administration attempted another thaw with Cuba beginning in 2009. In December of 2009 the Castro regime was holding Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen hostage, but the U.S. priority would remain normalizing relations not applying sanctions to obtain the release of Gross. This sent a signal to the dictatorship that it could do what it wanted. Gross would spend five years in Cuban prisons, emerging emaciated, and with missing teeth.

This was also bad news for Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban prisoner of conscience who endured seven years of physical and psychological torture at the hands of Cuba’s secret police. The Global Nonviolent Action Database described what happened in greater detail:

“To further discourage Tamayo, the prison director, Major Filiberto Hernández Luis, denied him water for 18 days, taking away his only sustenance. The forced dehydration induced kidney failure, and Tamayo was taken to Amalia Simoni Hospital in Camaguey where he was fed intravenously against his will. Tamayo’s condition worsened when he developed pneumonia in the hospital bed and was transferred to a hospital at Combinado del Este prison, which did not have the capacity to treat him.”

Not mentioned is that he was placed in a chilly room with a strong air conditioner to add an additional factor in the deterioration of his health. The Castro regime had announced that Orlando Zapata Tamayo had died on February 23, 2010 at approximately 3:00pm. This was followed by a campaign by the dictatorship to slander the reputation of this human rights defender, taken to the extreme of denying Orlando’s well documented history of activism.

The failure of the international community to take to task the Castro regime for this crime, the continued thaw, over the next two years led to the deaths of more Cuban human rights defenders, including EU Sakharov award laureates  Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, of the Ladies in White in 2011 and  Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas, of the Christian Liberation Movement in 2012.

Today, these practices are common place in Venezuela, and by August 30, 2010 they would have their own martyr for human rights and dignity. Franklin Brito was taken by the military on December 13, 2009 held at the Military Hospital “Dr.  Carlos  Arvelo” in Caracas. It was under the pretext of protecting his health, but was subjected to cruel and unusual practices that rose to the level of torture and compromised his health.

He was kept next to an air conditioning unit at 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 degrees Fahrenheit). This unit also made a constant and incessant noise that made it difficult for him to sleep. Officials used the pretext of treating the “insomnia” to use medications for schizophrenia, specifically hallucinogens. This practice of using psychiatric “treatment” as a weapon against dissidents has been well documented both in Cuba under the Castro regime and in the Soviet Union. Brito died shortly afterward.

On February 15, 2020 Tamara Suju of the Center for Studies and Analysis for Latin America (CASLA) Institute reported in La Patilla that Cuban officials are training their Venezuelan counterparts on torture techniques to terrorize and force Venezuelans to accept their perpetual rule. This was done to Cubans first in Latin America and is being replicated today in Venezuela.

The Cuban military and the secret police have operated with complete impunity in Cuba for decades and are now doing so in Venezuela, while training the next generation of torturers.

Reverend King was right and the full quote provides a chilling context to events unfolding today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. 

This is why on Thursday, February 20, 2020 at 7:00pm we will be protesting in front of the Cuban Embassy (located on 2630 16th St NW, Washington, DC)  the continued impunity surrounding the crimes committed against Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo twenty four years ago on February 24, 1996, and against Orlando Zapata Tamayo ten years ago on February 23, 2010.  It will be a silent vigil for justice that will distribute fact sheets to passers by and continue the demand for truth and justice. We invite people of good will, committed to nonviolence to join us.

La Patilla, February 15, 2020

The Cuban regime’s occupation of Venezuela

By Tamara Suju Roa

On Dec. 28 2018, I accused the Cuban government before the International Criminal Court of inducing and committing crimes against humanity in Venezuela. Specifically, the crime of torture, submitting 13 cases in which officials of that country participated in this crime, torturing and leading Venezuelan torturers in some of the worst abuses documented by CASLA Institute.

To support my complaint, I submitted the testimonies of dissident military and intelligence officials who explained how they had been trained, in Venezuela and Cuba in intelligence and surveillance operations and “shock therapies” – physical and psychological torture methods – and how every three months Cuban military officers tour military and intelligence units throughout the country, to update and issue orders, develop, disseminate and perfect mechanisms for intimidation and surveillance, and promote the paralysis of the civil population through fear.

The information about the Cuban involvement in repression continues to expand, helped by the huge exodus of officers and officials who flee from the horrors they have faced, feeling they are traitors to their oath to defend their homeland and forced to kneel before the orders of militias and officers from other countries.

The Cubans are categorized as “accredited,” a structure parallel to the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, and are issued credentials by that agency that gives them the power to work in intelligence and surveillance operations in conjunction with the two Venezuelan agencies that perform those tasks.

They are based in Fuerte Tiuna and have offices in the Ministry of Defense and other government buildings, including some on full floors where only they and authorized officials can enter.

While the GRUCE group oversees the planning in the Operative Defense Zones (ZODI) and Defense Regions (REDI), the G2 is directly in charge, together with Maduro’s criminal structures, of keeping him in power, not only making up his inner security ring but spying on everyone who has any sort of influence or power around him, be it civil or military. Venezuelan officers must report to the Cuban officers, who in turn report to the Cuban ambassador in Venezuela, just like all the “missions” occupying our territory.

