Posted on Wednesday, 02.23.11
Brothers to the Rescue
For Albright, Cuba remains important cause
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in Miami to open an
exhibition of her pins, remembers the day 15 years ago when Cuban
fighter jets shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes.
BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
Until Cuban fighter pilots shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes,
killing four men over international waters between Cuba and Florida on
the afternoon of February 24, 1996, Madeleine Albright's ruby and
diamond-studded blue bird pin was simply an antique piece of jewelry in
the U.S. ambassador's extensive collection.
But the soaring bird's image took on special meaning when Albright,
wearing the pin upside down to show outrage and mourning, denounced the
Cuban government before the United Nations, uttering her now famous
line: "This is not cojones. It is cowardice."
The vulgar word for testicles was heard being used in a recorded
transmission by one of the Cuban pilots after one of the planes went down.
Fifteen years later, the bird pin (circa 1880) opens the exhibition of
Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection, a showcase at Freedom
Tower of 200 of the politically charged pins Albright wore during her
years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State,
the first woman to hold the post.
The Miami Dade College exhibition's opening to the public Thursday
coincides with the 15th anniversary of the Brothers to the Rescue shoot
down being commemorated by Cuban exiles with various events: a circle of
prayer at 10:30 a.m. at the Opa-locka Airport, from where the planes
flew that fateful day; a ceremony at the time the first plane went down,
3:23 p.m., at the center fountain of Florida International University's
main campus; a 6 p.m. vigil at the sight of a Brothers memorial monument
in front of Hialeah Gardens City Hall; and a 7 p.m. mass at St. Agatha
Killed that day were Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario
de la Peña and Pablo Morales. Their families and MDC announced last week
that they have established scholarships in their names.
"We all feel a long and great sadness for the families," Albright said
about the anniversary date.
A Czechoslovakian immigrant who rose to become one of the
highest-ranking government officials in the Clinton administration,
Albright said that she had "a special feeling for Miami" and is a strong
supporter of the Cuban-American community's efforts to see democratic
changes take root on the island.
"I would like to see Cuba libre," Albright said, adding that she
supports the Obama administration's policies of stepped-up contact with
the island through increase travel and remittances. "Cubans are
remarkable people…things are happening."
All over the world, "people do want to be able to exercise their rights
and that is what we're seeing," she added.
For Brothers to the Rescue members, survivors of the tragedy and
supporters, the anniversary date stirs more complicated feelings.
"Fifteen years later, we're still without truth or justice," said José
Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, who piloted the only Cessna
able to get away from the Cuban jets that day. "We're still waiting for
a full investigation of the events of that day but my efforts of 15
years to get a full accounting from the Clinton Administration's
handling of events leading up to and during that day have gone unheard."
On that day, Sylvia G. Iriondo also was in Basulto's plane along with
her late husband, Andres J. Iriondo.
"It was 15 years ago that this heinous crime against American citizens
was perpetrated in international airspace by the Castros' dictatorship,"
said Iriondo, founder of the exile group Mothers Against Repression. "It
feels like today. I can still see Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo's
smiling faces full of hope as they got ready for another Brothers to the
Rescue mission of love. The events of that 24th of February will forever
remain imprinted in my soul. I knew something horrible had happened and
thought about all of our families as I glanced at the immense blue of
the Straits of Florida and saw the smoke. At this moment of uncertainty
and impotence, I remember grasping my rosary and my husband's Andres'
hand. Today, 15 years later, I still have and pray my rosary; sadly, my
husband's comforting hand no more."
Despite the criticism and controversy over the Clinton administration's
handling of the events of that day, Albright remains a sympathetic
figure in the exile community for her unrelenting condemnation of the
Albright's visit to Miami, where she spoke Wednesday morning before the
Miami Leadership Roundtable about world events, was not without levity.
As she greeted the media for a Tuesday afternoon tour of her exhibition,
she brought up the subject of her controversial use of the vulgar slang
at the United Nations right away with one quick line. "I only know one
word in Spanish," she said.
During her visit, Albright wore a sparkling gold brooch that Miami Dade
College President Eduardo Padrón gave her as a gift years ago. Asked
what kind of pin she would wear now to show her feelings about Cuba,
Albright said without hesitation: "I might wear a turtle because it has
been slow for the Cuban people."