Bringing Freedom to the Cuban People

By Tom Van Hare

Watching the events closely and the Trump Administration’s rollback on Cuba policy is warranted and timely.

What compromises were made by Obama were entirely one-sided, the very definition of what President Trump likes to call a “bad deal”.

Whether you like or hate Trump, he has that part right — what President Obama did in normalizing relations did little more than give an extra lifeline to a failing regime there, which, without US dollars, would likely fall into worse times than we are seeing in Venezuela.

A proper rapprochement would have involved a more complete assessment of reparations due from the illegal seizure of properties owned by Cubans who subsequently fled to the USA and by US businesses there who saw their entire investments, lands, buildings, and companies nationalized by the Castro regime, without compensation or recourse.

Those demands remain outstanding. 

An essential element of any dialogue leading to full normalization of relations should involve Cuba’s renunciation of terrorism, the end of its support for oppressive dictatorial regimes like Venezuela, and guarantees of the respect for human rights of all in Cuba.

That the Cuban regime instead got a pass and could continue as before, with the arrests of dissidents who want nothing more than what the world — even the UN — considers to be basic human rights, is a travesty.

The Obama Administration should never have done it. 

For my part, I would have liked to see Cuba cough up the pilots who murdered American citizens that day in 1996, as well those responsible for terrorism who have been offered shelter and support in Cuba.  For each of these, there is an outstanding warrant for their arrest — the Cubans should hand them over for extradition so that they may stand trial for the crimes committed.

Doing so clears the way for a real normalization of relations, not an artificial one and a political stunt that Obama made, as it is revealed to be in the bright light of day.

Los Gringos con Corazon” on a mission with “Brothers to the Rescue.” From left to right, Thomas Van Hare, Conrad Webber, Steve Walton, Matt Lawrence. “Los Gringos con Corazon” – “The White Guys with Heart.”

As for the future of Cuba, the most telling barometer is emigration — those who flee the island for freedom elsewhere.  The number of balseros coming to the USA right now — this year — is at the same level it was in late 1993 and early 1994.

That was the high point just prior to when Fidel Castro opened the doors to anyone who wanted to leave Cuba — except that they were not allowed to leave by safe means, such as buying airline tickets to Miami or Tampa.

Rather, they had to build makeshift rafts and brave the open seas.  In August 1994, over 18,000 rafters came and we helped rescue well over 12,000 of those, working with the US Navy and US Coast Guard to pick them up.

I recall those days well, coming across “trains” of rafts tied together together in lines, with sometimes 200 people spread among them, 4 or 5 people on each little raft in the line tied to the others.  As well, individual rafts floated freely, sometimes in small groups of three or four rafts together, sometimes alone.

Prior to that, over the nearly four years leading up to the 1994 exodus period, we saved over 3,000 balseros — one raft at a time, so to speak.  We did by flying long missions at low altitude in hopes of spotting a tiny speck on the waves.

That we saved so many is testimony to a volunteer effort that trained and assigned over 100 pilots and flight crew members to fly three and four times week, 6 to 10 hours a day, with most missions being 7 hours in duration. 

As the former Director of Operations and Chief Mission Director for that, who also wrote the training manuals and taught the training classes, I have some pride in the effort that we put together.

Still, it was not all celebrations and saving lives.

Some days, we would find nothing — or just an empty raft floating on the waves.  Sometimes as we swooped low we could see that the empty raft was heavily damaged from having been rammed by a Cuban gunboat or raked by machine gun fire.

The Cuban Coast Guard, in this regard, is markedly different from Coast Guards the world over, whose mission is to save lives, not destroy them so as to prevent them from escaping Cuba’s “revolucion”

Other days when we flew, the empty rafts we would see served as floating reminders of the slim hope that those who tried to row to freedom might actually survive.  These were tombstones on the sea, a temporary and passing reminder of another life lost, or of four or five, or maybe ten that simply disappeared, dying at the hands of Cuban authorities who hunted them down on the water, or dying from the effects of exposure, dehydration, sunstroke, or the sharks.

Three out of four who tried died — unable to row the 90 miles to freedom in the USA. 

The ocean is not blue at all — it is black.

