On 20th anniversary of Cuba shoot-down, U.S. softens language in a ban on travel

Maggie Khuly, sister of Armando Alejandre, one of the victims of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, and Mirta Costa, mother of another victim, Carlos Costa, held photos of the four who were killed when a Cuban MiG downed two small planes in 1996.
Maggie Khuly, sister of Armando Alejandre, one of the victims of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, and Mirta Costa, mother of another victim, Carlos Costa, held photos of the four who were killed when a Cuban MiG downed two small planes in 1996. Miami Herald

In the latest effort to remove barriers with Cuba, the Obama administration has softened the language of a Clinton-era emergency decree that bans U.S. boats from entering Cuban territorial waters.

The order, sent to Congress Wednesday, maintains restrictions on unauthorized travel into Cuban waters that were first imposed in 1996 after the Feb. 24 downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by a Cuban air force fighter jet. But the new order, published on the 20th anniversary of that event, uses strikingly less bellicose language that stresses the efforts to improve relations between the formerly adversarial countries.

The Obama administration said the timing of the new order, when families of four Brothers to the Rescue volunteers were marking two decades since their loved ones’ deaths, was unintentional. The administration said the annual proclamation comes up at the same time every year, though rarely on the precise anniversary of the shoot-down.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, used the occasion to question White House priorities, saying it should instead be seeking justice for the four men on the 20th anniversary of their deaths.

“These are the same waters that have witnessed record numbers of Cubans risking their lives to reach freedom because of the oppression they are facing under the Castro regime – a regime that has found an ally in President Obama,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Federal officials emphasized that the legal restrictions in the proclamation still outlaw unauthorized travel into Cuban waters. But gone is tough language about a “ready and reckless” Cuba willing to use deadly force against U.S. citizens. Instead, the proclamation acknowledges that U.S. policies failed to promote positive change in Cuba.

“Longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba had, at times, tended to isolate the Untied States,” Obama wrote in the order.

The tempered decree is just the latest move by the Obama administration to improve ties with the communist nation since Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that they would take steps to normalize relations.

In the past year, the United States has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, reestablished diplomatic relations and opened an embassy in Havana. Last week, Obama announced he will be the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years as the two sides attempt to end decades of Cold War hostility.

As that visit was announced, administration officials told business leaders at a forum in Washington that the embargo against trade with Cuba would likely not be lifted by the end of his term, but that the administration would continue to break down what trade barriers it could so that it would be more difficult for any future administration to reverse the changes.

The administration has already taken several steps to encourage trade, including allowing American companies to sell to Cuba on credit, relaxing travel restrictions, eliminating limits on remittances and restoring direct mail.

That’s a far cry from the atmosphere 20 years ago when a Cuban Air Force fighter jet opened fire on two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue planes that were returning to Florida after flying over Cuba. Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario M. de la Peña and Pablo Morales were volunteers for the Miami-based nonprofit, which helped search for rafters in the Florida Straits. The group also dropped pro-democracy leaflets over Cuba.

The shoot-down exacerbated already tense U.S.-Cuba relations and prompted President Bill Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Act, which ramped up economic sanctions against Cuba and placed into law the longtime trade embargo.

Clinton issued the emergency order in March 1996 to prevent Cuban-American protesters from provoking an international incident after the downing. In 2004, President George W. Bush toughened the order to stop recreational boaters from sailing to Cuba and spending money in violation of the U.S. embargo.

Obama signed the same proclamation for years, including last year, after reaching an agreement with Cuba to normalize relations. But federal officials this year recognized a need to change the language, which previously warned that Cuba “had not refrained from the use of excessive force” against U.S. boats engaged in memorial activities or peaceful protest north of Cuba.

Despite the softer language, the Obama administration kept the restrictions on U.S. boats entering Cuban waters out of concern that Cuban-Americans might flock to Cuban ports to ferry out Cubans wanting to leave.

“I would submit that it reflects the importance of ensuring the normalization process is not disrupted due to illicit maritime migration,” said a Coast Guard official who was familiar with the new proclamation but who was not allowed to discuss it publicly. “That is an ongoing concern for us, that illegal migration might upset that normalization process.”

“The United States has committed to work with the Government of Cuba on matters of mutual concern that advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, human rights, counter-narcotics, environmental protection, and trafficking in persons,” Obama writes in the new decree.