Cuba and Flamingo anniversaries

First Published: 2005-05-25

A public gathering of 200 dissidents took place in Havana on May 20 – the anniversary of Cuba's independence from Spain.

According to Human Rights Watch, Cuban law criminalises non-violent dissent. This meeting was seen as unprecedented because it attracted little interference from the government.

The handful of participants included illegal political parties, human rights groups and independent libraries. Several European parliamentarians who tried to attend were detained and deported by the government.

However, one of Cuba's leading dissidents was not invited to the conference. He is Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, a Catholic-based organisation.

Paya was excluded, some say, because his views are considered to be too conciliatory towards a regime that has refused to embrace any real change in 40 years.

Paya spearheaded the Varela Project, a proposal for a referendum on peaceful political change that would guarantee freedom of speech and association, and give Cubans the right to own businesses.

Cuban laws "grant the state extraordinary authority to penalize individuals who attempt to enjoy their rights to free expression, opinion, association and assembly, (and) also undercut the right to a fair trial," according to Human Rights Watch.

The Varela proposal would also reform electoral laws, release political prisoners and hold genuine elections. Currently, elections are non-competitive – the constitution recognises only the Communist Party. And political prisoners are dismissed as "counter-revolutionaries".

"We are not offering a perfect model for society, we are trying to present for consideration the first step to create new and better conditions," Paya says. But despite its mildness, the government has ignored his petition.

Paya established the Christian Liberation Movement in 1987and is not well-liked by the Miami exile movement. This is because he has appealed for a softening of US policy towards Cuban leader Fidel Castro – who directs the world's longest running political sideshow.

Some argue that a reconsideration of US strategy could help change what former US president, Jimmy Carter, recently described as a "destructive state of belligerence that makes it difficult to exchange ideas and respect."

Castro is the son of a Creole plantation owner. His official biography says he became a communist as a student leader in the 1940s. But at the time he was a member of the reformist Cuban Peoples Party.

The original Cuban Communist party was formed in 1925 and developed a close relationship with Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator whom Castro overthrew. In 1965, a new communist party was created, which remains the only legal political group – with Castro as its all-powerful head.

Batista led a coup d'etat in 1952, cancelling an election that the Peoples Party was expected to win. Four years later Castro launched a rebellion with a handful of supporters that soon had the Cuban military defecting in droves. Batista fled the country and Castro replaced him in January, 1959.

Resenting foreign influence, Castro began confiscating American property. This led to US pressure on Cuba's important sugar industry, so Castro cut a deal with the Soviet bloc and declared himself a communist.

The years that followed witnessed some of the greatest strategic blunders in history, creating a pointless stalemate that persists to this day. A standoff that has both stunted Cuban growth and humiliated American leadership. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the country to turn Miami into a centre of Latin culture.

In I960, President Dwight Eisenhower approved CIA plans to overthrow or assassinate Castro. A Mafia hit-man was to be paid $150,000 to do the job. This was followed in 1961 by an invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained exiles, which failed miserably. And then the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Tough Call can clearly remember listening to our headmaster at a school assembly explaining in worried tones what the crisis was all about – as jet contrails criss-crossed the sky above.

The US blockaded Cuba in October, 1962 and put more than a hundred thousand troops in Florida for an invasion. Recently declassified information showed that Castro was ready to launch nuclear missiles, but the good sense of both Nikita Kruschev and John Kennedy prevailed, and a secret agreement between the two Cold War leaders defused the crisis.

Castro, however, remained large and in charge – so the US placed an economic embargo on Cuba that is still in force today.

Cuba was totally dependent on Soviet support until the fall of Russian communism in 1989. Castro now cultivates Chinese support and is seeking to build an anti-American alliance with Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who provides him with cheap oil.

At 79, Castro clearly has no intention of stepping down or mellowing out. In the event of his death, it is likely that he would be replaced by his even more hardline brother, Raul – initially at least.

Other than sex and cigars, Bahamians don't think much about Cuba, which would be a formidable tourism competitor if circumstances were to change. Our current PLP leadership seems happy to consort with Castro – he is, after all, a celebrity. But it was not always like that, as the following recollection will show:

The Flamingo Affair – a Regrettable Confusion

A quarter century ago this month, four Defence Force marines were killed when a Bahamian patrol boat was sunk by the Cuban air force.

Today, most Bahamians know little about the incident, which traumatised the country for months. In fact, the anniversary of this event, which the Castro government described as "a regrettable confusion", passed almost unnoticed.

Cuba agreed to pay $10 million in reparations for the sinking of HMBS Flamingo and the murder of the four marines – Fenrick Sturrup, Austin Smith, David Tucker and Edward Williams. And the eight Cuban fishermen who started it all were convicted of poaching in July, 1980.

On Saturday, May 10, 1980 the Flamingo was on routine patrol in the Ragged Island area when it spotted a pair of Cuban fishing boats off deserted Cay Santo Domingo, a Bahamian atoll just 35 miles from the Cuban coast.

As the Flamingo approached, the Cubans fled – until warning shots were fired. Eventually, marines boarded both boats and found 3,000 pounds of fish, lobster, conch and stone crab. The vessels were taken in tow to the nearest cay for a more thorough search.

But on the way, two Cuban MiG jet fighters appeared overhead and began strafing the Flamingo, which was soon rocked by explosions. According to Commander Amos Rolle, "I went to the radio room but there was no power. Water was already ankle deep, so I ordered my men to abandon ship."

