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.

In order to portray Basulto as a counterrevolutionary zealot who repeatedly flew into Cuban airspace despite warnings from his own government, McKenna first presented witnesses from the Federal Aviation Administration. They testified that the Brothers to the Rescue pilot had indeed been cautioned months before the shooting that Cuba was prepared to destroy planes or boats that violated its territory. The FAA had passed that information to Basulto, in person and in writing. Among the witnesses was FAA administrator Charles Smith, who testified that he warned Basulto about entering Cuban airspace before a flight on July 13, 1995, during which the pilot dropped leaflets and religious medallions. According to Smith, Basulto's response to the warning was: "Chuck, you know I always play by the rules, but you must understand I have a mission in life to perform."

McKenna also introduced federal documents to prove that both the FAA and the State Department had warned Basulto at least seven times in 1995 that if he or members of his group continued to fly into Cuban airspace, the Castro government was prepared to open fire on them. In a report evaluating options the FAA could take to stop the flights, Smith wrote, "Mr. Basulto does not believe the rules apply to him."

When he finally took the stand, Basulto was combative and at times evasive. "Didn't [Smith] give you a warning," McKenna asked, "and you said to him: “Look, I have a mission, and I have to complete my mission'?"

"Chuck Smith, that I recall, never said that I would be shot down in international airspace," Basulto replied. (He was alluding to the fact that, according to U.S. military radar data, the two doomed Cessnas were more than twelve miles north of Cuban shores and outside its territorial limit.)

"You weren't going into international airspace on July 13," McKenna fired back. "You were going into Cuban airspace that day."

"Correct. And it was announced as such."

"Mr. Smith came to you and told you: “You better be careful. You could be shot down if you do something like that.'"

"I don't recall the conversation," said Basulto, "but he may have talked to me."

Basulto did, however, acknowledge that he went to the FAA's Flight Standard District Office in Miami, where he spoke with manager Michael Thomas. Also present was another FAA official, Luis Carmona, whose son was a member of Brothers to the Rescue.

"The reason you did that is because you wanted to smooth things over before the operation, to make sure nobody was going to shut it down?" McKenna asked.

"That is correct."

"You didn't want the FAA to come out and give some technical reasons for grounding an aircraft. You wanted to fly the mission. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

On the second day of Basulto's testimony, the jury heard him discuss a device he'd put together in 1994 or 1995. It involved inserting shotgun shells into a section of PVC plastic pipe that could be fired like a gun with a range of 30 yards.

"Yes we did test it, and it exploded," he told McKenna, explaining that he thought they might be able to drop the pipe-gun to rafters. But the idea, he insisted, had come from Juan Pablo Roque, a Brothers to the Rescue pilot who later was revealed to be a Cuban spy. Two days after the shootdown, Roque appeared on television in Havana, denouncing Brothers to the Rescue.

"So you are saying that you developed this device to drop on top of rafters so they could kill sharks?" McKenna asked, incredulity in his voice.

"I tested the device, as I said, upon the suggestion of Mr. Roque, who had other plans for the device and was trying to have us do something which could have been illegal."

"Didn't you have discussions with Mr. Roque about dropping these antipersonnel devices into Cuba to coincide with a May Day celebration where Fidel Castro could be assassinated?"

Basulto got some in some jabs of his own that day. During a particularly testy exchange, McKenna asked him if he had traveled to Cancún in 1995 "to meet with the brother of a high-ranking Cuban military officer to help smuggle weapons into Cuba."

"No, sir, absolutely not."

"Did you travel to Cancún, Mexico, in 1995?"

"That I can't remember. I have been to Cancún, Mexico, several times."

"Did you meet in Cancún, Mexico, with a member of a Cuban orchestra?"

"No, sir, I never did."

"What was the purpose of your trip?"

"To have fun, sir." Basulto was growing increasingly tense.

"Did you fly your plane?"

"Sometimes I flew a plane that I had for the occasion, and I was accompanied by my wife."

"Did you fly your plane N2506?"

"No."

"Did you go to Mexico in 1995 and meet with a group called Partido Acción Nacional, PAN?"

"Sir," asked Basulto, "are you doing the work of the intelligence service of Cuba?"

On Basulto's third day of grilling, McKenna focused his questions on a cockpit recording the pilot had made on a hand-held tape recorder just before the Cessnas exploded in the sky. FBI agent Al Alonso pressed "play" on the courtroom tape deck, and Basulto's voice came through the speakers. "We have a MiG around here," he was saying. "Hee, hee, hee."

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