Thursday, January 17, 2008

Opening Next Week: Shoot Down

Armando Alejandre, Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario M. De La Peña, and Pablo Morales can no longer speak out against Cuban oppression themselves, but a new documentary tells their story. On February 24th, 1996, they were aboard two American planes deliberately shot down by Cuba MiG’s in international airspace. Springing into action, the Clinton Administration issued a series of strongly worded statements, and then proceeded to sweep the matter under the rug. Now the entire episode and its consequences are examined in-depth by Shoot Down (trailer here), a surprisingly even-handed new documentary opening in many cities next Friday.

The four men were part of Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), an organization created to fly missions of mercy, patrolling for refugees in the Straights of Florida. It was estimated when BTTR was founded, only one in four Cubans who set out for Florida on ramshackle rafts would survive the journey. While their primary purpose was humanitarian, they would pass along observations of suspicious behavior to the Customs Service. Indeed, experts from Customs, the Atlantic Command, and Richard Nuccio, Clinton’s special advisor on Cuba, all praise BTTR’s initial efforts in early interview segments.

Basically, BTTR would spot survivors, drop down emergency water and supplies, and notify the Coast Guard to pick them up. However, their raison d'être was cut out from under them by the Clinton Administration. Nuccio explains: “From one day to the next, by a decision of Pres. Clinton, Cubans were no longer political refugees. They were now to be treated like refugees from any other country in the world.” He later adds: “This was the biggest change in the relationship between the United States government and the people of Cuba since the revolution itself had occurred, and it was made, frankly, without a lot of thought.”

With the change of law, BTTR could still offer emergency assistance, but the Coast Guard was now forced by law to return refugees to Cuba unless they could offer concrete proof they would face retribution on their return. Shoot Down documents how frustration with this policy led BTTR to some, the film argues, ill-advised ventures into Cuban airspace, even dropping leaflets over Havana during one flight. In truth, the filmmakers seem to have little love for BTTR co-founder Jose Basulto (at least during the final BTTR missions), but far less for the bearded dictator and his enforcers. Their treatment of BTTR’s more activist missions might be seen to reflect a bias that could prove controversial. (Ultimately, BTTR were men of action, looking for ways to help, but feeling powerless to do so because of an arbitrary decision made in Washington.)

Truly, director Cristina Khuly does not gloss over the arguably provocative nature of some of these flights, including the fateful flight on the 24th. This is all the more striking since her uncle was one of the four killed by the Cuban military. However, watching Shoot Down will give a complete step-by-step understanding of what happened during the incident. It is clear the two planes were shot down without any warning, well within international airspace. As an American University professor concludes, shooting down unarmed civilian aircraft, without warning or legitimate provocation, is never acceptable, regardless of whose airspace they might be flying in.

Perhaps no participant personifies the inner conflict of Shoot Down more than Nuccio, who seems plagued by regret, equally pained by decisions of his own administration and what he considered the intractable nature of Basulto. Conversely, Maggie Alejandre Khuly becomes the moral conscience of Shoot Down. She dismisses various conspiracy theories and criticizes Basulto for his recklessness. Yet she refuses to let that lessen the culpability Castro’s regime, stating emphatically: “the responsibility for this rests squarely on the Cuban government.”

Ms. Khuly is an inspiring figure, who would extract a small measure of justice from the rogue state. Unfortunately, she found little enthusiasm for her efforts from the administration, which displayed a strong desire to forget the entire incident. That is one reason Shoot Down is an important film—all the more so given its even-handed, rational presentation of the facts. Shoot Down also refocuses attention on the four men murdered on that day, who as part of BTTR helped save an estimated 5,000 lives. out.

To parse its biases, Shoot Down does represent BTTR as reckless in later missions, but does not ameliorate the guilt of Castro and his minions in the murder of the 24th. Some commentators do suggest taking steps to normalize relations, but it is not an overriding issue in the film. More than anything, it is Clinton whose image suffers, as it becomes clear he never cared about the fate of the Cuban people.

It is a thorough, uncompromising political documentary, which provides a valuable lesson in recent history. The film opens widely throughout Florida next Friday (as one would expect), but will also be playing in Houston (AMC Studio 30), DC (AMC Hoffman Center), LA (Mann Beverly Center), Chicago (AMC South Barrington), and other select cities. It is well worth seeking out.