CubaBrief: Truth, Justice, Memory and the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down at 25 and Orlando Zapata Tamayo at 11

In Cuba’s recent modern history, February 23, 2010 and February 24, 1996 are two days that run back to back that many remember with great sorrow, although separated by 14 years.

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Eleven years ago on February 23, 2010 Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after years of physical and psychological torture that began in 2003 that drove him to repeatedly protest prison conditions and beginning on December 3, 2009 to undertake a water only hunger strike that ended in his death. Aggravating this already extreme situation, was that prison officials repeatedly denied him water in an effort to get him to end the strike. Amnesty International condemned the death at the time and urged Raúl Castro “to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience after a political activist died following a hunger strike.” Eleven years later and the prisoners of conscience are still there, and the International Red Cross has not had access to Cuban prisons, save for one brief period over 30 years ago in 1989.

25 years ago on February 24, 1996 a Cuban MiG-29UB Fulcrum and a MiG-23ML intercepted three US civilian registered Cessna 337s (N2456S, N5485S and N2506), operated by the Brothers to the Rescue while they were engaged on a humanitarian search and rescue mission over the Florida Straits for Cuban rafters in international airspace.

At 3:21pm EST the Brothers to the Rescue Cessna 337 (N2456S) was destroyed by an air-to-air missile fired by the Cuban MiG-29 military aircraft.

At 3:27pm EST the Brothers to the Rescue Cessna 337 (N5485S) was destroyed by an air-to-air missile fired by a Cuban MiG-29 military aircraft.

Immediately killed were Armando Alejandre Jr.,45 years old, Carlos Alberto Costa, age 29, Mario Manuel de la Peña, age 24, and Pablo Morales, age 29. This was a premeditated act of state terrorism carried out by Havana on the orders of both Fidel and Raul Castro.

The third Brothers to the Rescue Cessna 337 (N2506) was able to escape and the survivors Jose Basulto, Arnaldo Iglesias, Silvia Iriondo and Andres Iriondo were able to set the record straight on the propaganda offensive already underway from Havana to misrepresent what had happened.

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These are two of the many crimes committed by the Castro regime over the past 62 years, but these two reverberated internationally due to more fluid communications at the time, families willing to speak out, and in the case of Brothers to the Rescue, survivors to set the facts straight.

However there is more. Both Brothers to the Rescue and Orlando Zapata Tamayo demonstrate different aspects of the power of nonviolent action.

More than a year after Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death the Global Nonviolent Action Database on April 12, 2011 released a summary of the outcomes of the Orlando Zapata Tamayo hunger strike following his death. Outrage over the circumstances that led to his death sparked international outrage, and additional non-violent actions inside Cuba that “within two years of Tamayo’s death all 75 men originally arrested during the Black Spring were released.”

In February of 1991 news accounts of the death by dehydration of 15-year-old Gregorio Perez Ricardo, a rafter fleeing Cuba, as U.S. Coast Guard officials tried to save his life shocked the moral imagination of several pilots. This was not an isolated event. Academics Holly Ackerman and Juan Clark, in the 1995 monograph The Cuban Balseros: Voyage of Uncertainty reported that “as many as 100,000 Cuban rafters may have perished trying to leave Cuba.” Anecdotal evidence documents that some of them were victims of the Cuban border patrol using sand bags and snipers against defenseless rafters.

It was within this context that on May 13, 1991 Brothers to the Rescue was founded with the aim of searching for rafters in the Florida Straits, getting them water, food, and rescued. In December of 1993 Brothers to the Rescue inaugurated their permanent hangar naming it after Gregorio.

Members of Brothers to the Rescue risked their lives in the Florida Straits to rescue Cuban rafters and they challenged the Cuban exile community to abandon both violent resistance and appeasement as approaches in order to embrace strategic nonviolence. Brothers to the Rescue had elements of civil disobedience but it was primarily a constructive program.

