Q and A with Frank Angones
See related story, “Cuba on Trial.”
Jenny B. Davis: Alejandre v. Republic of Cuba, 996 F. Supp. 1239 (S.D. Fla. 1997) set a new precedent in international law by marking the first verdict and monetary collection from a civil lawsuit against a named terrorist country. How did you become involved in the case?
Frank Angones: Armando Alejandre [one of the pilots who was shot down and killed] was a close friend from high school … we had been close friends since we were 14; we played against each other in basketball. When you die under these circumstances, when you’re pulverized in midair, there’s no physician to give you a death certificate. So even though it was national and international news, there are certain requirements to getting life insurance and other benefits that require a death certificate. … The Alejandro family approached me to get this certificate, and they asked if I could do the same for the other families, which required filing a lawsuit in probate court. The first judge assigned to the case would not accept the newspaper and TV accounts. … I had to get affidavits from the two eyewitnesses that the two planes were shot down in midair.
Davis: How did you move from probate court to suing the government of Cuba in federal court?
Angones: The reason for the [Alejandre] case to begin with was there were no indictments or anything. The families were interested in making certain that there was some kind of judicial precendent that this [shootdown] took place.
Just to set the record straight, when the Pan Am plane blew up over Lockerbie [Scotland] in 1987, Sen. Arlen Specter wanted to enact some sort of statute—some legislation—to allow individual victims of terrorism to be able to sue governments in private lawsuits. He was not successful. With this tragic event in 1996, there was the political impetus in Washington, D.C. [to make it happen]. The shootdown took place in February , and a statute passed in April, 1996. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that stated that if you were an American citizen and you were the victim of a terrorist action sponsored by a terrorist state, you could sue that foreign state. Cuba was among those listed under terrorist nations. With the enacting of that statute and when the [Angones] family saw there was no action to prosecute those who gave the orders [to shoot down the planes], they felt like they had to have something declaring how it occurred and when it occurred and something saying it was a murder by a totalitarian regime. This was a way to get some official acknowledgment. That’s how the case got started.
Davis: How long did the trial last?
Angones: The government of Cuba never answered the complaint, but we had to put in a minimum case for the judge to render an opinion. …[The trial] only lasted two-and-a-half days—that was just on our side, with no cross-examination. When the government of Cuba did come in was when we came to collect, then they did hire lawyers. We obtained the judgment in 1997; it took until 2002 to collect. It required an act of Congress to get the frozen Cuban assets.
Davis: Were you surprised that you recovered so much money?
Angones: We frankly had no idea there would be any recovery. The families wanted a sense of justice, at least a modicum of justice since there would be no arrests, no prosecutions, no convictions. They thought of it as a human rights case. In the U.S., we don’t have any private criminal proceedings—only the government can prosecute. The families met with many senators, but these things are very political—[the men] were shot down by two colonels in the Cuban army, and it gets a little bit complex when politics are involved.
Davis: With no anticipated recovery, it must have been a very expensive case for you and your firm to take on.
Angones: The initial prosecution was expensive, and the next five years for collection [of the judgment] were also expensive. I did not do it by myself—I have a relatively small firm, 10 lawyers. When I thought that the Cuban government would oppose [the initial case], I went to Cesar Alvarez at Greenburg Traurig. I had worked with Cesar Alvarez on Cuban American Bar Association vs. Christopher, about Cuban refuges detailed in Guantanamo, he and Bob Martinez had volunteered and done a lot of volunteer work. When this shootdown took place and I was thinking Cuba would oppose the prosecution, I enlisted their assistance. I also enlisted the help of Aaron Podhurst, who is one of the premier aviation lawyers in the country, and a highly respected lawyer in Miami. It was an effort by three law firms to prosecute the case civilly for liability and damages and subsequently to collect the money. Initially the families had no idea that there would ever be collection, nor did the lawyers. [We did it because] it was a major, major case and the right thing to do. We are Cuban-Americans, and I had the privilege of knowing Alejandre and that’s why we were involved—so there would at least be some justice, so there would be some precedent that in fact the shootdown happened in international waters and it was planned, devised and approved at the highest level of government.
Davis: Did you ever end up getting paid?
Angones: There was no statutory requirement for attorneys fees [to be taken out of the money recovered from Cuba’s frozen U.S. assets], and without that or a contract, we were not entitled to attorney fees. We did get paid, and recovered over $400,000 in costs. We didn’t expect it, [but then] we saw the possibility after the fact. It took an emotional toll, it was a very emotional process for us—for the families and for the lawyers, too, especially since I had a special connection to one of the victims.
Davis: Did you ever entertain the thought, or maybe the fantasy, of having Castro up on the witness stand?
Angones: That’s always a wish, but I frankly knew that that was going to be an impossibility. In the collection process, [the Cuban government] finally gave up because the judge was forcing officials of the Cuban government to come in and testify in the United States. [The Cuban government] had allowed officials to testify for prosecution of certain crimes, for instance, when someone has stolen an airplane. But in this case, the Cuban government was not willing to let any of their officials come and testify in an American court.
Davis: In one scene in the documentary, Maggie Khuly is standing in a room completely filled with boxes, all containing documents from this case. How many boxes do you all have?
Angones: Between three law firms, in addition to what she has, we have three big office rooms full of boxes with documents and other things like newspaper articles.
Davis: Was it personally satisfying to know that the case and the recovery had made an impact on Cuba, on Castro?
Angones: I was born in Cuba, I came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied child as part of a project called “Pedro Pan.” … It made such an impact [on Cuba and Castro] that, for a period of time, international calls from the U.S. to Cuba were forbidden. Castro vilified the federal judge.
Davis: Do you know if he vilified the lawyers?
Angones: I have never seen anything that would say so, but certainly the expressions in the official newspaper were such that it indicated that we were not favored people. In that regard it gave me some sense of gratification, without a doubt.