Mother of ‘Brothers to The Rescue’ Victim Assails Ben Rhodes

Accuses Obama adviser of 'bragging' about his shuttle diplomacy with Cuba

Obama adviser Ben Rhodes / Getty Images

The mother of one of four young American men killed by the Castro regime in 1996 is decrying new details of the secret shuttle diplomacy that preceded the Obama administration's rapprochement with Cuba, which a top Obama official revealed this week.

Ben Rhodes, who served as President Obama's deputy national security adviser, in an interview with Univision that aired earlier this week, disclosed that he played a key role in paving the way for the political thaw with Cuba, meeting 20 times with then Cuban President Raul Castro's son, Alejandro Castro Espin, and dining several times with Raul Castro himself.

Alejandro Castro Espin runs the island nation's military and civilian intelligence services.

The meetings took place in Trinidad, Cancun, Canada, and Cuba over the course of a year, Rhodes said in the interview, part of his book tour promoting his memoir about working in the White House.

He also said he spoke to the Castros many times before Obama and Raul Castro spoke directly and took credit for laying the groundwork for the historic diplomatic and economic détente with Havana.

Those new details re-opened emotional wounds for Miriam de la Pena. She is the mother of Mario de la Pena, one of the four men killed in the infamous "Brothers to the Rescue" shootdown, when Cuban military jets downed two American aircraft in international waters.

"I think they need to know what harm they caused and what pain they caused—how our children were murdered by that system and that I feel like they are getting killed again and again because justice is still to be seen with these criminals not being held accountable and our president shaking hands and laughing and partying with the perpetrators," she told the Washington Free Beacon.

Along with De la Pena and several other families of the victims of the 1996 shootdown, several lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), as well as Florida's Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ron DeSantis, have recently called on the Trump administration to indict Raul Castro for his role in the murders.

De la Pena also accused the Obama administration of lying to her and the other parents of the murdered pilots, telling her that negotiations with Cuba over the return of imprisoned U.S. government worker Alan Gross would not involve the return of Gerardo Hernandez.

Hernandez was the ringleader of the Cuban Five who was convicted in the U.S. on spying charges and conspiracy to commit murder for his role in the 1996 shootdown in the U.S. and sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 2001.

In the two years preceding Obama's decision to renew diplomatic ties with Havana, which he announced in early December 2014, De la Pena said she and others had several meetings with State Department officials on the Cuba desk in which they were assured that Hernandez would not be released as part of a prisoner swap.

"They were telling us that is not on the table and that is not being negotiated," she recalled in an interview. "Rhodes was getting closer to the victimizers of American citizens and yet the families of the victims are being lied to?"

By the time Obama announced his new policy with Cuba, Hernandez was already released to his home country, where he was receiving a "hero's welcome," she said.

De La Pena also said she didn't understand why Rhodes is proud of the role he played in the Cuba negotiations.

"I don't see what good he needs to brag about. The results of those negotiations hasn't brought any better respect for human rights in Cuba. Ask [Cuban human-rights activists] Antunez or the Ladies in White or Oscar Elias Biscet. Ask the people who are affected," she said.

"Any good that goes to Cuba doesn't go to the people. It goes to the government, so they can enrich themselves more," she added.

Rhodes did not respond to a request for comment. On Friday morning he assailed the Trump administration for a PBS Newshour report about a 14-month boy who was separated from his immigrant parents at the border for more than 85 days. According to a tweet by PBS's Judy Woodruff, the boy was returned "covered in lice" and was "apparently unbathed."

"This is just unspeakable cruelty and infinitely more important to understanding the depths of this Administration than whatever reality show spectacle Trump wants people to follow each day," Rhodes tweeted.

De la Pena also took issue with an assertion by Rhodes in the Univision interview that he doesn't believe that the Cuban government is responsible for sonic attacks against 25 U.S. workers or their family members.

Rhodes said he first learned of the sonic attacks in July 2017 during a trip to Cuba when someone at the U.S. embassy told him about them and argued that he didn't think the government was involved.

"Right away he is excusing Cuba for the sonic attacks? What does he know?" she asked. "If they were to admit that the Cubans had something to do with this his whole aura would fall because he's so proud of what did for the government, which is harming U.S. citizens and diplomats."

The Trump administration in June 2017 rolled back some of Obama's looser travel and business rules with Havana and slammed his "completely one-sided deal" with Cuba.

Last fall, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered nonessential diplomats and families out of Cuba and reduced U.S. embassy personnel to a skeletal staff after an FBI investigation failed to identify the perpetrators behind the sonic attacks in Cuba, or how and why they took place.