Thirteen minutes over Havana
Exile pilot says he flew over capital to divert Cuban authorities
By ALFONSO CHARDY Herald Staff Writer
Jose Basulto, leader of Brothers to the Rescue, sat behind the controls of his twin-engine Cessna Skyrnaster feeling helpless as Cuban government gunboats sideswiped the Democracia carrying a load of exile protesters.
"I had to do something to help," Basulto said Friday.
At that moment, Basulto decided to switch to his emergency plan. He got on the radio and asked fellow pilot and lifelong friend Bill Schuss to follow him. In an attempt to divert attention away from the flotilla, the Basulto and Schuss broke off from the formation of exile planes over the drama below and new South, deliberately violating Cuban airspace. For 13 minutes Thursday they flew over Havana, dropping thousands of bumper stickers bearing the slogan: "Not Comrades, Brothers." .
Bulto and Schuss, as were instant celebrities in Miami, interviewed Friday on exile stations and hailed as heroes.
But officials with the Federal Aviation Administration view it differently: They say they are gathering evidence that could be used against Basulto, Schuss and some or all of the eight other pilots who participated in the incident.
Planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue and other organizations flew overhead as Democracia led a flotilla of boats into Cuban waters to mark the anniversary of an encounter that happened a year ago Thursday, when a Cuban gunboat rammed and sank a tugboat commandeered by Cubans to flee the island.
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said some pilots in Thursday's formation and perhaps the two, who flew over Havana violated rules prohibiting unauthorized entry into another country's airspace.
Bergen said the FAA will try to acquire tapes from television stations that covered the incident and gather other evidence such as tapes of radio conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers. Sanctions could range from letters of reprimand to unspecified fines to suspension or revocation of pilot licenses, said Bergen.
Basulto and Schuss said they were ready to face sanctions.
"We are proud of what we did," said Basulto. "Ultimately, it serves as a message to the people of Cuba [that] the regime is not invulnurable."
Basulto said his group had decided several weeks ~go to accompany the Democracia and .planned to drop the bumper stickers over any boats that met the flotilla. Flying over Havana was reserved as an option in the event there was trouble, he said.
"It was a plan B in case something went awry' " said Basulto. 'Had the attack against the Democracia not occurred we would have, not overflown Havana. As it happened, Democracia was attacked."
He acknowledged that the action took Brothers to the Rescue, a humanitarian organization created to find rafters, into the realm of political activism. But dropping the bumper stickers was in keeping with the organization .tion's character as a peaceful group and does not signal a change in its mission, he said.
"On a case by case basis we will decide whether to participate or initiate certain actions," Basulto said. "But our basic mission of rescuing rafters remains. It is true the number of rafters has diminished dramatically, but we will continue looking for them. But I would also say that flying into Cuban airspace and showing solidarity with the Cuban people is itself a rescue action."
The courageous act was deemed heroic by many exiles. The FAA, however, was not pleased.