The Day Cuba And The D.R. (almost) Went To War
It was 1977, the height of the Cold War.
Everyone’s still afraid of Cuba and their alliance with the Soviet Union, so you can’t blame the Dominican Republic for freaking out a bit over a few Cuban ‘fishing’ boats that suddenly appeared off the Dominican coast lines.
The Dominican Air Force decided to buzz these ships with their P-51 Mustangs — fighter planes that were at least 30 years out of date. Once upon a time they had been dictator Trujillo’s personal pride and joy and part of the biggest and most powerful air force in Latin America. Now however, while beautiful to look at, they were flying museum exhibitions.
Eventually one of the Cuban ships — the Capitan Teo — got a bit too close, and the Dominican Navy decided to confiscate it for espionage, hauling it into Puerto Plata harbor.
Fidel Castro took this personal.
On September 8 Fidel Castro met with his staff and decided on a military response. He personally overlooked the briefing and deployment of 12 MiG-21 fighters from the San Antonio airbase and the removal of all Russian writings on the weapons and external fuel tanks. Since he was doing this operation behind the back of the USSR he wanted to make certain that if any blame fell, it would be on him and not his allies. After all, the Cuban Missile Crisis 10 years earlier was still a close memory.
The following morning a lot more than 12 fighter jets took off the runway and headed towards the east and other directions. Other units flew different missions around the island and even the Army mobilized along the coastline. All this served as a distraction to the American forces at Guantanamo for the real mission: that of the 12 MiGs. Castro had no love for the Americans and had called Jimmy Carter during the briefing an “idiota vendedor de maní” — ‘idiot peanut peddler.’ Executing a mission right in front of their noses served him just fine.
As ordered, after a refueling stop at the Cuban base at Guantanamo, the 12 jets snuck past the US forces in Guantanamo and Haitian airspace to avoid any incident and dropped their auxiliary tanks into the ocean off Puerto Plata (where they were later recovered with all markings removed). Moments later they hit the deck and broke the sound barrier.
Reports indicate the jets came so close over Santo Domingo their supersonic boom busted windows and knocked over TV antennas. Several times the 12 jets buzzed the capital without firing weapons.
The Dominican air force did nothing to intercept. After all, all they had were their Word War II-era fighters. It would have been suicide to go up against MiGs in P-51 Mustangs: like a kid on a bicycle facing down a bulldozer. Mustangs were built to kill Nazis, but Hitler had been dead for over 30 years. Some reports indicate that a few Mustangs did take off, but if they did they probably reached the Santo Domingo airspace by the time the MIGs had already departed.
The MiGs returned to Cuba shortly after. No weapons had been launched, but plenty of bones in the DR government had been rattled. Fidel congratulated the pilots. Phase I of is scare tactic had worked.
But by the evening of the same day, there was no reaction from the DR government, or any other discernible move to return the Cuban ship. Castro had given president Balaguer an ultimatum of 24 hours: return the ship or he would launch attacks against Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata and Santiago. There were only a few more hours to go. Cuban spies within the DR government sent back massive data on the incident, but nothing that indicated a backing down.
Fidel Castro saw no other choice but to order Phase II: the bombardment of Santo Domingo.
Very early morning, September 10 1977, ground crews began loading the MiGs with FAB-500 bombs. These soviet-built bombs were as dumb as bombs come. They were basically a thin steel-can bulging with explosives. Their power lay in their blast radius, pulverizing whatever they fell on and then some. But that also meant they were unguided and just fell where they fell: no aiming or accuracy possible.
The crew was briefed on the targets: the Santo Domingo Army and Marine barracks and Police headquarter. The FAB-500 would be dropped more or less on these buildings. Since each bomb could basically pulverize an entire block, collateral damage would be high.
The crews weren’t happy about that and neither was the brass. During the briefing the target was changed to the San Isidrio Air Force base. It would be less likely to cause civilian deaths and they would probably turn the P-51 Mustang fleet grounded there to scrap.
At 8:30 in the morning the planes were loaded, the crew ready. Only one hour and half left until the ultimatum ran out.
Then the long-awaited message came.
“Barco devuelto.” — The ship has been returned. The Cuban pilots were relieved. They would not have to bomb their Dominican brothers.
The US Involvement
While the DR did not see more Cold War action beyond this incident, the very same 12 Cuban pilots did. Some of them died the following year in Cuban operations in Ethiopia and Angola. Colonel Rafael del Pino who planned and personally flew in the mission defected to the US in 1987. It is from his memoirs that we know the details of this incident. Others rose in rank and are now high officials within the current Cuban Air Force.
The incident is not much spoken of in Cuban and Dominican history, but the US still keeps classified documents on the event concerning details as to why the ships were off the coast in the first place and who was the third party that had brokered the return of the ship.