"Shoot Down" Better but still flawed Says Basulto

When it first was shown many Cduban exiles were critical of the film “Shoot Down.” The Docu-drama that details the events leading to, during, and after the downing of two unarmed American civilian aircraft. The airplane were in internation airspace north of Cuba when a Cuban MIG-23 blew the aircraft out of the sky, Feburary 24, 1996. I have seen the updated version and noticed many of those portrayed have be reinterviewed and new information has been added. It is a better film, but still has issues. Here is the take of Jose Basulto who piloted the one surviving aircraft and is the President of Brothers to the Rescue.

JOSE BASULTO’S RESPONSE TO THE DOCUMENTARY SHOOT DOWN

We must credit Christina Khuly Eger for the notable improvements in her film, Shoot Down, which opened last week in select theaters in South Florida and nationwide. Although the documentary rings truer than the original version, it continues to omit relevant information pertaining to Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). More importantly, it leaves the viewer with an erroneous impression of some of the facts surrounding February 24, 1996.

The spokesperson for Shoot Down is Maggie Khuly, mother of director Christina Khuly Eger and sister of Armando Alejandre, Jr., one of the victims. Another figure prominently featured in the film is Richard Nuccio, the former head of Cuban Affairs at the U.S. State Department. Several of their statements demand rectification.

One of the most erroneous parts of the movie is Maggie Khuly’s affirmation that several of the exile organizations had asked BTTR not to fly on February 24. This is completely false.

Mrs. Khuly had never participated in BTTR’s activities or as a member of the organizations that supported Concilio Cubano, a coalition of dissident groups planning an unprecedented meeting on this historic day in Havana. Armando Alejandre, Jr., her brother, was one of seven individuals chosen by our exile organizations to coordinate efforts in support for Concilio Cubano. He wanted BTTR to fly on February 24 and he wanted to be part of that flight. Sadly, although he had flown with us weeks before as a volunteer on a humanitarian mission to help provide basic needs for fellow refugees at Nassau’s detention center, the day of the shoot down was his first – and only – search and rescue mission in the Straits of Florida.

Alejandre was dedicated to the non-violent struggle we adhered to at BTTR against the Castro dictatorship. He was a man of action, not words; he was a true hero, committed to help bring about freedom and democracy to the oppressed Cuban people. If BTTR was asked not to fly that day why would Alejandre have flown with BTTR against the wishes of Concilio Cubano which he represented in exile?

The evening of Friday, February 23, 1996, various exile groups met at the Hyatt Hotel in Coral Gables where a support and information center for Concilio Cubano was operating. At the Hyatt meeting, Alejandre passed on to Sylvia Iriondo (the head of Mothers Against Repression, MAR por Cuba, and one of the survivors on my plane) who was sitting next to me, a note asking her to tell me on his behalf that BTTR should fly a humanitarian search and rescue mission to the Straits of Florida the following morning and that he wanted to be a part of it. Mrs. Iriondo showed Armando’s note to me.

If Cuban exile organizations had warned, asked, pleaded or even suggested that BTTR not fly the next morning, would it have made sense that both Mr. Alejandre, as a leading member of Concilio Cubano’s coordinating group in exile, and Mrs. Iriondo, as head of one of the organizations actively supporting Concilio Cubano, place thenselves against their wishes and fly with us that day? NO such wishes were ever expressed. Shortly after the meeting, it was agreed that BTTR would fly a routine search and rescue mission in the Straits of Florida on February 24, 1996. The exile groups never asked us to cancel our mission for that day.

After the shoot down and upon our return to the hangar at Opa Locka, Mrs. Iriondo gave that note to Armando Alejandre, Sr., as a testimonial to his son’s desire to fly with us that day. The Alejandre family has never mentioned this note and the film makes no mention of it.

The second most egregious part of the movie is that BTTR was warned that the Cubans intended to shoot us down. No one in the U.S. government warned us about the impending shoot down, neither that day nor any other day. We reaffirm: at no time was any official warning given to us in the form of a letter, fax, telegram, telephone call, radio transmission, email, personal communication or any other form of communication that there was any real threat or additional peril for flying on February 24, 1996. If there was such a warning why is that person not interviewed or the letter, e-mail, etc. shown in the film?

Another addition to the first version of the documentary includes the recorded voice of Raul Castro issuing orders for a shoot down whenever and wherever possible, preferring that it not take place over land. We understand that the families of Armando Alejandre, Jr., Carlos Costa, and Mario de la Peña had been given a copy of this recording by a Spanish activist before the original documentary was released. When asked why Brothers to the Rescue and Eva Barbas (mother of murdered pilot Pablo Morales) were never given a copy of this tape, the families’ attorney responded that the tape had been turned over to the FBI. The FBI denies ever receiving it and the attorney never followed up with the FBI. We feel this tape should have been made public years ago.

The film does, however briefly, touch on what we have been stating from the beginning: the events of February 24, 1996 were allowed to happen as a result of the lack of response (and/or complicity) of the Clinton administration. Major Jeffrey Houlihan saw the MiGs on his radar screen and made the equivalent of a 911 call to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. They stoically replied, “We’re handling it. Don’t worry”. Fighter jets on the runway in Homestead were told to “stand down”; that is: do not take off while the air force bases watched the persecution and shoot down of our planes for 53 minutes. Yet when the BTTR planes were not in the air that very morning and MiGs had been deployed, the Homestead fighter pilots were scrambled.

There was a protocol in place that had been used numerous times whenever MiGs were spotted. BTTR pilots were radioed; the BTTR base was informed; and interceptors were scrambled. No one – not one of the many agencies that were monitoring our flights that day – called to inform us we were being hunted down. Radar control stations were making screen prints and print-outs; an Orion intelligence aircraft was monitoring; and the U.S. government was watching. No one called Brothers to the Rescue. Even after the first two planes were downed, no one informed us, the lone survivors, that we were being chased by a second group of MiGs.

Nuccio’s statements also require rectification. I was a licensed pilot the day of the shoot down. It wasn’t until later, to appease the Cuban government, that my license was revoked.

It is inconceivable that Nuccio lays the blame on me for the horrendous crime that was committed that day. The Miami Herald reviewer Marta Barber in her movie review of January 25th, 2008 repeats the uncontested false statements Nuccio makes at the end of the film as fact. It is ironic that Nuccio asks me to apologize to the Cuban government for the murder of three American citizens and one legal resident over international waters, as determined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of the United Nations, while flying civilian aircraft on a humanitarian mission. We invite Nuccio to apologize to the four families for remaining silent when he could have prevented the shoot down.

Shoot Down is a documentary worth seeing only to reaffirm that truth and justice are yet to be attained.

José J. Basulto
President, Brothers to the Rescue
N2506 Pilot (Survivor)

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