- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) - At face value, they are three old planes not worth much more than their parts and scrap metal. Stolen from the Cuban government during a six-month period ending in April 2003 - two by hijackers, one by its pilot - all three landed at Key West International Airport, a 116-mile flight from struggling Havana to the gleaming shores of the U.S.

Fidel Castro repeatedly demanded the planes be returned. Instead, they were seized by U.S. courts to satisfy part of a $27 million judgment won by a Cuban-American woman who had unwittingly married a Cuban spy in Miami.

The story of what happened to the planes in the ensuing years reads like another chapter in the history of stymied, contentious U.S.-Cuba relations, with the new owners unable to get the planes anywhere.

The first of the three planes to land in Key West was a yellow, Soviet-built crop-duster that pilot Nemencio Carlos Alonso Guerra used to fly seven passengers, many of them relatives, to the U.S. in November 2002.

Cuba wanted the biplane back, but a Florida judge agreed with Ana Margarita Martinez that it should be seized and sold to partially pay the judgment she was awarded under an anti-terrorism law. In 1996, her husband, Juan Pablo Roque, had fled back to Cuba after infiltrating the Miami-based anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue. The next day, Cuban fighter jets shot down two of the group’s Cessnas over international waters, killing four pilots.

The aging Antonov AN-2 Colt was auctioned at the Key West airport in 2003 and Martinez placed the highest bid, $7,000.

“We had a victory - we got to keep this property of the Cuban government,” Martinez said after the auction.

She hoped to sell it for a profit later but instead gave it to Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada, who painted half of it with a colorful mural as part of an exhibit commemorating Cuba’s independence.

After the exhibit, Cortada eventually donated the plane to Florida International University, which planned to display it but couldn’t find a building to house it. Today, it deteriorates under tarps on a far corner of FIU’s campus.

Even if it could be flown, there would be another hurdle: The plane would have to be deregistered in Cuba or given special authorization to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration. That, however, requires maintenance documents and certificates proving the plane is safe - all of them in Cuba.

Don Soldini, who purchased a hijacked DC-3, is one of the few who stood a chance of getting Cuban plane records.

“I would’ve flown it back,” he said last week.

Soldini, who went to Cuba as a teen to fight in the revolution, remains on good terms with the island’s leaders.

He was barely 18 when he hitchhiked from Staten Island to Key West in the late 1950s, intent on joining the Cuban revolution. He flew to the island on a passenger DC-3, an elegant, bulbous-shaped plane now synonymous with World War II and the 1940s to ‘60s-era commercial airline service. Once in Cuba, Soldini joined the underground and eventually fought in the rebel army, marching alongside Raul Castro and his troops.

After the revolutionaries’ 1959 victory, Soldini remained in Cuba but felt uneasy there as an American. He left and eventually started a real estate development company in Florida with offices in 21 countries. Starting in the 1970s, he began visiting Cuba about twice a year.

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