All except four of the 19 crewmen made it to one of the fishing boats, with the Cuban jets strafing the area even as the Flamingo was going down. Despite a search by Bahamian and American rescue teams, the four marines were never found.

Commander Rolle, his crew, and eight Cuban fishermen arrived at Duncan Town on Ragged Island about five hours later, but were unable to contact Nassau until early Sunday morning. Soon, more Cuban jets appeared, as well as a military transport and a helicopter – which actually landed briefly next to the fishing boats . It seemed that an actual invasion was underway to retrieve the poachers.

While the jets buzzed Duncan Town, sending the inhabitants scurrying for cover, a hastily chartered DC-3 arrived from Nassau carrying Defence Force chief Bill Swinley and Police Commissioner Salathial Thompson. Had Cuban troops landed, they could have captured the entire Bahamian high command.

Although the MiG fighters soon withdrew, the Cuban transport and helicopter stayed on the scene for another two hours, preventing evacuation of the Flamingo's crew. And on Monday afternoon, other Cuban military aircraft were spotted over Ragged Island by Defence Force personnel.

But reaction in Nassau was less than swift. It took hours for the news to get out on Sunday, and until it did an attitude of shocked disbelief prevailed. Swinley, a long-serving British naval officer, said there was "no military explanation" for what had happened.

The cabinet went into emergency session and stayed incommunicado until the early hours of Monday. A shaken and tired-looking Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Hanna then emerged to protest the initial Cuban claim that the Flamingo had been mistaken for "a pirate ship".

That Sunday night in Nassau resembled the approach of a hurricane. Rumours flew, and there was huge excitement about the prospect of an armed confrontation involving The Bahamas.

Early American radio reports exaggerated the number of aircraft involved and said Cuban troops had actually landed in The Bahamas. Late that evening a fireworks display at Club Med on Paradise Island ignited fears that the Cubans were sailing up Nassau harbour firing at the Churchill Building.

At the Ministry of Tourism's news bureau in Centreville (where Tough Call worked at the time), calls flooded in from news organisations around the world – as well as from many frightened Bahamians who wanted to know what was happening.

But in the absence of direct instructions from the government, ZNS remained eerily silent. Their first news bulletin came at about 10pm on Sunday – more than a day after the incident. But a full account had to wait on an official statement issued well after midnight.

On Monday, at the request of the Bahamian government, the US Coast Guard dispatched a rescue helicopter from Puerto Rico to help the Defence Force search for the missing marines around Cay Santo Domingo. A US Navy destroyer was also on the scene, and there were also reports that a British frigate was in the area. As the Coast Guard helicopter began its search, it was buzzed by two Cuban MiGs:

The Miami Herald reported that the US had dispatched two Marine Corps Phantom jets to the scene on Monday after the Coast Guard helicopter was harrassed. But a Pentagon spokesmen said the MiGs had left the area by the time the US fighters arrived.

At Prime Minister Lynden Pindling's press briefing on Tuesday, May 13, this confrontation was downplayed: "No formal requests had been made for US or British naval or military presence in the area of the incident," the prime minister said. "Our only request has been to the Coast Guard to help in our search for the missing men."

The next three weeks saw round after round of diplomatic exchanges with the Cubans, whose vice minister of foreign affairs flew to Nassau twice to meet with External Affairs Minister Paul Adderley. The government threatened to take the case to the United Nations security council, but said diplomatic relations would only be cut off as a last resort.

The Cubans first said the attack was a mistake. But that was soon replaced by a face-saving formula which accused The Bahamas of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. Prime Minister Pindling retorted that the CIA couldn't be behind a Bahamian patrol ship on a routine patrol of Bahamian waters.

To explain the incident, a look at the wider context at the time is instructive. Cuban President Fidel Castro had suffered his biggest domestic crisis in 20 years when thousands of Cubans occupied the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking to flee the country. This led to an exodus of more than 100,000 refugees – many brought to Florida in small boats. The Cuban economy, kept afloat by millions of dollars a day in Russian aid, was also showing signs of strain.

Miami Herald reporter Don Bohning wrote that the Flamingo affair had unravelled what Castro had taken decades to achieve — "third world leadership and respectability".

There were theories about CIA-backed guerrillas operating on remote Bahamian cays and Soviet submarines and fishing boats laden with sophisticated electronic listening devices. But eventually the Cubans admitted that their planes had attacked "without authorisation".

The incident sparked months of posturing by Bahamian political parties. There were calls for a formal defence treaty with the United States, offers of new patrol craft from several countries, and even some public support for a military draft. At the time, the Defence Force (created in 1976) could muster only 200 marines.

The now defunct Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party was particularly defensive, lying low throughout most of the controversy. After a few weeks they issued a statement calling the Pindling government to task for its "rude, boorish and undiplomatic behaviour" during the crisis:

"We should not allow emotionalism and political expediency to cloud an otherwise excellent record (of friendship). Territorial disputes are a normal part of international affairs," said Vanguard Leader John McCartney.

But this was not a territorial dispute. The Cubans have never claimed Bahamian territory, and each country's economic zone is clearly defined by international law.

The Cubans eventually accepted full responsibility for the the attack and paid compensation to the families of the dead marines. The eight Cuban poachers who started it all paid $90,000 in fines. But probably no-one will ever understand exactly why it happened.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, May 25, 2005.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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