Testimonio de Sylvia Iriondo en Washington, ante la Comisión Justicia Cuba.

Sylvia Iriondo, Presidenta de MAR por Cuba, frente a la Embajada de Cuba en Washington.

Sylvia Iriondo, Presidenta de MAR por Cuba, frente a la Embajada de Cuba en Washington.

SYLVIA G. IRIONDO’S TESTIMONY

FEBRUARY 24, 1996: THE RIGHT TO LIFE

JUSTICE CUBA HEARING

NOVEMBER 15, 2017

CANNON BUILDING

WASHINGTON, D.C.

GOOD AFTERNOON. MY NAME IS SYLVIA G. IRIONDO. I AM PRESIDENT OF MOTHERS & WOMEN AGAINST REPRESSION (M.A.R. POR CUBA). I WAS ABOARD THE ONLY PLANE THAT RETURNED AND MADE IT BACK HOME ON FEBRUARY 24, 1996. I THANK JUSTICE CUBA AND ALL OF YOU FOR GIVING ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE MY TESTIMONY HEARD IN THIS HEARING.

FOR SOME TIME, OUR ORGANIZATION HAD BEEN HELPING BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE IN PROVIDING HUMANITARIAN SUPPORT AND BASIC SUPPLIES TO CUBAN REFUGEES. MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN WERE OFTEN INTERCEPTED IN BAHAMIAN WATERS WHILE ATTEMPTING TO FLEE THE ISLAND-PRISON IN SEARCH FOR FREEDOM. THE REFUGEES WERE HELD AT THE CARMICHAEL DETENTION CENTER IN NASSAU, BAHAMAS. THEIR NEEDS WERE GREAT AND THEIR SITUATION DESPERATE. VOLUNTEER MEMBERS OF OUR GROUP WOULD TAKE TURNS ACCOMPANYING BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE ON THEIR WEEKLY HUMANITARIAN RELIEF MISSIONS.

SATURDAY, THE 24TH OF FEBRUARY 1996 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE NO DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER PREVIOUS SATURDAYS FOR BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE. 

DUE TO CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL, WE WERE INFORMED ON FRIDAY BY BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE THAT THE FLIGHT HAD BEEN CANCELED, THE REASON BEING THAT PERMISSION TO VISIT THE DETENTION CENTER HAD BEEN DENIED BY THE BAHAMIAN AUTHORITIES BECAUSE A DELEGATION OF THE CASTRO REGIME WOULD BE THERE. 

MEMBERS OF M.A.R. SCHEDULED TO FLY ON SATURDAY’S MISSION WITH BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE WERE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED OF THE CANCELLATION.

THAT SAME FRIDAY NIGHT, NUMEROUS EXILE POLITICAL ORGANIZATIONS WERE MEETING AT THE HYATT HOTEL IN CORAL GABLES IN SUPPORT OF CONCILIO CUBANO, A COALITION OF MORE THAN 130 ACTIVE CIVIC OPPOSITION GROUPS WITHIN THE ISLAND THAT HAD REQUESTED PERMISSION TO CONVENE ON FEBRUARY 24TH TO EXERCISE THEIR FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS TO FREE ASSEMBLY AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. 

THE CASTRO REGIME ANSWERED THEIR PETITION BY UNLEASHING A VIOLENT WAVE OF REPRESSION THAT RESULTED IN THE INCARCERATION OF MANY PRO-DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS’ ACTIVISTS. OUR ROLE AT THE HYATT THAT NIGHT WAS TO RAISE OUR VOICES TO DENOUNCE THESE VIOLATIONS AND TO EXPOSE THE TOTALITARIAN NATURE OF THE DICTATORSHIP, IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE COURAGEOUS CUBAN RESISTANCE IN THE ISLAND.

IT WAS AT THE HYATT FRIDAY NIGHT THAT BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE DECIDED  TO CONDUCT A SEARCH AND RESCUE HUMANITARIAN FLIGHT IN THE STRAITS OF FLORIDA ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 24TH, 1996. 

THERE HAD BEEN A FEW RECENT SIGHTINGS OF RAFTERS IN THE STRAITS AND THE DATE OF FEBRUARY 24TH WAS IMPORTANT TO THE CUBAN PEOPLE, SINCE IT CONMEMORATES CUBA’S STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE FROM SPAIN IN 1895 AS WELL AS BEING THE DATE CHOSEN BY CONCILIO CUBANO TO COME TOGETHER IN THE GROUPS’ UNRELENTING EFFORTS TO BRING ABOUT DEMOCRATIC CHANGE TO THE ISLAND, UNDER TOTALITARIAN RULE AND OPPRESSION. 

