The families of three of four fliers killed in the attack won a judgment of $187 million against the Republic of Cuba and the Cuban Air Force in 1997, but had been unable to collect.
They then asked U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King, who awarded them the $187 million judgment, to let them seize Cuban assets in the United States -- including payments owed to Cuba by telephone companies doing business with the communist-controlled island.
King ruled today that they could have the telephone funds.
They money is paid to Cuba's ETECSA phone company by U.S. telephone companies as Havana's share of the payments for long-distance calls from the United States to Cuba.
The largest by far, according to King, must come from AT&T, more than $4.1 million, and MCI International Inc., about $1.05 million.
Cuba's telephone company severed most direct service to the United States Feb. 25 because U.S. telephone companies have been withholding payments pending King's decision.
Telephone service was slowed but not stopped as U.S. carriers rerouted calls to the island, apparently through third countries or onto Sprint telephone lines, which were not affected.
Four members of the Miami-based group Brothers to the Rescue who were searching for refugees on rafts were killed when Cuban MiGs shot down two private planes in the Florida Straits on Feb. 24, 1996. Three of them were U.S. citizens, making their families eligible to sue under U.S. law.
After the judgment was awarded, the relatives first went after tens of millions of dollars in Cuban assets in the United States frozen by the State Department since the 1960s, but ran into opposition from the State and Treasury departments.
The families' effort to garnishee the telephone funds had also been opposed by the Clinton administration, which argued the U.S. trade embargo bans any financial dealings with Cuba, including garnishments, unless specifically licensed by Washington.
Officials also argued that the Cuban phone company, ETECSA, a joint venture between the Cuban government and an Italian company, is an independent company and therefore cannot be affected by the relatives' suit against the Cuban government.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press