March 11, 1996 Volume 147, No.11
INTERVIEW: FIDEL'S DEFENSE
REGINALD K. BRACK JR,; JOELLE ATTINGER; CATHY BOOTH; FIDEL CASTRO
In an exclusive conversation with Reginald K. Brack Jr., chairman of Time Inc., Joelle Attinger, TIME's chief of correspondents, and Cathy Booth, the Miami bureau chief, Castro tried to explain and justify shooting down the two defenseless planes.
TIME: What are your first thoughts?
Castro: All these attacks against Cuba are done with civilian planes. To tell the truth, these attacks have happened repeatedly over the years, and it has 'created a condition of distrust.
TIME: Why did you take this action now?
Castro: Before, Brothers helped rafters. But then they began engaging in extremely serious terrorist actions against our country under the sponsorship of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. They harassed our Air Force, violated our air space, dropped leaflets on our capital and engaged in other constant acts of provocation. On July 13 they dropped leaflets on Havana. It was a real provocation. On Jan. 9 and .13, they came back and dropped thousands of leaflets. In fact, people watched from Malecon [Havana's oceanfront promenade] as MiGs made warning passes against their planes. People were criticizing the Cuban air force. We reported each and every violation to the United States in a diplomatic protest. We warned U.S. officials time and again. We had been patient, but there are limits.
TIME: Nevertheless, the Helms-Burton bill was dormant. The wisdom of the embargo was being openly debated.
Castro: We realized the incident would be exploited as an issue between Cuba and the U.S. and would become an issue in the American presidential election. But, in addition to these flights, there was also interference by the U.S. Interests Section in our internal affairs. What these people were doing was intolerable. They were giving money and paying the bills of dissidents. They were visiting the provinces and promoting opposition to the government under the pretext of checking on rafters returned from the U.S. And all the time we were just watching. It was intolerable. And then there were flights.
TIME: What was the chain of command?
Castro: We discussed it with Raul [Castro's brother and head of the Air Defense Forces] and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We agreed that what happened on Ian. 9 and 13 cannot happen again. We gave the order to the head of the air force. On Saturday, [Brothers' planes] came twice. The San Antonio air base was on high alert. On the third pass, they scrambled and did their job. They shot the planes down. They are professionals. They did what they believe is the right thing. These are all people we trust, but I take responsibility for what happened.
TIME: Instead of shooting them down, why didn't you try to force them to land?
Castro: It is very difficult. We have tried it with the narco-traffickers and lost some of our planes.
TIME: Did you doubt the will of the U.S. to prevent the flights?
Castro: There's no doubt about the will, but there is some question whether the U.S. government attached importance to our warnings. They may have believed it was not so important. These plans were conceived not only against Cuba but also by those plotting against Clinton in this election year. They want to create problems for Clinton. They want to drive him into war.
TIME: Did you ever think about calling President Clinton?
Castro: (Stunned pause) I have never talked to any president of the United States. The exiles would murder Clinton if they found out he was talking to me.