Stupid Question ™
Jan. 10, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why did bank robbers and other fugitives of the 1970s hijack planes to Cuba? Did Castro really welcome US criminals?
A: Through the years, a politically correct version of airplane hijacking has been welcomed by various governments.
Skyjacking began in 1947 as an escape method from Communist countries and was praised by the US as such, even when crew members were murdered. The first golden age of skyjacking was 1947-1956, with 22 skyjackings, 18 involving escape from Communism.
Cuban skyjackings followed the same pattern. The first were actually from Cuba to the US—mostly former members of Batista’s dictatorship fleeing Castro’s 1959 revolution. The US welcomed the skyjackers—even the murderous ones—as heroes, prosecuted none, and typically kept and sold the airplane. One skyjacker even became a US airline pilot and a member of the pilot association’s Flight Safety Committee.
The tables turned on May 1, 1961, when Cuban expatriate Antulio Ramirez Ortiz performed the first US-to-Cuba skyjacking. Babbling a bizarre story about warning Castro of an assassination plot, he was hailed as a hero in Cuba and nicknamed “Numero Uno.”
Meanwhile, a panicked US made “air piracy” a federal crime and started talking about the exact same safety measures it’s still talking about now.
But it still didn’t prosecute Cuba-to-US skyjackers, welcoming them as political symbols of Cuban decay.
Ramirez indeed turned out to be only Number One of many more skyjackers, the majority of whom were welcomed by Castro as political symbols of American decay.
At first there were a few similar expatriate-Cuban skyjackers. But then homegrown radicals followed suit—to join the revolution, flee charges or just get attention. And then common criminals on the lam started imitating the radicals. It snowballed into 69 successful skyjackings from 1968 to 1973, with “Take me to Cuba” becoming a catchphrase. More than 50 percent were fugitives.
Most skyjackers, and especially the common criminals, had no idea what life in Cuba was really like. They just knew it had no extradition and that everybody was going there. Most of them were in for severe culture shock and ended up returning to the US to turn themselves in.
Skyjackers who were obvious thugs were simply jailed or thrown out of the country. The experience of the rest depended on whether they were real revolutionaries (or could fake it) and could adjust to life in a struggling, authoritarian, agricultural country. Most criminals weren’t and couldn’t. They were kicked out or allowed to leave. Some who protested social conditions were jailed and tortured.
The few who truly adjusted got the socialist perks of free health care and housing, plus a monthly stipend and no work requirements. They were usually housed together in dorms (one known as “Hijack House”) and later in apartments and hotels. William Lee Brent, a fugitive Black Panther, taught high school and had a radio show.
By 1975, there were about 100 US skyjackers in Cuba. Today, about six remain.