Cuba's history following the overthrow of the Batista government in December 1958 has been one of isolation from the West and alignment with the Soviets. The USA has had a particularly fractious relationship with Castro's regime following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year. Eventually this morphed into harsh sanctions, a complete ban on trade and the freezing of all Cuban-owned assets in the US.
You can imagine how happy the Americans were then to see their neighbours the Canadians offer an olive branch to the Cuban national airline, Cubana de Aviacion, by leasing them a pair of Air Canada's Douglas DC-8s. Canada had followed a very different path in its relations with Cuba to the Americans maintaining unbroken diplomatic relations with Castro's regime. The Canadian Prime Minister from 1968-1979 (and again from 1980-1984), Pierre Trudeau had good relations with Cuba visiting for 3 days and forming a lifelong relationship with Fidel. Castro was in fact a pallbearer at Trudeau's funeral in 2000.
Cuba remained an important holiday destination for Canadians and with the ban on flights to the USA Cubana's route to Montreal became very successful. Cubana had struggled to operate a modern fleet during the 1960s relying on a small number of Bristol Britannias, ordered before the revolution, and Ilyushin IL-18s. Ilyushin IL-62s became the airline's first jets in the early 1970s but the lease of even some elderly Rolls Royce Conway powered DC-8-43s was too good for the airline to pass up.
Initially two aircraft were leased and both would have unfortunate ends. The first aircraft, ex-CF-TJK, arrived on February 16, 1976 as CU-T1200. She only saw service for a month and two days as on March 18 she was involved in a mid-air collision with a Cubana Antonov 24B. The An-24 was on a training flight whilst the DC-8 was operating a passenger flight with 29 onboard. The DC-8 lost part of its wing and no 1 engine, damaged no 2 engine and the flaps but was able to land safely at Havana. The AN-24 was less fortunate and crashed killing all 5 aboard. CU-T1200 was written off following the accident.
The second DC-8, ex-CF-TJI, arrived on February 28 as CU-T1201. Following the loss of CU-T-1200 a third DC-8 was leased. This aircraft, ex-CF-TJJ, became CU-T1210 on April 13, 1976 so keeping the active fleet at two. Unfortunately the two aircraft were not to survive together for long as on October 6, 1976 CU-T1201 crashed into the sea near Barbados whilst operating flight 455.
The DC-8 was not involved in an accident, being destroyed by the explosion of two bombs (probably C-4 plastic explosive) at 18,000 feet shortly after take off from Barbados Seawell Airport. The bombs were located at the rear lavatory and in the midsection of the cabin. Mortally wounded as it was the aircraft didn't crash immediately and the crew attempted unsuccessfully to return to the airport. The crew's final act appears to have been to turn the aircraft away from a crowded tourist beach to ditch into the Caribbean. Unfortunately all 68 passengers and 5 crew were killed. The passengers included 24 members of the Cuban fencing team fresh from winning gold medals at the Central American and Caribbean Championships. Most of the team were little more than children.
The perpetrators of the bombing were almost immediately apparent - two Venezuelans (Freddy Lugo and Hernan Ricardo Lozano) who had boarded the aircraft in Trinidad, checked their bags to Cuba but left the plane in Barbados and flew to Trinidad. Lozano had been travelling under a false name. They confessed and said they were acting under the orders of 'CIA operatives' Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. Bosch was an anti-Castro Cuban living in Venezuela and running a terrorist organisation: Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU). Posada and Bosch were arrested and incriminating evidence (explosives, radio transmitters and such) found. Case closed - or so you would have thought.
Posada subsequently went to work for US intelligence in Central America and has been protected by the USA (despite the outstanding warrant for his arrest and a terrorist bombing of his that killed an Italian-Canadian tourist in Cuba in 1997). Captured in Panama in 2000, organising an assassination plot against Castro who was about to visit the country, he escaped justice again when the outgoing Panamanian President pardoned him in 2004; almost certainly under pressure from the USA. He went to the USA and has avoided extradition and several attempts to convict him of various acts from his past.
The question remains of how much the FBI and CIA knew prior to the bombing. It seems pretty clear that the CIA was well aware of Posada's aim of blowing up a Cubana airliner and even if not directly involved did nothing to stop it. The umbrella group responsible, CORU, had already bombed various airline offices owned by airlines serving Cuba, assassinated several Cuban officials and had taken part in a failed bombing of the same flight in July 1977. Posada apparently stopped being a CIA asset in 1974 but even if true the CIA had regular contact with him and lots of intelligence indicating his future activity. The resulting farce of continuous trials and protection of known terrorists by the US authorities is a shameful self-incrimination of the role they had to play in the murder of 73 civilians. It is another footnote in the disgraceful history of the CIA and the USA's operations against Communist Cuba.
Cubana's remaining DC-8 survived her lease and was returned on May 8, 1978. She was sold to IAL and served leases to Air Jamaica before sale to Capitol International in June 1981 for parts. The victims of flight 455 are memorialised in a monument erected at Payne's Bay, Saint James, Barbados. You could easily argue they have yet to receive the justice they deserve.
Flight 455. Wikipedia
Luis Posada Carriles. Wikipedia
This day in history. The Barbados crime, Cubana flight 455. Tony Seed's Weblog
Cubana Flight 455: Remembering the Victims of US-Supported Terrorism. Global Research.ca
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: