By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The full story of the Wasp Network cannot yet be told. Judge Lenard's gag order on defendants, lawyers, and witnesses precludes that. Moreover the messages the FBI has released are riddled with omissions. But enough missives have emerged to add an absurd little chapter to cold war history.
It would take just one pilot determined to fly southward from Opa-locka, open a window over Havana, and drop some kind of secret weapon on an oil refinery to spark a very messy international incident. But really, what are the odds of that? Cuban officials were not about to take any chances. They made that clear when Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to Rescue planes on February 24, 1996, killing four exile pilots.
While the jury is out on whether Hernandez should bear responsibility for those deaths, the Wasp Network's writings clearly indicate the spies planned to sting Brothers to the Rescue and its leader, José Basulto. After all, Basulto was one of numerous Cubans who returned to Cuba legally in 1961 to prepare for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the deadly debacle that ensued, he escaped to Guantánamo. But he would not quit. A year later he and six other exiles traveled from Marathon Key to the coast of Havana in a heavily armed boat and fired a small cannon at an oceanside hotel. For years he advocated the assassination of Castro but eventually backed away from the violent struggle, publicly at least, and became a luxury-home builder. In 1991, as an alarming number of Cubans began fleeing their homeland in rafts, he cofounded Brothers to the Rescue. The group flew hundreds of missions to pull rafters out of the dangerous seas.
In 1995 Basulto shifted gears; he began flying over Cuba and dropping anti-Castro leaflets, to the annoyance of some Cuban government officials. That earned him a top slot on the Wasp Network's list of targets.
The Wasp Network's penetration of Brothers to the Rescue was one of its notable successes. Two of its operatives were well inside. One was Rene Gonzalez, whose code names were Castor and Iselin. The other was Juan Pablo Roque, whose code names were Venecia and German (pronounced hare-mahn). They lived in the Miami area and reported to Capt. Gerardo Hernandez, who had an apartment in North Miami Beach.
A message from Havana to Hernandez in November 1995 outlines Operation Picada (Spanish for "bite" or "sting"), which was aimed at sabotaging Brothers to the Rescue and discrediting Basulto. Among the "actions to be developed" for the operation was "the possibility of burning down the warehouse of this counterrevolutionary organization and affect[ing] its planes, making it seem like an accident, negligence, or self-damage, keeping in mind that this place may be secured, and that in cases like these, investigations are performed. Rumors will leak that Basulto and his people caused the damage themselves to collect the insurance and get more money from their contributors." Because he is expected to testify, Basulto is barred from speaking to the press about the case. But he has previously told reporters of incidents in which he discovered that steering cables of Brothers to the Rescue planes were severed. Another possible sting would be "to disable their equipment and transmission antennae on land, the ones they use to communicate with during their missions, making it seem like negligence."
One of special agent Rene Gonzalez's assignments was to inform Hernandez "when the Brothers to the Rescue planes will be taking off, who is in them, and if they are going to land at a specific place." He would type up an encoded report, save it on a disk, and pass it to Hernandez.
At the time Gonzalez was on a roll. It had been five years since the Cuban Air Force veteran flew a crop-dusting plane from Cuba to the Boca Chica air base near Key West in 1990 and announced his defection. Now he was not only one of the Brothers' esteemed pilots but an assistant director of the Democracy Movement's air command as well. He also belonged to PUND (the Democratic National Unity Party), several of whose commandos promptly were captured while making two raids on Cuban soil in 1994 and in 1996.
Roque, though, might have been losing his edge. He was eager to return to Cuba. One report to Havana suggests such eagerness may have started to taint his ability to reason about certain things. The message was apparently written by Albert Manuel Ruiz, one of the alleged spies who escaped. It states that the two met at 9:00 a.m. on November 27, 1995, at the McDonald's restaurant at 3200 S. Dixie Hwy. in Coconut Grove to exchange information on Brothers to the Rescue. Roque informed Ruiz about an idea Basulto had to seek permission from the Cuban government to make flights to Havana to deliver humanitarian aid to political prisoners. In his report Ruiz refers to himself in the third person as A-4, one of his code names. "German [Roque] seemed to think these flights might be authorized by Cuba. He even described with enthusiasm how good it would be if they would take place, and he would go with Basulto, land in Cuba, and say, “That's it for me,' and what he referred to is how much of an impact it would have for one of the pilots of Brothers to the Rescue to stay. In regards to this, A-4 [Ruiz] hinted that the idea was a bit of a fantasy because it was quite obvious that the Cuban government would not accept that."