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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 26, 1996


The Briefing Room

4:00 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Two days ago, in broad daylight and without justification, Cuban military aircraft shot down two civilian planes in international airspace. Search and rescue efforts by the Coast Guard, which began immediately after we received word of the incident, have failed to find any of the four individuals who were aboard the airplanes.

These small airplanes were unarmed and clearly so. Cuban authorities knew that. The planes posed no credible threat to Cuba's security. Although the group that operated the planes had entered Cuban airspace in the past on other flights, this is no excuse for the attack, and provides -- let me emphasize -- no legal basis under international law for the attack. We must be clear: This shooting of civilian aircraft out of the air was a flagrant violation of international law. It is wrong and the United States will not tolerate it.

Saturday's attack is further evidence that Havana has become more desperate in its efforts to deny freedom to the people of Cuba. Also on Saturday the Cuban Council, a broad group that wants to bring democracy to Cuba, had planned a day of peaceful discussion and debate. Instead, in the days leading up to this gathering, scores of activists were arrested and detained. Two have already been sentenced to long prison terms. They join about 1,000 others in Cuba who were in jail solely because of their desire for freedom. Now the downing of these planes demands a firm response from both the United States and the international community. I am pleased that the European Union today strongly condemned the action.

Last night, on my instructions, Ambassador Albright convened an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Cuban action and to present the case for sanctions on Cuba until it agrees to abide by its obligation to respect civilian aircraft and until it compensates the families of the victims.

Today, I am also ordering the following unilateral actions. First, I am asking that Congress pass legislation that will provide immediate compensation to the families, something to which they are entitled under international law, out of Cuba's blocked assets here in the United States. If Congress passes this legislation, we can provide the compensation immediately.

Second, I will move promptly to reach agreement with the Congress on the pending Helms-Burton Cuba legislation so that it will enhance the effectiveness of the embargo in a way that advances the cause of democracy in Cuba.

Third, I have ordered that Radio Marti expand its reach. All the people of Cuba must be able to learn the truth about the regime in Havana -- the isolation it has earned for itself through its contempt for basic human rights and international law.

Fourth, I am ordering that additional restrictions be put on travel in the United States by Cuban officials who reside here, and that visits by Cuban officials to our country be further limited.

Finally, all charter air travel from the United States to Cuba will be suspended indefinitely.

These deliberate actions are the right ones at this time. They respond to Havana in a way that serves our goals of accelerating the arrival of democracy in Cuba. But I am not ruling out any further steps in the future, should they be required.

Saturday's attack was an appalling reminder of the nature of the Cuban regime -- repressive, violent, scornful of international law. In our time, democracy has swept the globe, from the Philippines exactly 10 years ago, to Central and Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to Haiti, to all but one nation in our hemisphere. I will do everything in my power to see that this historic tide reaches the shores of Cuba.

And let me close by extending on behalf of our family and our country our deepest condolences to those in the families of those who lost their lives.

END 4:03 P.M. EST