MIAMI- THIRTY-five years ago, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Colonel AlvaroPrendes flew one of the few Cuban warplanes to survive the CIA's bombardment ofCastro's airfields. He shot down four American B-26 bombers piloted by Cubanexiles, helping turn the battle into one of America's worst Cold War fiascos.
Today, Prendes is himself an exile. Despite his high rank and all theprivileges accorded him as a hero of the Revolution, he was so disgusted withCastro by 1992 that he risked everything. He gave a clandestine pressconference calling for the maximum leader's removal.
" We managed to hold and transmit the press conference through dissident radionetworks and 14 international news agencies," says Prendes. " It is one of thefew occasions in which Castro was caught completely by surprise, and the degreeof world we got saved my life."
Prendes went through the usual ordeal of a Cuban dissident. His home wassurrounded by shouting mobs of plain clothes security men. His water andelectricity were cut off. He was separated from his family. But Castro wasafraid that another show trial, like the one in which Gen. Ochoa and 12 otherdissident officers were convicted in 1989, could have dangerous repercussionswithin the military, and so he had no choice but to let Prende leave.
Col. Prendes sits in a small office suite above a lamp shop in Miami's LittleHavana. It is from there that he now directs the Union de Soldados y OficialesLibres ( USOL ), a growing movement against the Castro regime within the Cubanarmed forces.
Three other officers sit with him. All three believe that the circumstancescould soon be ripe for a popular insurrection against Castro backed by sectorsof the military. They maintain that a vast majority of Cuba's people are fed upwith the regime, and that they are beginning to lose their fear of speaking.The officers also point out to major international developments triggered by theshooting of two unarmed Cessna planes belonging to a Cuban-American humanitariangroup.
One of these developments was the passage on March 15 of the Helms-Burton bill,tightening the U.S. trade embargo. By choking off foreign investment in Cubanstate-run firms, the tightened embargo could undermine the system ofinstitutionalized corruption which Castro is trying to foster among his generalsand intelligence chiefs to keep them sleek and happy.
In a parallel development, an important friend of Castro's in Spain, SocialistPrime Minister Felipe Gonzales, lost his bid for re-election. Spain's newconservative Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, is promising to cool offrelations with Castro and to help the domestic and exiled opposition.
In the vain hope that Castro was going to liberalize, the Clinton administrationand various European governments were trying to cozy up to him. But it ishardly surprising to those who know his regime that Castro, rather than reachingout to his growing opposition, has chosen to retrench among the thugs andpsycophats who make up his inner circle.
Media attention has focused on the shootdown of the two planes operating for theMiami-based group Brothers to the Rescue. But coverage of the incident hastended to ignore its place in the context of Castro's wider crackdown oninternal dissidence. Just days prior to the attack by the Cuban MiGs, 250activists of the pro-democracy movement Concilio Cubano were rounded up as theyheld a meeting in Havana.
Brother's to the Rescue was deeply involved in supporting Concilio. Its leader,Basulto, another veteran of the Bay of Pigs, had managed to evade Castro's radardefenses to spread leaflets containing highly subversive written material- TheUniversal Declaration of Human Rights.
Putting an end to these flights was becoming an obsession for Castro. InJanuary, he had asked a visiting delegation of retired U.S. military officerswhat Washington would do if he destroyed the next plane to enter Cuban airspace.One admiral told him that it would be a public-relations fiasco. Castro decidedto take a gamble anyway, but not without contriving a disinformation cover totry to turn it into a propaganda victory.
It is Col. Prende's theory, which circumstances appear to corroborate, thatdouble agent Juan Roque of the DGI (Cuba's equivalent of the KGB ) was going tobe planted in prison as a surviving pilot carrying evidence that Brothers to theRescue were conducting assassinations and other terrorist acts. The day beforethe group's three aircraft took off on their ambushed mission, Roque had flow tothe Bahamas. After trying to instigate a riot at a Cuban refugee camp suppliedby the Miami group, he liaised with a " visiting delegation" of Cuban officials,who scurried him off to Havana.
Initial CNN broadcasts about the attack, on the evening of Saturday, February24, referred to reports about a " survivor in the water." As late as Sundayevening, news desks in Europe were still trying to follow up the story, whichhad come from an official source in Havana, and on Monday a CNN commentator wasstill talking about sources in Havana who had " documentary proof that thepirates of Brothers to the Rescue were carrying explosives for terroristattacks against Cuba." Cuban officials also claimed to have hard evidence thatthe planes were flying within Cuban airspace at the moment of the attack.
The scheme of planting the evidence with Roque masquerading as a shot-down pilotfell apart because the intercepting Cuban MiGs failed to hit all three aircraft.BY diving below radar cover and over a nearby cruise ship, Basulto managed toevade the MiGs, making it back to Miami to give the real version of whathappened.
