262. Memorandum From Robert Pastor of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron)1


  • A Cloud Over the Bahamas (U)

In a conversation with our Ambassador last week, Bahamian Prime Minister Pindling asked for a briefing on Cuba. Before going on vacation there on Thursday, I checked with Bowdler and Ambassador Schwartz, and thought it would be useful if I offered to do that briefing, if Pindling so requested. He did, and he also asked me to meet with his Foreign Minister.2 (S)

[Page 622]

We had good, wide-ranging discussions, and I have prepared a more detailed Memcon,3 but let me summarize the main points for you. The Bahamians have clearly thought about the incident much more than we have, but they hesitate to wrestle through its implications because they clearly do not want to play a large role in the Caribbean, and see no benefit in confronting the Cubans. Our interests are slightly different, and in our conversation, I tried to define the issue in a way which would encourage the GOB to keep this incident alive long enough to embarrass and isolate the Cubans and to begin playing a larger, leadership role in the Caribbean region. Foreign Minister Adderly was more agreeable to playing a larger role than Pindling, but I think there is a reasonable chance that if we continue to prod the Bahamians gently but helpfully, that they will come out of this incident with a more assertive and positive approach to the Caribbean. (S)

The Incident

Adderly has prepared a detailed factsheet of the incident, but the major events are as follows. On May 10, The Bahamian ship, Flamingo, captured two Cuban vessels fishing one quarter mile off a Bahamian island. Pindling feels that since many of the fishermen had been captured before, they radioed for help, and may have disguised the fact that it was a Bahamian Coast Guard vessel. Several MIG-21s arrived, harassed the Flamingo, and then sunk it and strafed and killed four Bahamian Coast Guardsmen. The Commander of the Flamingo still managed to take control over one of the Cuban boats and all of the Cuban fishermen, and brought them into Ragged Island. This occurred in daylight and clearly within Bahamian territorial waters. Sunday morning, several Cuban aircraft, including a large transport plane, a helicopter and two MIG fighters, flew low over Ragged Island and engaged in a “sustained threatening and intimidating aerial display of force at rooftop level.” The helicopter actually landed on the ground. At several points during the day, these Cuban planes and fighters returned to Ragged Island, and Adderly thinks that the Cubans were looking for the fishermen to try to rescue them, at least in part to embarrass the US after our failed rescue mission in Iran.4 (S)

While one can explain the readiness of the Cuban Air Force to respond to a distress call, it is more difficult to explain a clear Cuban decision to sink and strafe a vessel—the Cuban Government claims they did not know it was Bahamian—in clear Bahamian territorial [Page 623] waters (although the Cubans dispute that, too). It is more difficult to explain the subsequent harassment of a Bahamian Island by the Cuban Air Force, and one must conclude those decisions were made by Castro. (S)


Pindling and Adderly both fear that the Cubans were trying to send a message to the Bahamians: leave our fishing boats alone, or else. Until my briefing, they clearly had not bothered to inform themselves about Cuban military capabilities or internal developments in Cuba. Nor was Pindling even aware of the President’s October 1, 1979 speech.5 Pindling would like this incident to go away, but he is aware of these implications, and he will have to respond to domestic political pressure, much of it coming from those who want to take a tougher approach to Cuba. Adderly, on the other hand, seems interested in trying to keep the issue alive, at least long enough to assure the GOB that Cuba will not try something like this again. (S)

I encouraged Adderly to look to his like-minded neighbors in the Caribbean Basin—Venezuela, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil, as well as the US, UK and Canada. I encouraged him to play this issue out in a way which will bring enhanced security to the Bahamas, rather than try to settle the issue as quickly and neatly as possible. The first step is obviously to brief his colleagues in these countries, and to bring their perceptions of the Flamingo incident up to speed in a way which encourages them to formulate responses to this increased security threat from Cuba. I said that the United States would be prepared to discuss these issues either with the Bahamians directly or within a regional context. Adderly expressed interest in this, but he was anxious to obtain confirmation that the Flamingo sunk where its Commander said it did—1.5 miles off a Bahamian Island, rather than 14 miles as Cuba maintains. I promised that I would try to get some help for him in this regard. It is clear to me that we cannot get in front of the Bahamians on this issue without losing them, so we need to keep prodding them to play a leadership role.6 That is one of the reasons why we need to get a US Naval vessel down to the area to confirm that the Flamingo sunk where the Bahamians believe it did. This will not only help Adderly make his [Page 624] case, but it will indicate that we are prepared to move rapidly to assist the Bahamians when necessary. (S)

