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Cold War air hijackers and US-Cuban relations

In 1968, as the world convulsed in an era of social upheaval, Cuba unexpectedly became a destination for airplane hijackers. The hijackers were primarily United States citizens or residents. Commandeering aircraft from the United States to Cuba over ninety times between 1968 and 1973, Americans committed more air hijackings during this period than all other global incidents combined. Some sought refuge from petty criminal charges. A majority, however, identified with the era’s protest movements. The “skyjackers,” as they were called, included young draft dodgers seeking to make a statement against the Vietnam War, and Black radical activists seeking political asylum. Others were self-styled revolutionaries, drawn by the allure of Cuban socialism and the nation’s bold defiance of US domination. Havana and Washington, diplomatically estranged since 1961, maintained no extradition treaty.

But Cuba was an imperfect site for the realization of American skyjacker dreams. Although the surge in hijackings paralleled the warm relations between the Cuban government and US organizations such as the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society, leftwing skyjackers were not always welcome in Cuba. Many were imprisoned as common criminals or suspected CIA agents. The mutual discomfort of the United States and Cuban governments over the hijacking outbreak resulted in a rare diplomatic collaboration. Amidst the Cold War stalemate of the Nixon-Ford era, skyjackers inadvertently forced Havana and Washington to negotiate. In 1973, the two governments broke their decade-old impasse to produce a bilateral anti-hijacking accord. The hijacking episode of 1968-’73 marks the unlikely meeting point where political protest, the African American freedom struggle, and US-Cuba relations collided amid the tumult of the sixties.

For a generation of Americans radicalized by the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War, Cuba’s social gains in universal healthcare, education, and wealth redistribution — campaigns disproportionately supported by Afro-Cubans — had made the Cuban Revolution a beacon of inspiration for the United States. Left. By 1970, several thousand Americans, traveling independently or with organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had visited Cuba to witness its transformation up-close. But skyjackers sometimes perceived Cuba in terms that echoed age-old paternalistic tropes about the island, as admiration blurred into entitlement. Cuba, they insisted, should welcome them as revolutionary comrades instead of locking them in jail. Nonetheless, some US skyjackers had fled from circumstances that suggested genuine political repression. Black radical activists, in particular, were often successful in appealing to Cuban officials for political asylum after arriving as skyjackers. The Cuban government allowed these asylees to make lives for themselves in Havana, paying for their living expenses as they transitioned to Cuban society or attended college. Several members of the Black Panther Party, such as William Lee Brent, and members of the Republic of New Afrika, such as Charlie Hill, became long-term residents of Havana.

Henry Kissinger, 1976. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Kissinger, 1976. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Hijackers inadvertently forced Washington to face the consequences of American exceptionalism. Cuban émigrés reaching US soil with “dry feet” had been granted sanctuary and accorded a fast-track to citizenship since 1966, when the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act created a powerful incentive for Cubans to immigrate by any available means, including violence and hijacking, an enticement that Havana had repeatedly protested. Now, Cuba was granting sanctuary to Americans committing similar crimes. The irony was not missed by the State Department. As Henry Kissinger admitted, the United States was now seeking to negotiate with Havana what Washington had earlier refused to negotiate in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, when Cubans were hijacking planes and boats to the United States and Havana had appealed unsuccessfully to US officials for the return of the vessels. The island’s attractiveness as a legal sanctuary for Americans was in large part a consequence of Washington’s policy of unrelenting hostility, which had severed the normal ties through which the two nations might collaborate, as diplomatic equals, to resolve an issue such as air piracy.

Air hijackings to Cuba declined dramatically after the accord of 1973. A shallow crack appeared in the diplomatic stalemate between Washington and Havana, setting the stage for the mild warming of US-Cuba relations during the coming Carter era. But while mutual cooperation to respond to the hijacking outbreak preceded the brief détente of the late 1970s, air piracy did not itself cause the Cold War thaw. Rather, the significance of hijacking to US-Cuba relations lies in the way in which skyjackers, as radical non-state actors driven by idealism and politics, influenced the terrain of state relations in ways that no one could have anticipated. So too, by granting formal political asylum to Americans, especially Black radicals who maintained that they were victims of racist persecution, Havana defied US claims to moral and legal authority in the arena of human rights. As US-Cuba relations now make a historic move toward normalization, it is likely that non-state actors will continue to play unforeseen roles, defying both US and Cuban state power.

Headline image credit: Map of Cuba. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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