Bird of Paradox
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."
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.
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.
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.
But the following August, with members of the CIA-backed Revolutionary Student Directorate (DRE), he completed his most notorious guerrilla attack. Members of the DRE motored two boats from Florida to Cuba for a midnight attack from sea. Basulto himself fired the 20mm cannon that blasted the façade of Havana's Rosita Hornedo hotel, where they believed Soviet military advisors were meeting with Cuban officers.
That came out during his recent turn on the witness stand. Defense lawyer Paul McKenna made sure jurors at the spy trial heard about Basulto's militant background as part of a strategy to convince the panel that his clients were acting to safeguard their country from violent counterrevolutionaries.
Basulto has long maintained that his involvement in anti-Castro violence ended with the Rosita Hornedo cannon attack. And a Cuban government dossier on him squares with his claim -- that is, until the early Eighties. At the spy trial, Judge Lenard refused to let McKenna introduce the dossier, which New Times obtained from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. According to one memo, in August 1982 Basulto and Oscar Alfonso Carold, a former president of the Bay of Pigs veterans group Brigade 2506, "prepared an explosive device for an attempt against the Cuban President, and they studied the possibility of introducing it to Cuba." The file refers to the two men as "terrorists."
Basulto listened carefully to the allegations in the dossier. "No, that's not true," he said. "I'm not telling you that in other times I wouldn't have done it. But in the Eighties, the only activity that I had, had to do with assisting the contras in Nicaragua through Honduras. And that was by providing them with humanitarian assistance, providing them with a field hospital, and so on. I had no such terrorist' activity, as they may call it."
The file also claims that Basulto "was a subordinate in Miami of the CIA official Carl Jenkins" in the early Eighties. "That's even better," he said, bursting into laughter. Jenkins was the officer in charge of the CIA group he'd trained with in 1961. But Basulto never worked with him after that. "I have seen Carl Jenkins through the years, maybe a couple of times, or three times maybe," he explained, "but not in any specific or organizational way. No CIA for José Basulto since 1961. It's under sworn statement, and if it ever needs to be reiterated, I'll be willing to say it again."
Another allegation contained in the file charges that in 1983, as a member of the Junta Patriotica Cubana, Basulto organized recruits in Miami for anti-Castro paramilitary groups. "Untrue," he responded. He attended meetings of the Junta, an umbrella group for both pro- and nonviolent exile groups, only because he was serving a term on the Brigade 2506 board of directors. "It was a one-time experience that I don't intend to repeat," he chuckled. Besides, throughout the Eighties he was far too busy. The father of five had a luxury-home building company to run and construction of an industrial park east of the Tamiami Airport to oversee.
Although he is one of the most visible and outspoken Cubans in Miami, Basulto demurs at mention of his leadership role. "First of all I'm not a leader of the exile community," he insisted. "That's a burden. Don't put that on me. I am simply a person with an agenda, which is reflected in this group that I direct, which is called Brothers to the Rescue."
He pointed to a shelf of videotapes brought back from seminars in nonviolence he has attended. His philosophical shift took root at those seminars. "It's a manner of adapting," he said flatly. And so it is that the man who admires Ernestino Abreu for a suicidal mission to Cuba hangs pictures of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., on his walls.
"If we can help change conditions in Cuba," he said, "so that no Cuban has to jump in a raft to be free, I think we have accomplished a tremendous deed. So we are working together with the internal opposition in Cuba. We were working with them in 1996 when we were attacked by Cuban MiGs. And the reason why we were attacked by Cuban MiGs was not because we were in any particular geographical location but because we were promoting an alternative to Castro from within Cuba."
Brothers to the Rescue was, in fact, not only posing a threat to Castro with those flights but also to the United States, which feared that Basulto might one day provoke a confrontation that would necessitate military intervention. But that, Basulto says, was the last thing he wanted. "Brothers to the Rescue does not want the United States to intervene in Cuba," he said emphatically. "When it had the opportunity to do so in 1961, it didn't do it. It failed to do it for 40-some years. And now we simply want to resolve the problem by ourselves. So whoever says I'm a provocateur is completely out of the reality of what we're trying to do."
When he took the stand as a hostile defense witness on March 12, the president of Brothers to the Rescue was puro Basulto, precisely what the spies' lawyers had in mind. At times it seemed he was defiantly flying the beleaguered prosecution once more toward the 24th Parallel of jurisprudence. As it was he flew right into a defense trap set by attorney McKenna, whose sole client, Gerardo Hernandez, was the only defendant charged with conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shooting down of the Brothers' planes.
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?"
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?"
"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."
"Did you hear yourself say, We have a MiG around here, hee, hee, hee?' the lawyer asked.
"Yes I did."
"You were gleeful at that moment, weren't you?"
"No, sir. I was nervous."
McKenna asked Alonso to replay the segment. The "hee, hee, hee" didn't sound nervous.
"Sir," asked McKenna, "you were happy because you were once again in a confrontation with MiGs, weren't you?"
"You are expressing my feelings at the time, and I am telling you I was nervous when I said that."