On other days when we flew, we would spot a single raft, or two, or even more that held survivors.  Usually, there would be three or four people on a raft of four truck tire inner tubes lashed together, each holding an oar made of a piece of wood, which they had fashioned in secret in their basements and back rooms.

If you made such an oar in the USA, people would ask why you didn’t just buy a nice one down at the fishing depot or super store or some such.  In Cuba, making an oar in your basement with bits of wood and a couple of rusty screws was an offense for which they could be arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail for months.

Yet they still came.

They still tried.

One day that comes to mind when two of us — just two of us alone — spotted six rafts in a single day over seven hours of flying.  That was a good day. 

On other days, we didn’t find them in time.

More than once, we only found bodies.

I cannot begin to really describe the experience we had in flying those missions all those years ago.  It still is with me today, more than two decades later.  The four years I flew that mission were among the best years of my life.  I often do not talk of the other side of it, that they were also the most emotionally trying.

After the shootdown, as I realized years later, I suffered a mild case of PTSD from the loss of four of my friends.  I still remember them as they were — young men who were denied the opportunity to live a full life after the mission ended.

Even without the interceptions and ongoing threat from the Cuban air force, it wasn’t an easy mission.

Inside the planes, flying at low altitude with the sun beating down, the temperatures in the cockpit would go up over 115 or 120 degrees F.  There were no bathrooms either — for seven hours straight.

The planes seated four people, two in front and two in back.

Frankly, they only had room enough for the four narrow seats with the knees pulled up and resting against the seat in front (if you were in the back) or on the rudder pedals in the front cockpit as those of us who are pilots sat.  For seven hours at a time, we would fly search tracks low over the water in these cramped conditions with the sun beating down, accompanied only by the endless drone of the two engines on the plane.

It was exhausting and yet you couldn’t let up — you had to scan the waves with full intensity, all the time, never tiring of it because if you looked away or got unfocused, you might fly right past a group and leave them to die.

Despite all that, I would do it all over again — without hesitation. 

Every bit of it is a gift that I could do something and to save lives.  They never give prizes for that, of course, nor any recognition internationally.  I see sometimes how they celebrate a guy who pulls someone out of a swimming pool and saves their life — and I am proud of them for doing it.

Yet we never had that, not in the same way.  We were never celebrated as heroes despite that we saved dozens of lives, even hundreds of lives each.

For a time, I lost cost of how many I saved — it was over 150 people that I personally spotted before the big exodus in 1996.

During the exodus, it was impossible to know how many — there were so many thousands out there at that time.

Two years ago, I was invited to Miami by a group of Cubans whom I did not know.  They wanted to meet me and thank me for saving them.  I thought it was impossible that they would know that I was the one who saved them, but as it turned out, when they gave me the date they had been rescued, the entry was right there in my logbook.

It had been me after all.  They wanted to buy me dinner.  I flew over from Sweden so that they could buy me dinner — yeah, really.  Obviously, it was a lot more than them buying me a dinner.

I will take a moment in this long message to describe that too, if you don’t mind.  I don’t know if I have words to describe what it was like to have met them after all these years — just a handful of those who are alive today and survived because we flew, and in some cases because I myself flew it and spotted them.

One was a woman of about 30 years old.  She told me that she remembered my plane, swooping low and dropping supplies and instructions.  She showed me the instruction sheet that I dropped all those years ago, which they had kept somehow.  The writing on the wrinkled old paper was undeniably my own.

She had been 9 years old at the time I saved her and her parents, as well as her uncles and cousins — a group of 11 together in a boat.  She introduced me to her daughter, at the time of the dinner all those years later, was herself just turning 9 years old.

That was a coincidence that had an emotional impact too, as you can imagine, because then we realize that we don’t just save the lives of those but also those who are born afterward, saving entire future generations in a single day, so to speak.

Anyway, enough of these old stories.

To end this message, I want to thank you too for your efforts to keep the story of what was done alive and remind people of this dark chapter in Cuban history.

The best estimate is that at least 20,000 Cubans have died trying to flee Fidel Castro’s socialist paradise.  Their home built rafts, little more than truck tires and a bit of wood framing, held together with rope and a hope alone, weren’t suitable for a swimming pool, let alone the open ocean.

The thought of rowing 90 miles to freedom is daunting. 

It is far more than I could imagine facing myself in my life.

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