Plane Used by Defector Once Belonged to Hialeah Charter Airline
LUIS FELDSTEIN SOTO And JEFF LEEN Herald Staff Writers
The twin-engine plane that carried a high-ranking Cuban defector to Key West once belonged to a Hialeah-based charter airline put out of business five years ago by the Reagan administration, which branded the company an agent of the Cuban government.
In a fitting irony, the plane that once took Cuban exiles to visit relatives in Havana brought a new exile in the reverse direction Thursday. It left in its path a tumultuous history of arrests, government clashes and charges of consorting with the enemy.
The plane's former owner, American Airways Charter, was the main travel link between the United States and Cuba when the U.S. Treasury Department shut it down in April 1982. How the Cessna 402B fell into Cuban hands began unraveling after Rafael del Pino Diaz and his family landed it Thursday at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Key West.
The Cuban government said Friday the plane now belongs to a Cuban-owned carrier named Aerocaribe. Frank Masdeu, a former vice president of American Airways, said he thinks the Cessna probably got stranded in Havana when the U.S. government froze American Airways' assets.
At the time, American Airways owed money to Havanatur, a Panamanian firm that held the exclusive Cuban government contract for exile flights to the island. Havanatur, which had an office in Miami, leased planes from American Airways.
When American Airways' assets were frozen, Masdeu said, the Cuban government probably seized the plane because it could not collect on the firm's debts.
The Cessna's identification number -- N500WC -- shows the plane is currently registered to American Airways, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Masdeu said American Airways' owner, Fernando Fuentes Coba, leased DC-9s from Air Florida and used his own DC-3 and Cessna for the trips to Cuba. Masdeu said Fuentes often flew the Cessna on solo flights to Havana.
"He liked to fly. It was like a toy for him," Masdeu said.
Before it was shut down, American Airways was making between 10 and 15 flights to Cuba each week. The company opened in the late 1970s as a charter agent of Havanatur.
In December 1979, the U.S. government called Havanatur an "agent of Cuba" and expelled it from U.S. soil. American investigators charged that high-ranking Cuban government officials, including an intelligence operative, were running Havanatur.
Two years later, a Miami federal grand jury indicted American Airways for trading with the enemy during the Mariel boatlift. After a 14-month investigation, prosecutors charged American Airways with funneling money to a Cuban government agency in order to bring undocumented aliens to the United States.
Fuentes, American Airways' president, was charged with "conspiring to trade with the enemy" by transporting duffel bags full of quarters, shortwave radios and Pepsi machines to Cuba in violation of the U.S. trade embargo. He was convicted in November 1982 and sentenced to one year in prison. He stayed free on $100,000 bond and, according to friends, disappeared to Mexico.