"But you laughed."
"It wasn't a laugh."
"You said, Hee, hee, hee.' You don't want it to look like a laugh now, do you?"
Prosecutor John Kastrenakes objected, and Judge Lenard agreed.
The attorney rephrased his question. "While you were saying, Hee, hee, hee,' you were leading two men to their deaths, weren't you?"
"Objection! Argumentative!" The judge sustained the objection.
Today Brothers to the Rescue owns just two planes, down from four. Basulto estimates that his financial contributors number about 5000. He confirms that the core leadership of the organization consists of just three men: Bill Schuss, Arnaldo Iglesias, and himself. But, he believes, that's an oversimplification. "Let me explain this to you," he said. "Brothers to the Rescue, in reality, is not even me, or Arnaldo Iglesias, or Bill Schuss. It's the community. It's the Cuban-American community plus many other members of other nationalities that provided the means for us to act in their behalf."
Those means came up during the trial when he was asked about the group's funding in the early Nineties as it stepped up its flights to rescue balseros in the Florida Straits. According to the BTTR's 1993 federal tax return, during the peak of the rafter crisis Brothers to the Rescue raised nearly a million dollars. Basulto didn't draw his $60,000 salary from the group's coffers that year, but he did sell his Cessna to the organization for $64,284. By 1995 the BTTR donations had dropped to $326,288, caused in part by the 1994 Clinton administration's repatriation policy. Basulto reduced his salary to about $37,000. The following year donations increased to $376, 817, with most of the difference contributing to his $60,000 salary. (The two other officers, vice president William Schuss and secretary Arnaldo Iglesias, received no salaries, according to the documents.)
New Times requested the BTTR tax forms for the years 1997 through 2000 to complete the picture. "I have nothing to hide," Basulto said in response to the request. For the group's 1999 tax return, the last year available, contributions were $229,249, more than one-fourth of which was consumed by Basulto's salary. "At the present time the organization is just there, like a fire station you have in case there is a fire," Basulto said. "But Brothers to the Rescue is also an attempt to bring about a change in Cuba that would not require Cubans to leave the island in order to be happy, to be free, to realize themselves as human beings."
Basulto was not so forthcoming with regard to his private business dealings. "My personal life is entirely off," he warned. Instead he offered a hint: "I can tell you that last year I paid $50,000 in taxes. And that's not what someone with a $60,000 salary pays." He added that he'd been selling off holdings from an industrial park he built in the early Eighties. "I buy and sell land," he explained.
He wandered off to the other room and returned holding the Brothers to the Rescue plan for a new Cuba. It is a little white booklet, three by four inches, titled For the New Millennium/I am the Change! and outlines six phases of nonviolent opposition -- organization, disobedience, protest, civic abstention, direct civic action, and national encounter -- resulting in the "disintegration of the tyranny" and the taking of power by a "parallel government." And how do the booklets get inside Cuba? Dropped from planes? "No. No, no, no, no, no," he replied. "From Number 7 envelopes."
Undaunted by his possible impact on the trial verdict, Basulto is moving ahead with another mission that has a good chance of backfiring: his campaign to force the U.S. Justice Department to indict Fidel Castro for the deaths of his four compatriots. And yet the effort could gain just enough steam to provoke some unease for President Bush. Radio Mambí has recently begun rallying listeners to sign petitions in support of legal action. The station has been airing a promo for the campaign that uses audiotape released at the trial. The tape memorialized the whoops of the MiG pilot who shot down the two Brothers to the Rescue planes: "We gave it to 'em! We gave it to 'em! Fatherland or death! ¡Cojones!"
Basulto rejects the idea that the campaign is just a morale booster, a symbolic gesture for the already converted exile community. "It's not that symbolic," he said. "It's just a way of telling the president of the United States that there is a united community here that wants justice. We had two airplanes shot down. There were four passengers. Three of them were U.S. citizens. They were murdered. This happened in international airspace, and to this day no indictment has taken place against the participants.
"We're looking forward to an answer from the White House, whether they are going to permit that Fidel Castro be indicted for that murder. If the U.S. government expects the Cuban community here to respect the institutions of the United States, to believe that this is a country of laws, that the rule of law will be followed, we expect at least a response from the president on why it will be done or why not. There is a crime that is unresolved and unpunished, and we want answers from the president."
For now Basulto is lying low until the trial ends. He has no flights planned. "It's kind of a polluted atmosphere, so we decided to keep things low-key." How is he going to mark the tenth anniversary of Brothers to the Rescue? "We're holding a mass," he reported.
Mindful of the gag order, Basulto would not predict how the jury -- which consists of blacks, Anglos, and Latinos, but no Cuban Americans -- might decide this latest round in the Cuban conflict. "Let me make this blanket statement," he said after a careful pause. "I think that to this day anything that has happened has been for the good of Brothers to the Rescue and the cause that we pursue. It's a slow path, but we're moving forward. Sometimes at a high cost. Like, for instance, the loss of life. But even that moves us forward."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.