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Miami-area events commemorate 25th anniversary of Brothers to the Rescue massacre

Two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban Air Force jet fighter, killing four.
Two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban Air Force jet fighter, killing four.

MIAMI – Three separate events Wednesday in South Florida commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Brothers to the Rescue massacre.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and local leaders met with the families of the four martyrs Wednesday, and other remembrances were held in Opa-locka and southwest Miami-Dade County.

“It’s a very sad moment for me to be here today, commemorating the 25-year history of the assassination of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots in international waters,” Suarez said. “The callousness with which the Cuban government executed these people, freedom fighters, who were really just trying to do something very basic and help people escape the slavery that they were feeling in the island of Cuba and risking their lives to come 90 miles in the most unnavigable – I don’t even know what you call them, they weren’t boats – contraptions, rafts, whatever people could put together to get to the United States. The abuse of superior force in the eyes of peacefulness and peaceful demonstration that went unpunished by the federal government, by the international community, is inexcusable.”

Brothers to the Rescue was a Miami-based nonprofit organization that was formed by Cuban exiles and is widely known for its opposition to the Cuban government and the late Fidel Castro.

The group would use small planes to search the Florida Straits to help refugees in rafts who were emigrating from Cuba and to “support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active non-violence.”

“It was a most noble mission,” said Sylvia Iriondo of Mothers and Women Against Repression. “They were responsible for at least 2000 humanitarian flights that saved 4,200 rafters, Cubans, men, women and children.”

Two of the Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban Air Force jet fighter, while a second jet fighter orbited nearby.

Pilots Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales were killed that day.

“He loved this country. He loved freedom,” de la Peña’s mother Miriam said. “He never visited Cuba because he was born here. And his ideals and way of life was very American.”

The first aircraft was downed 9 nautical miles outside Cuban territorial airspace and the second aircraft was downed 10 nautical miles outside Cuban airspace.

“Our prayers are with the families and friends of these four martyrs who were taken from them by this cowardly and barbaric act of terrorism,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said in a statement Wednesday. “The Castro regime must be held accountable for its crimes – specifically, Raúl Castro, who ordered this attack.”

Rubio also called for the three men previously indicted by the U.S. federal court — General Rubén Martínez Puente, Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez and Francisco Pérez-Pérez — to be brought to justice.

“This horrendous attack spurred Congress to codify sanctions against the Castro regime, ensuring that U.S. dollars do not enrich a murderous dictatorship that oppresses the Cuban people and threatens our national security interests abroad,” Rubio said. “We will not let the world forget the horror that occurred on February 24, 1996, nor will we remain silent while some individuals attempt to gloss over the true despotic nature of the Cuban dictatorship.

“The regime has shown repeatedly that it harbors no respect for human life, nor for basic human rights. As such, we remain committed to demand justice for the regime’s victims, including Carlos, Armando, Mario, and Pablo, so long as those responsible continue to walk the earth.”

Rubio said the “murderous, narco-trafficking, anti-American regime” has proved each year that passes that it has not changed.

“We must stay the course and refuse to legitimize or fund the regime’s machinery of oppression,” he said. “Instead, we must maintain the pressure and remain in strong solidarity with the Cuban people.”

Suarez said city leaders will take “concrete steps, not just in our resolution on Thursday, but to preserve the memory of this event, to prevent national publications from whitewashing and pretending that the event did not happen.”

“We will not forget,” he said. “We cannot forget.”

Jose Basulto, a Brothers to the Rescue co-founder who is now 80, says this is a good chance to remind the Biden Administration that this is a crime that remains unpublished.

“Don’t turn your backs on us,” he said. “Don’t turn your backs on Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo.”

About the Authors:

Amanda Batchelor is the managing editor for Local10.com.

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.