“I consider myself to be a marginal individual,” says Maggie Alejandre Khuly at the start of Shoot Down. “There’s no way I can be a real, native-born U.S. American citizen, and I will never be a real Cuban citizen again because Cuba has changed.” Her self-assessment isn’t a lament so much as it is a useful lens through which to understand her experience — as Cuban exile, American citizen, and sister of Armando Alejandre Jr.
All these roles are showcased in Shoot Down, a documentary about the February 24th, 1996 shoot down of two U.S. civilian airplanes by the Cuban military. While surely stunning at the time — igniting controversy, protests, questions about and hurried legislation by the Clinton Administration — the story has since been largely overshadowed by subsequent crises. Directed by Cristina Khuly, Maggie’s niece, the smart, moving Shoot Down recovers this bit of recent history but hardly reduces it. Rather, the documentary opens out the many questions that persist concerning the event, contributing tensions and fallout, and, perhaps most importantly, the legal and political consequences of governments making convenient, impressionistic definitions of “terrorism.”
As Maggie Khuly and other relatives of the four men killed recall, the incident occurred amid increasing frictions among three elements, the United States government, Fidel Castro’s government, and the Cuban community in Florida. As Cubans in Miami and elsewhere feel “marginal,” many were, in the 1990s, still hoping to press for change in Cuba, for the chance to recapture a sense of homeland. “Our children are born in the U.S.,” says Miriam de la Peña, mother to Mario (one of the pilots killed), “But they all live in stories of Cuba.” Such stories were made into “current events” when, during the early ’90s, thousands of refugees “jumped on rafts” to cross the Florida Straits and enter the U.S. While, as de la Peña reports, only an estimated one in four of the rafters survived, the desire to escape, and in many cases to join family already in the States, was born of desperation.
And, as TV cameras often captured the rafters making their difficult ways across the waters, the cause became well publicized. Among those moved to action was “Brothers to the Rescue” (“Hermanos al Rescate”), a volunteer group of pilots and other rescue workers co-founded by Jose Basultos. They would fly over the Straits to spot rafters, point them out to the Coast Guard, and thus, essentially, save their lives (this even as, the film states, between 1990 and 1996, it is “estimated that over 24,000 rafters perished at sea”). At the time, when their immigration was not restricted, BTTR seemed all good. As General John J. Sheehan, Atlantic Command retired, puts it, “There was a very real need for coverage, so the concept of a civil air patrol was a great idea.”
However, such unofficial activity offended Castro, who resented the increasingly vocal dissidents both inside and outside Cuba. His administration arranged for spies to infiltrate BTTR, and Shoot Down includes an interview with Ana Martinez, ex-wife of spy Juan Pablo Roque (apparently, he was married to her for four years as “cover”). As complaints grew louder on all sides, and the BTTR efforts to resist grew bolder (flying closer and closer to Cuba in its self-appointed missions), the Clinton administration and Castro entered into negotiations over Cuban immigration, eventually coming up with a new definition of “political refugee,” and sending back those asylum seekers who could not make the case. The very idea of negotiating angered anti-Castro activists, and the new TV images of the Coast Guard and others blocking rafters’ landing on beaches were incendiary (one archival TV interviewee compares the tactics to “the Gestapo or the Stasi”).
According to Clinton advisor Richard Nuccio, “Unfortunately, that change [in immigration policy] is what provoked the shoot down.” As Basulto says, the BTTR’s mission expanded from spotting or even rescuing rafters to leafleting Havana, to expose the government “for creating the conditions that made it necessary for those people to jump on a raft.” The U.S., trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Cuban military, didn’t go so far as to arrest or otherwise contain Basulto or his employees, even as Cuba accused BTTR of committing “terrorist acts.” The shoot down followed a February 24 meeting between European Union representatives and the Concilio Cubano, a diasporic dissident group founded by Leonel Morejón Almagro in 1995 (a group previously targeted by the Cuban government). The shoot down itself is reenacted under cockpit recordings (the sequence is unnerving, to say the least), while the consequences are delineated such that multiple interpretations compete.
The immediate result of the crisis was the passing of the Helms Burton Act, which strengthened the U.S.-led embargo against Cuba (as one interviewee points out, this decision has never cost Castro in material terms, but has adversely affected the population). For the families, the crisis led to some 10 years of investigation and frustration. Rejecting a settlement offer by the U.S. that would allow the families to collect about $50 million in compensatory damages from frozen Cuban government assets in the United States, they sought financial punishment of the Cuban government (found guilty in a 1997 civil judgment, that termed the Cuban government a “terrorist group”). (As Maggie Khuly describes it, “Words cannot express the shock that we felt,” seeing the “Cuban government and the US government seated at the same table.”)
As it articulates the families’ trauma and distress, the film also shows the layers of context that have produced their frustrations. Stories continue to circulate that the U.S. knew about the shoot down ahead of time, that it has allowed a serious breach of security to go unexplained, or that the lack of response to the destruction of two civilian aircraft had to do with an agreement with Cuba (“Because they could do nothing legal against us,” says one BTTR representative, “They decided to let something illegal take place”), the film features a range of experts and participants. It also showcases the unresolved argument between Basulto and Nuccio to crystallize on screen through a series of juxtapositions: Basulto insists on his right to protest policy, Nuccio calls his actions “very foolish or very reckless”; Nuccio claims, “I did everything I could to try to deter BTTR from continuing its flights,” while Balusto says, “They didn’t ask us or warn us about any impending danger that we were in, that Nuccio knew that was in effect.”
But even as they disagree over how the shoot down happened, the film draws broader conclusions from the ongoing debates and refusals to take responsibility. For all the doubts that might be raised concerning Nuccio’s actions at the time, he voices a closing concern that willful blindness or poorly conceived policy toward Cuba –even as Fidel and Raul Castro’s reign is in its last stages — can only lead to more trouble. The U.S., he says, must be reshaping policy now, to avoid a dire future that looks much like the still troubled past.