ARMANDO, MY HUSBAND ANDRES AND I VOLUNTEERED TO GO ALONG AS ‘SPOTTERS’ ON THAT FLIGHT. IT COULD HAVE BEEN ANY OF THE MANY OTHER VOLUNTEERS WHO THROUGH THE YEARS HAD ACCOMPANIED BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE ON SOME 2,000 HUMANITARIAN SEARCH AND RESCUE FLIGHTS, WHICH HELPED SAVE MORE THAN 5,000 LIVES. SO IT WAS THAT THE THREE OF US JOINED BASULTO, BTTR PRESIDENT, ARNALDO IGLESIAS, CARLOS COSTA, MARIO MANUEL DE LA PENA AND PABLO MORALES, PILOTS AND MEMBERS OF BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE, ON THAT FEBRUARY 24th, 1996 FLIGHT.

THE THREE SMALL PLANES TOOK OFF FROM BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE HANGAR IN OPALOCKA  –ONE AFTER THE OTHER– BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 1:15 AND 1:30 IN THE AFTERNOON. 

IT WAS MY FIRST SEARCH AND RESCUE FLIGHT. I WAS EXHILARATED AT THE OPPORTUNITY TO HELP SAVE A LIFE AND CONCENTRATED ON LOOKING AT THE VAST OCEAN, HOPING TO SPOT THAT TINY SPECK IN THE WATER THAT COULD SIGNAL A FRAGILE RAFT FULL OF CUBANS IN DIRE NEED OF ASSISTANCE. I WAS ALSO SEEING FROM AFAR IN THE HORIZON THE SILHOUETTES OF WHAT HAD ONCE BEEN THE FAMILIAR SKYLINE OF MY LIFE. THE DAY WAS BEAUTIFUL. THE SEA WAS TRANSPARENTLY BLUE AND CALM. THERE WERE NOT MANY CLOUDS IN THE SKY AND THE SUN SHONE BRIGHTLY.

OUR THREE PLANES WERE IN CONSTANT COMMUNICATION WITH EACH OTHER. WE COULD ALSO HEAR OTHER TRAFFIC IN THE AREA THROUGH OUR EARPHONES OR TRANSPONDERS. 

ALL OF A SUDDEN AND WITHOUT WARNING, WE SAW A VERY FAST OBJECT PASSING US BY. THEN ANOTHER. WE SAW WHAT SEEMED LIKE A FLARE AND A THIN LINE OF SMOKE. I RECALL HEARING BASULTO SAY, “THEY ARE GOING TO SHOOT AT US”, AND I REMEMBER ASKING HIM INCREDULOUSLY, “ARE THEY GOING TO SHOOT AT US”, LIKE SAYING, ‘YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING’.  CUBAN “MIGS” HAD BEEN DISPATCHED.

WE IMMEDIATELY LOST COMMUNICATION WITH THE PLANE PILOTED BY CARLOS COSTA WITH PABLO MORALES ON BOARD. OVER AND OVER AGAIN MARIO MANUEL DE LA PENA AND BASULTO, PILOTS OF THE TWO OTHER PLANES, TRIED TO ESTABLISH CONTACT WITH CARLOS TO NO AVAIL.  IT WAS 3:21 IN THE AFTERNOON.

THEN WE SAW A SECOND STREAM OF SMOKE, THIS TIME WIDER, AND WE SAW WHAT SEEMED LIKE FLAMES. IT WAS 3:27 IN THE AFTERNOON. WE THEN LOST COMMUNICATION WITH THE PLANE PILOTED BY MARIO MANUEL DE LA PENA WITH ARMANDO ALEJANDRE, JR. ON BOARD. IN SPITE OF MANY ATTEMPTS TO REACH MARIO MANUEL, THERE WAS NO RESPONSE. I HELD MY HUSBAND’S HAND AS I TOOK OUT MY ROSARY TO PRAY.

IN WHAT MUST HAVE BEEN SECONDS OR MINUTES, MY LIFE UNFOLDED BEFORE ME; I SAID GOODBYE TO MOTHER, MY CHILDREN, MY FAMILY, MY LOVED ONES. THE SILENCE WAS DEAFENING. I REMEMBER THINKING THAT ‘MAYBE IT WAS THE SILENCE OF DEATH AND THAT WE WERE PROBABLY ALREADY DEAD. LATER I WOULD FIND OUT THAT THE SILENCE WAS BECAUSE THE TRANSPONDERS WERE SHUT OFF.

IT ALL HAPPENED SO VERY FAST!

AS THE MINUTES WENT BY IN WHAT SEEMED LIKE AN ETERNITY AND WHILE HEADING NORTH, BASULTO RADIOED OUR CONTROL TOWER AND DECLARED AN EMERGENCY. IN SPITE OF OUR WORST FEARS, WE KEPT HOPING TO HEAR THEIR VOICES AGAIN AT ANY MOMENT. 