According to Mohandas Gandhi who came up with the term “constructive program” within his nonviolent philosophy and summarized by the MettaCenter as a “nonviolent action taken within a community to build structures, systems, processes or resources that are positive alternatives to oppression.” Whereas the Castro regime had engaged in massacres of fleeing rafters in the 1990s, with the July 13, 1994 “13 de marzo” tugboat sinking being one of the most well documented, Brothers to the Rescue was saving their lives.

They saw a problem (Cuban rafters drowning in the Florida Straits) and organized a grassroots solution ( volunteer pilots and spotters to provide food and water to rafters, and alert the Coastguard to rescue them). What was the end result? Brothers to the Rescue saved more than 4,200 men, women, and children ranging from a five-day old infant to a 79 year old man, and rescued thousands more during the 1994 refugee crisis.

In one case the communist dictatorship was able to further torture Orlando Zapata Tamayo and accelerate his death, while in the other organized a sophisticated conspiracy with spies infiltrating and sabotaging Brothers to the Rescue, providing information on when and where they would be flying to facilitate the MiGs shooting them down, and mobilize agents of influence in the media and centers of power to deflect and minimize international outrage.

However the family and friends of Orlando Zapata Tamayo mobilized to defend him along with the international human rights community, and his years long commitments to human rights activism: gathering signatures for Project Varela, organizing teach-ins on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and getting arrested for peacefully protesting the jailing of other human rights defenders.
In the case of Brothers to the Rescue the aftermath changed Cuba policy in both the United States and the European Union, and efforts by Havana to smear the humanitarian organization failed because the thousands of Cubans that they saved are witnesses to their good works.

This is not an accident, the late Bishop Agustín Román spoke of the importance of having the right intentions:

“If what we do for Cuba, we do not do for love, better not do it. If all of us who want the good of the nation, of the important internal dissident movement and the persevering of exile arm ourselves with these virtues, we will be effective. If we are committed to not let personalism, or the passions dilute them, we will have won. If we keep them and transmit them to all our people, we will have secured for Cuba a happy future. “

Secondly he also proclaimed the importance of employing right means or of action being consistent with conscience:

More concretely, I would say that the greatest importance of the internal dissident movement in Cuba today, is that it has proven that political action can be consistent with what conscience knows and that is that the force of reason is, and should be more powerful than the reason of force.

Today, the Center for a Free Cuba remembered Orlando Zapata Tamayo by highlighting the plight of four Cuban political prisoners that are at risk of dying in prison, and calling for help to international human rights organizations.

Members of Brothers to the Rescue will gather at a memorial in Opalocka at 11am to remember their fallen friends.

Tomorrow families and friends of Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario Manuel de la Peña, and Pablo Morales will gather at Florida International University from 3:21pm to 3:27pm in a moment of silence as they have done over the past 25 years.

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In the evening at 5:00pm the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance will gather at the Cuban Memorial in Tamiami Park ” to commemorate the Cuban martyrs killed by the Castro tyranny on February 24, 1996.”

Nonviolence continues to “work” pursuing truth, justice, and memory and raising awareness of this history and its consequences today. These acts of remembrance continue to be important and necessary. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic these activities necessitate prudence: mask wearing, social distancing, and smaller numbers. There is also a call for a virtual vigil that encourages individuals to take pictures and share them on February 24th.

Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, February 23, 2021


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Miami, Florida – February 23, 2021 – Assembly of the Cuban Resistance– The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance convokes a solemn activity to commemorate the Cuban martyrs killed by the Castro tyranny on February 24, 1996, in the Massacre of Brothers to the Rescue.

Where: Cuban Memorial in Tamiami Park, 11201 SW 24th St, Miami, FL. 33165 (in front of the main entrance to the Youth Fair).

When: February 24, 2021 at 5pm

Participants will wear masks and respect social distancing guidelines. The event will be outdoors, in front of the Cuban Memorial Monument.

On the 25th anniversary of the massacre of the young Cuban-American volunteers of Brothers to the Rescue in international airspace, the Cuban exile has organized an event to commemorate this painful anniversary.