The Flamingo incident raises a number of important questions, and gives us a number of important opportunities which we should not hesitate to exploit. I recommend that we take the following steps:7

1. I will pursue with Bowdler, Nimetz, and DOD, the need for a metal detection ship to be sent to the Bahamas as soon as possible. If I need any help, I will send you a message before your lunch with Brown. (S)

2. Pindling asked for regular briefings on intelligence and security matters, and we said that we would be prepared to do that. Actually, I learned later that the ball is in his court since we already offered this several weeks ago. It would be very useful to us if we used the briefing to try to piece together the details of this incident, in order to get a better idea of what Castro had in mind. (S)

3. We have not yet begun negotiations on our military facilities in the Bahamas because the Bahamians have shown little interest until now. I suspect this will change. Such negotiations however, could lead to significant tensions and disagreement between the US and the GOB because our perceptions of the value of the bases are so different. They want to negotiate on the scale of the Spanish Bases Agreement, and DOD is only willing to consider a paltry amount. Our Ambassador is very interested in trying to conclude this agreement soon, but I am worried that unless we get our own act together first, and make a clear political determination that good relations with the Bahamians at this time are worth our paying more than DOD would normally want, then frankly, we should avoid negotiations. If you agree, I will ask for some background papers on this and related subjects for possible consideration by a Mini-SCC.8 (S)

4. Pindling’s Opposition in Parliament has asked that the GOB consider a special Defense Treaty or arrangement with the US. I don’t think a treaty is in either of our country’s interest, but I do think that some informal arrangement, which would permit us to respond rapidly to a request from the GOB, would be in the interest of both our countries. For example, I think we should have sent a number of Phantoms to overfly Ragged Island as a show of strength and support for the GOB after Cuba buzzed the Island and our own plane and helicopter. Of course, we should only do it if the GOB requests it, but to the extent [Page 625] that the GOB knows that we would respond immediately, they might be more likely to request it. (S)

5. We should also begin doing something about regional security. Matt Nimetz’s Task Force has addressed the seven questions in your memorandum to the Secretary on security assistance to the Eastern Caribbean.9 I met with him today, and will send you a memo on specific items for possible consideration of an SCC or PRC.10 (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor, Country, Box 2, Bahamas, 1/79–11/80. Secret. Sent for action. Aaron wrote at the top of the page, “Good Memo,” and Brzezinski wrote, “RP—Good. Give me 1 page for the W.R. [Weekly Report].” See Document 263.
  2. In telegram 1340 from Nassau, May 27, the Embassy reported that Pastor, on vacation in the Bahamas, “made himself available to brief Adderly and Prime Minister Pindling on U.S. assessment of developments in Cuba in an effort to help explain Flamingo incident.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800260–0343)
  3. Not found.
  4. Ambassador Schwartz met with Prime Minister Pindling on May 23 and May 24 and discussed the Flamingo incident. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor, Country, Box 2, Bahamas, 1/79–11/80)
  5. The President addressed the Nation on October 1 about the Soviet military presence in Cuba. See footnote 2, Document 80.
  6. In telegram 1381 from Nassau, May 30, the Embassy reported that on May 29, the Government of the Bahamas withdrew its request for assistance in finding the wreck of the Flamingo. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800265–0598)
  7. Aaron underlined this sentence and wrote in the margin, “the hell with State, just work with DOD + Navy.”
  8. Donald Gregg wrote “ok” in the right margin.
  9. See footnotes 2 and 3, Document 375.
  10. See Document 379.