310. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk1

No. 957


  • Airline Hijackings Increase: No Solution in Sight

Four US commercial airliners have been hijacked to Cuba during the past two weeks, highlighting the continuing difficulty of finding a solution to a complex legal, political and security problem. The hijackings constitute not only a serious inconvenience to the airlines and passengers, and a danger to life, but they also pose a security threat to traveling US officials and to classified government documents carried by air. Although there is no evidence of official Cuban complicity in the hijackings, Fidel Castro does obtain a certain amount of political leverage from the incidents. Efforts by the US Government to obtain the cooperation of the Cuban government in stopping the hijackings have been either rebuffed or ignored and the problem is gaining increasing public and official concern.

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Increased tempo. There have been twenty-seven successful and unsuccessful attempts to hijack US and Latin American planes to Cuba during 1968, compared to twelve during the period from 1961 through December 1967. Well over one-third of the hijackers were US citizens, with the rest being Cuban exiles, or other Latin Americans. There does not appear to be a distinct pattern to the hijackings; most of the perpetrators can be classified as mentally ill, criminal types, or simply homesick Cubans. It is believed that almost all of the US-originated hijackers have been immediately jailed and thoroughly interrogated on arrival in Cuba. None has been accorded a hero’s welcome and in most cases little has been heard from the persons after their release from jail. There is as yet no evidence that any of the US or Cuban hijackers have been encouraged in their ventures by the Cuban government. Similarly, there is no hard information of the existence of any sort of international conspiracy. Puerto Rican—liberationists—and black militants have carried out a few of the hijackings, but again there are no firm indications that these persons collaborated with the Cubans. Some Colombian and Venezuelan hijackers have been well received by the Cubans, but this is partly understandable in that it is extremely difficult for members of Cuban-supported insurgency groups in the hemisphere to reach Cuba using regularly scheduled flights. All of the passengers of the US and Latin American hijacked planes have been relatively well-treated, although the Cubans have harassed some US servicemen in uniform, especially Negro veterans of Vietnam.

Castro benefits. While the Cubans have shown some nervousness, the hijacking episodes nevertheless provide Castro with a domestic propaganda weapon. He attempts to show that these increasing occurrences represent the desperation of Cuban exiles and US citizens to leave the land of “workers exploitation” and journey to the “free territory of the Americas.” In this way he seeks to discourage those who are planning to eventually emigrate to the US. Moreover, Castro has very little political and no economic leverage which he can apply against the US, whom he considers Cuba’s mortal enemy. A hijacked US airliner naturally supplies him with the potential for blackmail or at least a means of illustrating to US policymakers that the US also has an exposed area. After each hijacking the US is forced to go to the Cuban government, through the Swiss, and request the return of the plane, its crew and passengers. The Cubans have always complied with the requests, but since mid-year, they have used the episodes to engage in some low-level harassment. Using the argument that the runways are too short, they have not allowed the passengers to return to the US on the hijacked airliner. Instead they have forced the planes to leave Cuba empty and have obligated the State Department to arrange [Page 546] for the sending of a separate plane to Cuba to retrieve the passengers—an annoying and time-consuming operation. The Cubans are well aware that there is no danger to a fully loaded jet taking off from the Havana airfield. In addition to the separate plane harassment tactics, the Cubans have also charged the airlines stiff fees for accommodating passengers.

The refusal to return hijackers. The most effective, and possibly the only feasible method of stopping the hijacking, would be an agreement by Cuba to return the guilty persons. Nevertheless, efforts by international conferences to work out a mutually satisfactory agreement have not met with success and approaches to the Cubans through the UN have been rebuffed. Moreover, the Cubans have not officially responded to a US suggestion that dissatisfied Cubans in the United States be allowed to return to Cuba on the US-operated refugee airlift.

An extradition agreement between the US and Cuba remains in force, but hijacking is not specified as an extraditable offense under the treaty. Furthermore, Castro would probably find it very difficult for ideological and public relations reasons to return Cubans to the United States for prosecution, particularly if they come to him as disillusioned persons who profess to believe that revolutionary Cuba is the more desirable state. Even if Castro did find it advantageous to return the non-Cubans, he would probably attempt to extract a fairly high price from the US. He might, as an example, demand that the US Government not give asylum to Cubans fleeing the island clandestinely (or as hijackers) as a quid pro quo for an agreement to send back non-Cubans to the US. It would however be politically difficult for the US to agree to an arrangement of this kind.

A double-edge sword. Though Castro may take some satisfaction in the hijackings, they probably also give him some sense of uneasiness. An airline tragedy would expose Cuba to charges that its failure to cooperate with the US to prevent hijackings had contributed to the accident and, especially in view of the unbalanced personalities of many hijackers, an accident is a very real possibility. In addition, Castro may be concerned that the continued hijackings will increase pressure on US officials to “do something about Cuba,” particularly with a new administration about to assume office. The hijacking of four aircraft from Mexico to Cuba is also believed to have caused some embarrassment to the Cubans who are anxious to avoid additional strains in their highly valued relations with Mexico. Legislation to combat hijackings submitted to the Mexican legislature on December 5 by President Diaz Ordaz (submission by the president is tantamount to passage) will undoubtedly heighten Castro’s [Page 547] sensitivity to the seriousness of the matter, particularly where Mexico is involved.2

On balance, however, at least for the short term, Castro will probably continue to view the hijacking as primarily a US, and to a lesser extent, a Mexican problem, and is not likely to feel any sense of urgency about contributing to a settlement of the issue.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, AV 12 US. Confidential.
  2. The proposed legislation requires a prison term of from five to twenty years for any —persons who by use of threats, violence, intimidation or any other illegal means, cause an aircraft to change its destination or leave its route.—[Footnote in the source text.]