National Defense

Shoot Down Over Cuba

A bold new documentary calls Castro to task for senseless murders

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In June 2000, this magazine published a cover story on Hollywood's "missing movies." These were not, alas, films that had been neglected by inattentive archivists or spurned by Ted Turner's guardians of classic film. The target of this search-and-rescue operation, wrote critic Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, were those tales of injustice, those triumphs of the spirit that Hollywood had little interest in producing. Long under the spell of radical writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets, Hollywood was "a town that welcomed Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista junta but never took up the cause of a single Soviet or Eastern European dissident."

Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the entertainment industry is still sensitive to charges of Cold War jingoism, though the spread of hipster Buddhism has necessitated the occasional dramatization of China's occupation of Tibet. A spate of recent films—none of them produced in Hollywood—is also providing a more nuanced picture of the Cold War, one that eschews simple moral equivalence in favor of the dystopian reality of the Eastern Bloc.

This past year saw the release of The Singing Revolution, a riveting documentary detailing the little-known story of Estonia's non-violent resistance to Soviet occupation; the German political drama The Lives of Others, a deeply affecting portrait of the Zamyatinian nightmare that was East Germany; and Katyn, a dramatic recapitulation of the mass murder of 20,000 Polish officers shortly after the country's partition under conditions set by the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. (Eight years ago, Billingsley wondered presciently why the story of the Katyn massacre never made it to the big screen.)

Even Hollywood's strange love affair with the Cuban revolution, recently evidenced by Oliver Stone's Comandante and Walter Salles' saccharine salute to Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, is at long last showing signs of abating. A few years ago, New York painter/director Julian Schnabel memorably upbraided Castro in his film Before Night Falls, a portrait of the gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, imprisoned by the communist government for both his aberrant politics and sexuality.

Now, from first-time director Cristina Khuly, comes Shoot Down, a brilliantly rendered and scrupulously even-handed documentary revisiting the 1996 Cuban downing of two civilian planes over international waters, both piloted by Miami-based exiles from the group Brothers to the Rescue. Khuly, a 37-year-old sculptor, is the niece of shoot-down victim Armando Alejandre Jr.

An event soon overshadowed by the saga of Elian Gonzales, the attack on the unarmed Brothers to the Rescue planes is now largely forgotten outside Miami. And despite the smokescreen of misinformation presented by Castro and his foreign enablers, the facts of the story are rather straightforward and grimly characteristic of a totalitarian regime.

As three Brothers to the Rescue planes approached Cuban territory, the lead plane, piloted by the group's founder Jose Basulto, briefly breached Cuban airspace. While the planes were searching for refugees in the water, officials in Havana, tipped off by a mole in the Brothers leadership, scrambled Soviet-made MiG fighter planes to knock the planes out of the sky. Basulto's plane managed to escape. When the other two were vaporized by Cuban missiles, both were flying over international waters.

The mole, former Cuban Air Force MiG pilot Juan Pablo Roque, is a chilling reminder of the Stasi-like tactics of the Cuban secret police. Roque infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue by insinuating himself into the exile community—going so far as to write a book for the Cuban American National Foundation detailing his escape from the island—and marrying a local woman as cover. The day before the deadly flight, Roque declined an invitation to participate in the mission and informed his wife that he would be away on business. A day later, he reappeared on Cuban state television to denounce the Brothers as "terrorists" of the empire.

It is perhaps unintentional, but Shoot Down reasserts the controversy and complexity of the Clinton years, often obscured in hindsight by the salaciousness of the Lewinsky scandal and the failures of the Bush presidency. From our vantage point, it's easy to forget that Clinton sanctioned the liberal use of heavily militarized federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Waco, and during the seizure of Elian Gonzales from a Florida residence. He also reversed a 30-year old American policy treating those fleeing Cuba as political refugees.

It was this change, we learn, that precipitated Brothers to the Rescue's shift from search-and-rescue operations in the Florida Straits to direct confrontation with the Castro regime. (Prior to the shoot down, Brothers dropped pro-democracy leaflets from within Cuban airspace, to be carried by the wind to shore.) Under pressure from Castro, the Clinton administration revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment act, reclassifying those fleeing Cuba from political refugees to illegal immigrants worthy of repatriation—unless they managed to reach American shores. This was the birth of the "wet foot-dry foot" policy, under which individuals would be returned to Cuba if picked up at sea. This was also the death of Brothers to the Rescue's previously cordial relationship with U.S. authorities.

The Clinton administration's response to the shoot-down crisis, hotly argued by the documentary's on-screen surrogates, is found by all to be deficient. That leaves viewer wondering what, short of sending F-16s on sorties over Havana, the appropriate response to such hostile acts should have been. It is clear, though, that, as Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) argues in the film, had such an event been perpetrated by the apartheid government of South Africa or Pinochet's Chile, the level of public outrage surely would have been greater.

But arguments like those of Diaz-Balart aren't offered in isolation. Shoot Down strives not to be seen as a "Miami exile" film, leading Khuly to explore—and subtly reject—the Castroite perspective. The strenuous attempt at balance is, at times, irksome. One wonders if the inclusion of Castro hagiographer Saul Landau, who signed a recent editorial on the Cuban revolution with the exclamation "Viva Fidel!," adds anything to the story, other than to act as another layer of insulation against charges of bias.

But this is a minor quibble. Unctuous fellow-travelers such as Landau (who sheepishly confesses to the camera that Cuba's judicial system is "less than perfect") will convince no one that destroying civilian planes was necessary for the revolution's survival.

Almost a decade ago in reason, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley rightly bemoaned the film industry's lack of interest in arguably the 20th century's greatest tragedy: the stubborn adherence of politicians, artists, and intellectuals to the dogma of Marxism-Leninism. The  recent crop of films promises, however belatedly, to begin the process of correction.

Currently in limited release, Shoot Down by itself will not redraw the image of Castro-as-beneficent-leader—Michael Moore's paean to Cuban health care was just nominated for an Oscar, after all. But every little bit helps.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

Discuss this story at reason's Hit & Run blog.

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