Private planes and public policy

February 29, 1996|By Gordon Livingston

THE SAD NEWS of the shooting-down of two civilian aircraft by Cuban fighter jets has provoked an interesting set of reactions based more on political attitudes than logic. The president suspends long-distance telephone service and air travel to Cuba pending ''compensation'' of the families of the four dead airmen. The Republicans demand more punitive action, a naval blockade perhaps. The Cuban exile community in Miami wants an invasion.

The facts appear to be these: Three Cessna twin-engine aircraft flown by a Cuban exile organization called ''Brothers to the Rescue'' undertook to fly south from Florida to the vicinity of Cuba.

The lead aircraft penetrated Cuban air space within 12 miles of Havana in spite of warnings from Cuban air-traffic control. This plane was flown by Jose Basulto, who is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration for several previous incursions over Cuba. Twice, apparently, he air-dropped on Havana leaflets advocating the overthrow of the Castro government. Ironically, Mr. Basulto's aircraft survived. The other two were shot down, probably over international waters.

Destroying civilian airplanes that violate the air space of a communist country is not new. In 1983 a Korean Airlines 747 was shot down by a Soviet fighter after a navigation error caused it to fly over Sakhalin Island and it was mistaken for a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that had been operating in the vicinity; 269 passengers perished.

Collision in the clouds

Less well known is an incident, also in 1983, in which a twin-engine plane was destroyed off the coast of South Carolina when it was intercepted by a U.S. jet fighter that, in trying to identify it, collided with it in the clouds. Seven civilian lives were lost.

Last year, a sport balloon participating in a race in Europe was shot down by a Belarus helicopter that apparently had not been notified of the competition.

Even though two of these incidents were ''accidental,'' they illuminate the fact that nations reserve the right to defend their airspace against foreign incursion. One might wonder what the response of the U.S. air-defense system would be if a flight of three Cuban propeller-driven planes approached Washington and refused to heed radio warnings to turn around. Would a leaflet drop be permitted?

Given the longstanding hostility between the Cuban government and the Miami exile community, what did those ''Brothers to the Rescue'' pilots expect? There are few rafts to be seen in the Florida Straits these days since U.S. policy is to return all refugees promptly to Cuba. Certainly, there are none requiring assistance just off the Cuban coast.

Provocative intent

One is forced to the conclusion that the mission of these airplanes was not humanitarian but provocative. Did this justify the Cuban decision to shoot them down? Of course not. Does it make it understandable? Yes. Communist Cuba has never been known for forbearance in its relations with the U.S. But then, neither have we. Remember the Bay of Pigs? The CIA plots to assassinate Castro? The Cubans remember.

There is, in fact, a north-south flight corridor over central Cuba traversed daily by civilian airliners and general-aviation planes. I recall looking down on the island on a trip to the Caymans. My thought was that I was over hostile territory and I hoped that all navigation systems on the aircraft were operating properly.

An old military maxim holds that the greatest sin in war is to die of stupidity. Cuba, with some reason, regards itself in a state of war with its exile community, and vice versa. The government of the United States should, as it has, condemn the barbarous downing of unarmed civilian planes, however reckless their pilots.

We need to accompany our outrage, however, with action to prevent our citizens from engaging in dangerous behavior that compromises efforts to improve our dilapidated relationship with Cuba and its communist regime -- with whom we have lived, more or less peacefully, for 33 years.

Gordon Livingston is a Columbia psychiatrist and the owner of a Cessna 210.

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