During the event, the Assembly will also remember the beginning of the Cuban War of Independence, on February 24, 1895, when Cubans fought to achieve the freedoms and rights that they have lost under the current communist tyranny.

Likewise, the Assembly will commemorate the repression against the Cuban Council, a Cuban opposition movement, on February 24, 1996. This was part of a comprehensive clampdown of the Castro tyranny against the internal and external Cuban Resistance in order to suppress Cubans’ desire for freedom.

From the archives

Amnesty International, February 24, 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.


Global Nonviolent Action Database, April 12, 2011

Cuban dissident Orlando Tamayo Zapata hunger strikes for the rights of Cuban prisoners, 2009-2010

Goals To draw attention to the harsh treatment of Cuban prisoners and the imprisonment of peaceful dissidents.

Time period notes Tamayo’s death marks the end of his immediate campaign, but his actions sparked significant support for his cause both inside and outside of Cuba after his death.

Time period 3 December, 2009 to 23 February, 2010

Country Cuba

Location City/State/Province Camaguey

Location Description Kilo 8 prison (a Cuban maximum security prison)

PCS Tags (Mainly or Initiated by) People of Color

Despite the authoritarian nature of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist Party and its reputation for harsh treatment of dissident uprisings, many Cuban opposition groups persisted in calling for a more democratic Cuba throughout the late 20th century and into the new millennium. (See “Cubans petition for democratic reforms, 1998-2003” for more information on Cuba’s political history)

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a local carpenter and plumber, was an active member of the nonviolent opposition movement in Cuba, boasting membership in two dissident groups, the Movimiento Alternativa Republicana and the Consejo Nacional de Resistencia Cívica. In the early 2000s Castro’s intolerance of opposition mounted, and Tamayo, among others, was arrested in December 2002 on charges that he had been ‘disrespectful’ to Cuban police. Soon after his release in March 2003, Tamayo participated in a fast with several other former prisoners and leaders of the opposition movement.  The fast was intended to draw attention to the rights of Cuban prisoners that were experiencing harsh conditions in Cuban prisons.

18 March 2003 marked the first of two days of a massive government crackdown on dissidents known as the Black Spring. Tamayo was among hundreds of dissidents arrested and thrown in jail awaiting trial. He was tried on 18 May 2004, and sentenced to three years in jail for contempt, public disorder, and disobedience along with 75 others.

In 2004, Amnesty International named Tamayo and four other Cuban men ‘Prisoners of Conscience.’  Amnesty International urged the Cuban government to release all Prisoners of Conscience and stop the harassment and harsh treatment of dissidents. 

Not long after, Tamayo was tried again and sentenced to 36 years in prison. 

Tamayo began his sentence in a prison in Havana, but he was moved to several different prisons during his term. Many of the 75 prisoners were transferred during their sentences to move them as far away as possible from their families. Female relatives of the prisoners had formed a protest group called Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White). 

Tamayo and the other prisoners endured harsh treatment in Cuban prisons. Tamayo was reportedly subjected to multiple beatings, one of which merited surgery when guards at Holguin provincial prison caused an internal hematoma in his head.   Tamayo took the route of many Cuban prisoners to draw attention to his suffering: he began a hunger strike on 3 December 2009, at Kilo 8 prison in Camaguey to draw attention to the government’s incarceration of peaceful dissidents.

Prison guards took Tamayo to solitary confinement, where prisoners on hunger strikes were often taken to try to break their spirit. Tamayo was defiant, and refused to eat anything that was brought to him by anyone other than his mother, who visited him every three months. 

News of Tamayo’s hunger strike reached beyond the walls of the prison, and Amnesty International continued to put pressure on Castro to release the Prisoners of Conscience. In the 11th week of the hunger strike American officials heard about Tamayo’s declining health and put pressure on their Cuban counterparts during talks on immigration in Havana.

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 a kidney failure, and Tamayo was taken to Amalia Simoni Hospital in Camaguay 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. 

