Castro's dilemma: honor antiskyjacking pact or help guerrilla friends

The simultaneous skyjackings of three Venezuelan airplanes -- an odyssey that ended in Havana Dec. 8 after a dramatic 24 hours and numerous stops across northern Latin America -- poses a serious dilemma for the government of President Fidel Castro:

What to do with the skyjackers?

Under terms of a 1973 accord with Venezuela, Cuba is obligated to return hijacked aircraft, skyjackers, and all others aboard the planes. But some of the skyjackers claim to be Salvadoran guerrillas.

To return them to Venezuela, in whose airspace the planes were seized, would almost certainly subject them to early trial and long prison sentences in accordance with Venezuela's stiff antiskyjacking laws.

For the Castro government such a prospect is none too pleasing. Cuba strongly supports the guerrilla cause in El Salvador and would find returning the skyjackers to Venezuela an onerous situation.

Castro has repeatedly promised to discourage air piracy, however, and has returned a number of skyjackers to the United States. He has pointed to the Venezuela-Cuba accord as a model for discouraging such crimes.

But Cuban relations with Venezuela have soured recently. Diplomatic contact has been cut to a minimum.

The three Venezuelan aircraft -- two DC9s of the government-owned airline Aeropostal and a Boeing 727 of Aerovias Venezolanas, S.A., known as Avensa, a private firm -- have returned to Venezuela along with their passengers and crew members, who were hostages during the eight-country odyssey Dec. 7 and 8.

That leaves the 11 skyjackers in Cuban custody, and the Cuban government refuses comment on their fate.

The skyjackers' identities are something of a mystery. Their names have not been released. Some of them are reported to be Salvadorans trying to dramatize a guerrilla struggle against the US-backed government; others, Venezuelans who want $10 million and freedom for political prisoners; and still others, Puerto Ricans calling attention to the movement for Puerto Rican independence.

The Venezuelans' demands were not met. It is doubtful the Salvadoran guerrilla and Puerto Rican independence movements benefited. However, the skyjackings suggest that these groups may be coordinating their efforts and that they may be adopting aerial piracy as a new tactic.

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