There were even mysterious backups inside the United States for Castro'sdisinformation scheme. According to Arnaldo Iglesias, Basulto's co-pilot, anindividual posing as a U.S. Customs agent immediately came to their aircrafthangar as they landed at Opa-Locka, insisting that they hand over the tapes oftheir conversations with Cuban air-controllers. According to the supposedCustoms official, the tapes were not to be made public and had to be taken forsafekeeping. Basulto refused. After his press conference, at which he playedthe vital tapes, which ultimately proved that the planes were outside Cubanairspace when they were attacked, nothing more was heard from the putativeofficial. The U.S. Customs Service denies having ever ordered any of its agentsto acquire the tapes.
Alvaro Prendes points to some telling differences between the way Castro isdealing with the crisis and the way he has dealt with previous ones. " Firstof all, unlike past confrontations with the U.S., there is no mass rally inHavana to demonstrate ' revolutionary solidarity and defiance.' Secondly, hehas taken personal responsibility, choosing not to make scapegoats of the pilotsas might have been done in the past. He knows perfectly well that themilitary's rank and file simply would not stand for it. His situation isshaky."
The USOL officers showed me a report written in longhand by sources inside Cuba,giving an account of efforts to organize a military uprising in May 1994 in theprovince of Guantanamo. The abortive attempt had the support of some sixtyofficers controlling an infantry regiment, according to the report, which givesthe exact towns and even highway locations of barracks and military depots thatwere going to be seized.
But word was leaked as the last preparations were getting under way.Twenty-four hours before the planned coup, its main leaders were rounded up inmidnight arrests by special troops of the Interior Ministry. A total of nineofficers- including the conspiracy's alleged head, an army captain by the nameof Martinez- have bee jailed without any formal charges or public courts-martial.
"Castro's control over information and the media in Cuba has to be broken forany internal opposition to gain momentum," observed Prendes. He describes RadioMarti, a broadcasting service backed by the U.S. Government, as " highlyeffective. If TV Marti's images could could penetrate Cuban airwaves with equaleffect, it would be all over for Castro in a matter of months."
Castro is so scared of TV Marti that in 1989 he worked on a terrorist plan toblow up its transmission towers in Southern Florida. He now spends $12 milliona year jamming its broadcasts.
President Clinton's responses to the February shootdown have included an orderto increase the transmission power of Radio Marti. No new measures, however,have been taken to strengthen TV Marti. Apparently, the White House and thecautious State and Defense Department bureaucracies have shied away from suchsteps for fear of the confrontation that could result. Castro might retaliateby unleashing another flood of refugees and/or by ordering terrorist attacksagainst the United States. America would then have to respond with a full navalblockade, or even with direct military action.
Castro's army has glaring weaknesses. Of any regular 10,000-man division, onlya few hundred men are permanently inside their barracks; the vast majority livedispersed with their families and friends among the general population. Callingthem up would take weeks - and in the event of anti-regime disturbances,soldiers who have been suffering the same degree of deprivations as everyoneelse could easily go the other way.
The regime, however, does have highly indoctrinated elite shock troopscontrolled by the Interior Ministry on permanent standby to deal with internaldisturbances. These include an airborne unit known as the Red Berets, basedmainly in rural areas, and the Black Hornets, trained in urban combat and mainlyconcentrate in Havana.
Prendes, impressed with the high-precision bombing displayed in the Gulf War,says: " If at a given moment in which internal circumstances warranted, surgicalprecision bombing conducted by missiles and aircraft targeted certain keyministries, communications centers, official residences, and arms depots, theregime would collapse in 24 hours. Castro would have no effective defenseagainst the type of sophisticated weaponry which the United States can field.His fleet of MiGs, of which less than two squadrons are fully operational, couldbe wiped out with just one well-directed wave of airstrikes."
The role USOL officers see for their movement following the regime's collapse isto provide a network that can maintain some cohesion in the army to contain theinevitable disorders. " Even if Castro were to accept the hopelessness of hissituation and leave Cuba in the hands of some provisional government, you haveto bear in mind that there will be hundreds of thousands of personal scores tosettle among the population. We can only aim to control the situationsufficiently so that it does not overly interfere with the development ofdemocracy."
Thirty-five years ago, Col. Prendes could take to the sky in his T-33 trainerbecause the second wave of airstrikes, with which the CIA had planned to finishoff what remained of Castro's air force, was canceled at the last moment byPresident Kennedy. The President was afraid of provoking the Soviet Union, andwe've been saddled with Castro ever since.
This year, as in all presidential elections since Kennedy's, the candidates willbe coming to Miami to court the Cuban-American vote. Bob Dole was there inMarch, laying a wreath at the Bay of Pigs memorial. He promised to push for theextradition of criminals involved in Castro's most recent brutalities. Butmeasures which transcend gestures and economic embargoes may be needed to bringthe end of the regime. And the Soviet Union is no longer around to provide anexcuse.
**Copyright National Review**
Copyright © 1996 Brothers to the Rescue, Inc.