On 23 February 2010 Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after having refused food for 85 days.

The outrage from the international community after Tamayo’s death was immediate and overwhelming. Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as top governmental leader in 2008, issued a statement of regret in the days immediately following Tamayo’s death.

Shortly after Tamayo’s death Guillermo Farinas, a Cuban dissident, psychologist, and independent journalist, started a 134-day hunger strike in honor of Tamayo, demanding that all ailing political prisoners be released from Cuban prisons. Farinas was joined by other prisoners that had been arrested in the Black Spring, who started their own hunger strikes in protest.  

In March the European Parliament voted to condemn Cuba for the “avoidable and cruel” death of Tamayo. The European Parliament was joined by others including the Cuban Democratic Directorate, Las Damas de Blanco and the Cuba Archive of the Free Society Project.

Tamayo’s mother Reina Luisa Tamayo vowed to carry on her son’s fight for justice in Cuba, denouncing the Castro regime. After her son’s death, she and her family were harassed and intimidated by government supporters, prompting her to leave Cuba and bring her son’s ashes to Miami, where she and her family relocated. Upon her arrival she gave a small press conference declaring her vision of a free Cuba and furthering her martyred son’s cause.

Within two years of Tamayo’s death all 75 men originally arrested during the Black Spring were released.

IACHR, September 29, 1999

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REPORT Nº 86/99
CASE 11.589
September 29, 1999

I.          SUMMARY

          1.          On 25 February 1996, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter “the Commission” or “the Inter-American Commission”) received several complaints brought against the Republic of Cuba (hereinafter “the State,” “the Cuban State,” or “Cuba”) according to which a MiG-29 military aircraft belonging to the Cuban Air Force (FAC) downed two unarmed civilian light airplanes belonging to the organization “Brothers to the Rescue.”[1] According to a report issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the incidents occurred on 24 February 1996 at 3:21 p.m. and 3:27 p.m., respectively, in international airspace. The air-to-air missiles fired by the MiG-29 destroyed the civilian light aircraft, immediately killing Armando Alejandre Jr. (45 years old), Carlos Alberto Costa (29), Mario Manuel de la Peña (24), and Pablo Morales (29). The complaint concludes with the Commission being requested to begin proceedings in accordance with Articles 32 et seq. of its Regulations and to declare Cuba responsible for failing to comply with its international obligations contained in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (hereinafter “the Declaration” or “the American Declaration”) for violating the right to life and the right to a fair trial as set forth in Articles I and XVIII of said international instrument.

          2.          After receiving several complaints regarding the same incident and persons, the Commission combined them, as provided for in Article 40(2) of its Regulations, as file Nº 11.589.[2] Thus, the petitioners in the case at hand are the direct relatives of the victims (Marlene Alejandre, Marlene Victoria Alejandre, Mirta Costa, Osvaldo Costa, Miriam de la Peña, Mario de la Peña, and Eva Barbas), Dr. Haydeé Marín (Institute of Human and Labor Rights at Florida International University), Dr. Claudio Benedí (Cuban Patriotic Council), and Mr. José J. Basulto (Brothers to the Rescue).

          3.          Since the start of proceedings in this case on 7 March 1996, the Cuban State has not replied to the Commission’s repeated requests for information regarding the admissibility and merits of the matter. Therefore, based on an exhaustive analysis of the legal and factual grounds and in accordance with Article 42 of its Regulations,[3] the Commission believes that the complaint meets the formal requirements for admissibility as set forth in the Regulations and concludes that the Cuban State is responsible for violating the rights enshrined in the American Declaration as reported by the petitioners in their complaint of 25 February 1996.[4]. Based on the analysis and conclusions of this report, the Commission recommends that the Cuban State conduct an exhaustive investigation into the incidents in question, prosecute and punish the individuals responsible for the different violations described herein, and make adequate and timely amends to the victims’ direct relatives, including the payment of fair compensatory indemnification.