Even though the United States has failed to oust Fidel Castro from power after nearly four decades, most Cuban Americans support U.S. policy efforts against the dictator. But not 57-year-old Jose J. Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, an organization that conducts humanitarian searches for refugee rafters in the Florida Straits.
His ministry has seen the inert side of U.S. policy firsthand. On February 24, 1996, Cuban jet fighters without warning shot down two unarmed Cessnas in the Florida Straits, killing four Brothers to the Rescue volunteers: Mario de la Pena, 24; Pablo Morales, 29; Carlos Costa, 29; and Armando Alejandre, Jr., 45. Basulto later found out that U.S. radar had been tracking the Cuban MiGs for nearly an hour, but federal officials did nothing to warn Brothers' pilots.
Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Rafael Cespedes told CT in Havana, "We had our reasons. They had violated our territory 25 times." But Basulto contends the planes were over international waters.
"They had been practicing to kill us," says Basulto, who flew a third plane and eluded fire before he returned safely to Miami.
Rather than apologize for failing to warn the pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revoked Basulto's pilot's license for violating Cuban airspace. He sued the FAA, spending $75,000 in legal bills in an effort to get the license back. A judge ordered the license to be reinstated after 150 days, but the FAA has continued to enforce the revocation in what Basulto believes are political motivations to keep him from provoking Cuba.
But Brothers to the Rescue flights continue at least weekly because Cubans are still fleeing on crudely constructed rafts. The pilots drop food, potable water, and medicine to keep rafters alive. Those picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard are returned to Cuba and face up to five years in prison.
With a core group of 70 pilots, observers, and volunteers, Basulto founded Brothers to the Rescue in 1991. "Our people were dying," Basulto recalls. "Some wars are won not by killing people but by saving people."
Brothers to the Rescue has conducted more than 1,800 aerial search missions and has been directly responsible for saving 4,200 lives. Yet as many Cubans in search of freedom die as are rescued. They drown in storms, wither in the scorching sun, or are maimed by sharks.
Since the early 1960s, Cubans have been forbidden to emigrate from the island. In 1994, President Clinton announced that Cubans, who had traditionally been allowed automatic entry into the United States if they escaped, would be returned. The United States ended its open-door policy of accepting boat people after 30,000 refugees wound up at Guantanamo Bay and eventually were resettled in the United States by World Relief (CT, April 3, 1995, p. 92).
"The U.S. government is culpable by neglect," says Basulto, who has criticized U.S. policy since the Bay of Pigs. Basulto joined the underground against Castro in 1959 and participated in the failed 1961 invasion after being recruited by the CIA. These days, Basulto, a Catholic, has pictures of peacemakers in his modest Miami office: Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Unlike most Cuban Americans who are apprehensive of criticizing Castro, Basulto holds the dictator directly responsible for the deaths of his fellow pilots.
"Castro can kill me," Basulto says. "I'm living on spare time. I have been dead since 1996." The eyes of the father of five mist as he remembers his dead colleagues. "They were like my own sons."
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