Determined to head off another deadly confrontation between Cuban warplanes and unarmed civilians, President Clinton ordered the Coast Guard on Thursday to escort an armada of Cuban exile aircraft and boats to a memorial demonstration this weekend for the pilots shot down off the island’s coast last Saturday.
Clinton directed the Coast Guard, with U.S. Navy and Air Force planes standing by to add military muscle, to prevent a Cuban attack on the exiles - while making sure demonstrators do not penetrate Cuba’s territorial waters or airspace.
“The president has approved a strong warning to the Cuban government not to violate basic norms of international conduct,” White House press secretary Mike McCurry said in announcing Clinton’s decision. “We will not tolerate the loss of American lives.”
But he added: “Unauthorized entry by U.S. aircraft and vessels into Cuban territory is prohibited, and firm legal action will face those who violate this prohibition.”
The president’s decision, reached after a series of White House meetings, is intended to make sure that members of the Brothers to the Rescue exile group will be able to conduct a peaceful and dignified memorial Saturday honoring four of the organization’s pilots who died when Cuban warplanes blasted their two tiny Cessna aircraft from the sky.
The steps are unlikely to satisfy Cuban American hard-liners who have demanded punitive action against Fidel Castro’s government for last weekend’s shoot-down.
And the Cuban Americans and their allies on Capitol Hill are unlikely to support the tough restrictions that Clinton ordered against exile groups that taunt Castro by invading the island’s territory, something Brothers to the Rescue has boasted of doing.
The president directed maritime and aviation authorities to adopt regulations imposing jail terms on the owners and operators of boats or aircraft that violate Cuban waters or airspace and authorizing seizure of the vessels and airplanes. McCurry said the regulations “go well beyond normal operating procedures.”