AT FIRST, WE WERE INSTRUCTED TO PROCEED TO KEY WEST. WHEN WE WERE ABOUT TO FOLLOW THEIR INSTRUCTIONS, BASULTO INFORMED THE TOWER THAT WE WERE HEADING STRAIGHT TO OUR BASE IN OPALOCKA, WHERE THE FAMILIES AND BROTHERS’ TO THE RESCUE MEMBERS WOULD BE WAITING.

DAYS LATER, WE WERE ABLE TO HEAR THE TAPES AT THE FBI HEADQUARTERS OF THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’S BUILDING IN MIAMI. 

WE HEARD THE CUBAN ‘MIGS’ PILOTS GLOATING IN THEIR COMMUNICATIONS WITH CUBA’S CONTROL TOWER. THEIR COWARDLY VOICES OF CONTEMPT AND JUBILATION AS THEY FIRED AIR-TO-AIR MISSILES AND CHEERED THE DOWNING OF SMALL, CIVIL, UNARMED AND DEFENSELESS PLANES WITH TOTAL DISREGARD FOR HUMAN LIVES …STILL RING IN MY EARS. 

IT WAS THROUGH THOSE RECORDINGS THAT WE FIRST REALIZED THAT A SECOND SET OF “MIGS” HAD BEEN DISPATCHED TO HUNT AND SHOOT OUR PLANE DOWN AS WELL. THE RECORDINGS DOCUMENT WHEN CUBA’S CONTROL TOWER INSTRUCTS ITS PILOTS TO VISUALLY IDENTIFY OUR PLANE. ONCE VISUAL CONTACT IS MADE AND THE THIRD BTTR PLANE IS IDENTIFIED AS A LIGHT BLUE CESSNA, THERE IS A PROLONGED SILENCE FOLLOWED BY A VOICE FROM CUBA’S CONTROL TOWER THAT ORDERS THE MIGS TO ‘ABORT THE MISSION’. BY THIS TIME THE MIGS WERE, INCREDIBLY, JUST THREE MINUTES AWAY FROM U.S. SHORES.

AS HISTORY TELLS US, ONLY ONE OF THE THREE PLANES RETURNED TO BASE ON FEBRUARY 24th, 1996, WITH FOUR OF US ON BOARD AS UNLIKELY WITNESSES TO A HORRENDOUS CRIME COMMITTED WITH PREMEDITATION, IN COLD BLOOD AND IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. THE CASTROS –FIDEL AND RAUL—HAD ORDERED THE BRUTAL SHOOTDOWN, WHICH THEY LATER PUBLICLY ADMITTED. 

FIDEL AND RAUL CASTRO WERE DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MURDERS IN INTERNATIONAL AIRSPACE OF THREE AMERICAN CITIZENS AND ONE LEGAL UNITED STATES RESIDENT, WHOSE ONLY PURPOSE WAS TO AID THOSE IN NEED AND RESCUE THOSE IN PERIL.

ON THAT FATEFUL DAY –BEFORE THE EYES OF THE WORLD—THE CRIMINAL NATURE OF THE CASTRO REGIME; ITS COMPLETE DISREGARD FOR STANDARD PROCEDURES, NORMS AND INTERNATIONAL LAWS; ITS CONTEMPT FOR THE CUBAN PEOPLE AND FOR HUMAN LIFE, AS WELL AS ITS BRUTAL REPRESSIVE APPARATUS BECAME EVIDENT ONE MORE TIME.

CARLOS COSTA, ARMANDO ALEJANDRE, JR., MARIO MANUEL DE LA PENA AND PABLO MORALES WERE YOUNG MEN FULL OF DREAMS AND IDEALS, WHO REPRESENTED THE VERY BEST OF THEIR GENERATIONS.  THEIR LIVES WERE TAKEN WHILE THEY TRIED TO SAVE THE LIVES OF OTHERS IN WHAT CONSTITUTES ONE OF HUMANITY’S MOST NOBLE DEEDS. THEY HAD LOVING FAMILIES THAT MOURN THEM IN SORROW AND STILL WAIT FOR JUSTICE TO BE DONE.

 CARLOS, ARMANDO, MARIO MANUEL AND PABLO WERE MURDERED THE 24TH OF FEBRUARY 1996. THE CULPRITS –FIDEL AND RAUL CASTRO—ARE KNOWN. TO THIS DAY, THIS HEINOUS CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY REMAINS UNPUNISHED WITH TOTAL IMPUNITY.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THERE IS A QUESTION THAT BEGS AN UNEQUIVOCAL ANSWER:

WHAT MORE DOES IT TAKE TO BRING JUSTICE AND CALL THESE MURDERERS BY THEIR NAMES?

THANK-YOU.

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