WASHINGTON — THE downing of two privately owned American aircraft by Cuban military jets is seen as a blow to Cuba-United States relations.
The incident Saturday is likely bolster support in Congress for tighter sanctions against the island nation and has inflamed anti-Castro passions in South Florida just weeks before the state's presidential primary.
The White House is walking a fine line. It is reportedly weighing political retaliation against Cuba but a military reaction appeared to be unlikely.
Until now, the Clinton administration and some business- oriented Republicans have argued that the best way to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz is to loosen the 34-year-old trade embargo. There was speculation that if Clinton won a second term, he might slowly move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
But the attack on US citizens is all but certain to swell the ranks of those in Congress seeking to tighten the embargo. Both the Senate and House have passed bills, soon to be reconciled in a conference committee, that would impose economic sanctions on foreign corporations that do business in Cuba.
Clinton has opposed the legislation because, among other things, it imposes a secondary boycott on nations - including close allies like Britain, France, and Canada - that trade with Cuba. His advisers favor taking gradual steps towards normalization in response to economic reforms in Cuba.
But Clinton is reluctant to veto the bill in an election year and thus be seen as being "soft" on Castro. Saturday's incident, combined with reports that Castro has recently arrested dozens of human rights activists, is likely to make it even harder for Clinton to make a case for a veto.
At this writing, the US Coast Guard continued to search the waters off Cuba for the four men in the downed aircraft.
In Miami, Cuban-American conservatives - who have traditionally voted Republican - are planning demonstrations and calling for sanctions or even harsher retaliatory measures.
"It was an act of aggression, an act of terrorism, an act of war," claimed Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, a Cuban-born Republican congresswoman.
At press time, the facts surrounding the attack were still unclear and that may complicate the US response. The president's senior foreign policy and military advisers met to confer on the incident at the White House yesterday.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry said the two planes were shot down inside Cuban airspace, west of Havana. The Foreign Ministry said three planes penetrated Cuban airspace Saturday and were warned off by a Cuban air force fighter. Several hours later, the planes returned and were warned by Havana air traffic control but the pilot chose to ignore the warning, the statement said.
"The downing of these two pirate planes should serve as a lesson to those who promote or carry out such actions," said the statement.
The planes belonged to the Miami-based Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue. The group, composed of several dozen pilots, has been making tri-weekly flights over the Florida Straits since 1991 in search of rafters fleeing from Cuba.
Jose Basulto, the pilot of the third aircraft, which escaped, denies flying in Cuban airspace. "We reported our position, our intentions, our goals, our presence" to Cuban air traffic controllers, he said. "We were as usual threatened by the Cuban government, and explained to them that a free Cuba was the reason for us to continue with our mission."
Last summer, an exile plane flew over Havana and dropped anticommunist leaflets. Castro denounced the incursion as a "provocation." Cuba reports that twice in January exile planes again dropped "subversive leaflets" over the Cuban capital.