Bird of Paradox

José Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, is a CIA-trained warrior who insists he supports nonviolent resistance. Complicated? Sí, señor.

The darkly comic moment was not lost on Brothers to the Rescue president José Basulto as he sat at his desk in BTTR's office above Madeira Street in Coral Gables one recent afternoon. Frantically waving both arms and uttering a series of shhhhhhhs! and eeeeeeees!, he was trying to signal his friend Julio Pestonit to shut up. Pestonit, a fellow Bay of Pigs veteran, had just launched into details of an assassination plot involving the friend of a friend of a friend of one of Fidel Castro's economic advisors. "What we wanted to do," Pestonit struggled to say in English, "was get close to Castro to give him a medal of ... ¿como se dice plomo?"

"Lead," Basulto reluctantly translated.

"Yes, lead," Pestonit repeated. "We tried to infiltrate to kill Castro."

Basulto insists his heralded 1962 shelling 
of the Rosita Hornedo hotel was his last 
act of exile violence
university of miami richter library
Basulto insists his heralded 1962 shelling of the Rosita Hornedo hotel was his last act of exile violence

Out flew Basulto's arms and the cautionary admonitions. He had, after all, spent much of the past two hours explaining his dedication to nonviolence.

"This was when?" asked the reporter.

"Let's forget about it," Pestonit replied softly, taking the hint and sidestepping to an impassioned plug for Brothers to the Rescue and its mission of unarmed opposition.

"No way can we solve the Cuban problem if it's not by this method of active nonviolence," he declared. "Right now the United States is a target of terrorism, and a very, very big one. How would this new administration see Cubans in Miami if we start supporting or doing terrorist acts?"

Pestonit's anecdote and awkward segue, however, was apt, for José Basulto is not the likeliest messenger of a nonviolent creed. Though for the past decade the former CIA-trained explosives and sabotage expert has preached nonviolent resistance in the battle against Castro, he abstains from condemning others still inclined to use firearms, bombs, and missiles. And as far as the Cuban government is concerned, he remains a terrorist.

"There has been enough bloodshed, enough hatred, enough vengeance on the island," said Basulto in one breath, while citing an exception with the next: "If the Cuban people were ever -- and listen to this very clearly -- if the people of Cuba were ever willing to choose violence as a path out of the situation, we would support them."

And of those exiles who promote the violent overthrow of Castro? Only one, Ernestino Abreu, commands Basulto's admiration. A 76-year-old who was arrested in Cuba in May 1998, Abreu and three other aging Cuban Americans were arrested after landing a small boat loaded with weapons on the western side of the island. "He's the only one of those who have been proposing violence for years who had the guts to go there and put it in practice," Basulto continued. "And I respect him very much for that. To me he's a hero, let me put it that way. Even though he was wrong. He had the opportunity to do something. He thought he could do it. He tried it. It did not come out right. I would have advised him against it. But that was his choice."

Basulto, too, must live with a choice that did not come out right: the decision to fly toward Cuba on February 24, 1996. His trajectory that day followed the fine line that runs through 40 years of Cuban conflict, a shadowy line that falls between provoking violence and being its innocent victim. His flight ended in Opa-locka, but not before a Cuban MiG pilot had shot down two other Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four of his group's members. Four years later the decision to fly that day has landed him in the middle of the Cuban spy trial, now in its fifth month. One of the defendants is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, accused of informing Havana's intelligence headquarters that Brothers to the Rescue planes might head toward Cuba the day of the shootdown.

There is in Basulto a confounding mixture of arrogance and raffish humor, of grandiose plans for Cuban liberation and blind resolve that has brought those plans to counterproductive, and even deadly, results.

The 60-year-old native of Santiago de Cuba is now a U.S. citizen, but he doesn't hide his higher allegiance to Cuba, albeit a Cuba without Castro. He dismisses the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba as "a political tool of the United States."

He boasts that his repeated flights into Cuban airspace in the Nineties destabilized U.S.-Cuba relations, then disavows that was his intention a few sentences later. Even so, the tactic produced no tangible advance for the anti-Castro cause. He defied repeated warnings from the State Department, Federal Aviation Administration officials, and Havana's air-traffic controllers when he flew toward Cuban waters that terrible day in 1996. But he holds Fidel Castro responsible for the four deaths. And though it was a Cuban MiG that shot down the Brothers to the Rescue Cessnas, Basulto has publicly accused members of the Clinton administration of being accomplices to murder. As a survivor of the deadly encounter, his testimony at the spy trial might have been expected to evoke sympathy from the jurors. Yet the prosecution didn't call him to testify, and his pugnacious performance in March as a hostile defense witness may instead help the Cuban agents go free, specifically the spy with the murder charge.

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