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.

When New Times recently asked him to discuss the impact of this latest battle on the future of Brothers to the Rescue, he was happy to consent to a wide-ranging interview that skirted the edges of a gag order Judge Joan Lenard issued before the trial began. Basulto's lawyers challenged the order as a violation of his First Amendment rights, but this past March the U.S. appeals court in Atlanta rejected his argument. Basulto then filed a motion with Lenard, asking her to reconsider. She turned down the request last week.

"I do not want to do anything here to derail that trial," Basulto said at the outset. But he couldn't squelch the urge to get his message out. "Our organization has published things that I believe carry the weight of what's going on," he offered, referring to the trial and pointing to a copy of the March issue of Paralelo 24, the Brothers to the Rescue newsletter named after the latitude that marks the border between U.S. and Cuban control.

The lead item in the newsletter was written by Augustin Tamargo, the loquacious anti-Castro commentator on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), and is titled "Justicia Mal Servida" ("Justice Badly Served"). The article argues that defense lawyer Paul McKenna's harsh questioning of Basulto, which lasted three full days, seemed to put the Brothers to the Rescue president on trial rather than the five accused spies.

The ex-CIA agent poses with Brothers to the Rescue pilots Juan Pablo Roque and Rene Gonzalez (kneeling), both of whom happened to be Cuban agents
The ex-CIA agent poses with Brothers to the Rescue pilots Juan Pablo Roque and Rene Gonzalez (kneeling), both of whom happened to be Cuban agents
After five volatile days on the stand, Basulto buzzed out of the federal courthouse with wife Rita (left) and his two lawyers
Kirk Nielsen
After five volatile days on the stand, Basulto buzzed out of the federal courthouse with wife Rita (left) and his two lawyers

Indeed the well of Basultonian paradox appears bottomless. Despite the embargo's 41-year span, he asserts that "working with the U.S. government has been fruitless for us for years." Washington squandered every opportunity to resolve the Cuban conflict, he says, and now the exiles want to "resolve the problem by ourselves." Nonetheless he is demanding that the Bush White House and Justice Department support his latest campaign: the indictment of Fidel Castro, the MiG pilots, and other Cubans for shooting down the Cessnas and killing those aboard. Basulto expects exile groups to have good relations with Bush, but he warns that the president risks losing Cuban-American votes if he refuses to endorse an indictment, which has the backing of the Cuban American National Foundation and the Democracy Movement.

Brothers to the Rescue was born in 1991 to save rafters foundering in the Straits of Florida, and in its first few years the group helped rescue tens of thousands of balseros. Basulto himself flew hundreds of spotting missions in his own Cessna, often dropping food and water. But the rafter crisis subsided in 1994, when the U.S. Coast Guard implemented a Clinton administration policy of returning Cubans intercepted at sea to the island rather than bringing them to the United States. And the horror of the 1996 shootdown raised questions about the new direction in which BTTR was heading. Six years later it seems reasonable to wonder: Does Brothers to the Rescue still exist?

"Oh, yes," Basulto replied, leaning back in his swivel chair. "You can read there on the wall." And he pointed to a poster-size placard as if that were proof enough. "This is our mission statement. If you want, I can read it to you." As if introducing a new recruit, he read aloud: "Brothers to the Rescue is a pro-democracy, humanitarian organization. Our mission is to promote and support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active nonviolence. An integral part of our effort is to save the lives of refugees escaping the island and to assist the families of political prisoners."

He paused to explain. "That's very clear what we are. Which places the mission on the high seas as a mission that is of a secondary nature -- not the primary purpose of our existence. It says clearly there that we are a nonviolent organization; we've been fighting the regime of Cuba for 40-some years! We gained prominence by saving lives in the Straits of Florida, and it became inescapable to the press. And everybody focused on the fact that we were doing that, and we did that quite successfully."

But Brothers to the Rescue has not been around for 40 years. The organization will mark its tenth anniversary on May 13, in fact. A minor lapse, perhaps, but significant in light of Basulto's train of thought as he drifted into reminiscences of the CIA training he received years ago in Florida, Guatemala, and Panama. (Bill Schuss, with whom he cofounded Brothers to the Rescue, also is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs.) "We were members of the underground on the island who were trained by the United States government as part of a larger group that would take action to overthrow the government of Cuba in 1961. That culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion." His own assignment was to infiltrate the island, which he did in February 1961. "It was just an operation which involved radio operators and people who knew about weapons, explosives, intelligence, propaganda, and other facets of training that were necessary to assist the underground." In the aftermath of the botched invasion, he escaped back to Florida but soon returned to Cuba on another CIA mission. That scheme, to bomb a Cuban missile base near Santa Cruz, also failed. "I was never working for the CIA," he insisted. "I was working for the Cuban people." He broke with the CIA for good, he said, in November 1961.

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