The officers are being trained during classes at the “Psychological Operations School” at Fuerte Tiuna, near the War School, with the goal of teaching the students to manipulate people through political propaganda, shock therapies, manipulation and communications. The course lasts 14 months, and during at least seven of those months the Venezuelan students are taught by Cuban and Iranian professors. The lessons on “shock therapy,” as I mentioned before, involve methods of psychological and physical torture.

The Cuban regime also has been in charge of the ideological formation of the youth wing of the PSUV, headed by Nicolás Maduro Guerra, the son of Maduro, who has the title of National Ideology Commissioner of the Socialist Party Youth. The frequent trips to Havana by members of the youth wing, where they meet with members of the Cuban Communist Party, indicate that the deployment of Cuban trainers to our country will not be needed soon because the Cuban regime has already trained its own Venezuelan youth cells that act like a militia unit.

The Cuban regime occupies our country at every level: in the education sector, in the health sector, in the public administration sector, in the production and work sector, in our system of identification and legal registries, in the National Armed Forces and other state security agencies.

There should be no doubt in branding Venezuela as a country occupied by foreign armed and intelligence units, and units trained abroad, which should be a global scandal if it were not because the very criminal structure in power is the one that allows, finances and promotes it.

Original text in Spanish

From the Archives

Amnesty International, February 23, 2010

Death of Cuban prisoner of conscience on hunger strike must herald change

24 February 2010, 00:00 UTC

Amnesty International has urged Cuban President Raúl Castro to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience after a political activist died following a hunger strike.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was reported to have been on hunger strike in protest at prison conditions for several weeks before his death in Havana on Monday.

“The tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a terrible illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration,” said Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International’s Caribbean researcher.

A full investigation must be carried out to establish whether ill-treatment may have played a part in his death”, added Amnesty International.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was arrested in March 2003 and in May 2004 he was sentenced to three years in prison for “disrespect”, “public disorder” and “resistance”.

He was subsequently tried several times on further charges of “disobedience” and “disorder in a penal establishment”, the last time in May 2009, and was serving a total sentence of 36 years at the time of his death.

“Faced with a prolonged prison sentence, the fact that Orlando Zapata Tamayo felt he had no other avenue available to him but to starve himself in protest is a terrible indictment of the continuing repression of political dissidents in Cuba.

“The death of Orlando Zapata also underlines the urgent need for Cuba to invite international human rights experts to visit the country to verify respect for human rights, in particular obligations in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Background information

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was one of 55 prisoners of conscience who have been adopted by Amnesty International in Cuba.

The majority were among the 75 people arrested as part of the massive March 2003 crackdown by authorities against political activists. With no independent judiciary in Cuba, trials are often summary and fall grossly short of international fair trial standards, once sentenced the chances of appeal are virtually nil.

UPI Archives,June 28, 1996

ICAO says Cuba violated aviation rules


MONTREAL, June 28 — The International Civil Aviation Organization ruled Friday that Cuba violated civil aviation rules by shooting down two U.S.-registered civilian aircraft in February, and has referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council. The decision came in a resolution adopted by the Montreal-based U.N. body after three days of deliberations. The ICAO Council accepted an investigators’ report, presented by its secretary-general, that Cuban MiG fighters fired upon two U.S.- registered Cessna single-engine aircraft in international airspace on Feb. 24, resulting in the deaths of four members of the Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based group. The ICAO resolution said Cuba violated international aviation conventions by failing to warn the aircraft, by firing upon them and by attacking them outside its territorial jurisdiction.

The ICAO resolution now goes to the U.N. Security Council for further action, officials said. The secretary-general’s report, based on a probe into the shooting by special investigators, established that one of the aircraft was downed 9 nautical miles, and the second 10 nautical miles, outside Cuban airspace. The investigators said the positions were established by witnesses aboard two ships at sea in the area at the time. The resolution stated: ‘In executing the interception, the standard procedures for maneuvering and signals by the military interceptor aircraft, in accordance with ICAO provisions and as published in (Aeronautical Information Publication) Cuba, were not followed.’ The attack took the lives of Pablo Morales, Armando Alejandre, Mario de la Pena and Carlos A. Costa.

Cuba contended that the four men had previously entered Cuban airspace repeatedly. The men were part of Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots who search for and assist refugees attempting to flee Cuba on rafts and boats. The group has, however, also admitted dropping leaflets over the island and, according to the ICAO, there was evidence indicating that some members sought to influence the Cuban political situation. The ICAO confirmed that the organization’s pilots had made several overflights of Cuban airspace since 1994.

The ICAO resolution stated that there were significant differences between the radio communications recordings provided to investigators by Cuba and the United States. The ICAO said significant differences were also found in radar data provided by the two countries.

Following the secretary-general’s report, the Cuban government issued a statement accusing the ICAO of being manipulated by the United States and saying U.S. aircraft had repeatedly violated Cuban airspace. ‘These acts have occurred with absolute impunity as a result of the U.S. non-compliance of its obligations,’ said the statement issued by the Cuban interest section at the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

But U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena denounced the shootdown as ‘nothing short of murder in the skies.’ Friday’s resolution exerted regret over the loss of life and condemned the use of weapons against civilian aircraft as being ‘incompatible with elementary considerations of humanity… and the rules of customary international law.’