Jose Basulto is founder of Brothers to the Rescue
On Feb.24 Cuban MiGs blasted two unarmed U.S. civilian aircraft over international waters. A third aircraft, which I piloted, eluded President Fidel Castro's predatory grasp, and with it his plan to squelch the opposition movement within Cuba. Mr. Castro's violent outburst was calculated and premeditated; my escape, however, was not in his plans. The following is an account of why Castro downed our planes.
Brothers to the Rescue was founded in 1991 and has carried out more than 1,800 search-and-rescue missions over the Florida Straits, including the area where our planes were shot down. We have assisted in the rescue of more than 4,200 rafters fleeing Mr. Castro's island-prison. Our mission has expanded to include assistance to the Cuban refugee camp in the Bahamas, as well as humanitarian aid to families of political prisoners and support of human rights activities within Cuba.
It was precisely these latter activities --nonviolent internal opposition, which threatens Mr. Castro's grip on power -- that elicited this violent response
Five months before Mr. Castro's murderous act, Concilio Cubano, a coalition of more than 160 non-violent opposition groups within Cuba, united to work toward a peaceful transition to democracy. In response, more than 90 exile organizations, including Brothers to the Rescue, immediately and publicly supported their efforts. With this newfound support, Concilio Cubano announced its intention to hold its first national assembly on Feb. 24 and made a formal request to the Cuban government to allow the meeting to take place.
As a show of support, on Jan. 9 and 13 Brothers to the Rescue blanketed Havana with leaflets containing the 30 articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which were dropped 13 miles off the coast of Havana, from international airspace, and carried by the winds into Cuba. Mr.Castro labeled the leaflets "subversive propaganda" and attempted to cause a conflict between Brothers to the Rescue and the U.S. government by falsely accusing Brothers to the Rescue of flying in forbidden airspace over Havana -- thereby setting the stage for things to come.
On Feb. 13 Brothers to the Rescue donated money to Concilio Cubano through Sebastian Arcos Bergnes, a well-known Cuban dissident. Two days later the government arrested some 180 members of Concilio Cubano and prohibited the scheduled meeting.
Five days before the MiG attacks, a Cuban general asked retired Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information during his visit to Cuba how the United States would react if Cuba shot down exile planes that violated Cuban airspace. Admiral Carroll took it to mean that the Cubans were considering such an action and reported it to the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Two days prior to the incident, Mr. Castro summoned Juan Pablo Roque, an occasional pilot for Brothers to the Rescue and Cuba's double agent, into action. Mr. Roque visited me to complain bitterly about Brothers to the Rescue's financial assistance to Concilio Cubano. I responded that we would continue to support the group. Unbeknown to us, Mr. Roque surfaced in the Bahamas the next day, stating that he was from Brothers to the Rescue and inciting the refugees at the Nassau camp to riot.
We have no doubt that Mr. Roque's plan was to create conditions under which we would be denied access to the camp, knowing that our alternative would be a standard search-and-rescue mission over the Florida Straits, in which he had participated on several occasions. To ensure that our access that day would be denied, thus assuring our flight in areas where the Cuban MiGs could be deployed to shoot us down, the Cuban government advised the Bahamas that it would be sending a delegation to visit the camp on Feb. 24, thus sealing our fate.
At 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, Carlos Costa, one of the pilots murdered, was advised by the Bahamian authorities that Brothers to the Rescue would not be allowed to visit the camp. The next morning Mr. Costa filed a routine flight plan for a search-and-rescue mission over the Florida Straits, the exact place the Cuban government wanted us to be. By 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Cuban MiGs had annihilated two of our planes, working in predatoryfashion, without warning, from the outside in, and killing Mr. Costa, Armando Alejandre, Mario de la Pena, and Pablo Morales -- three U.S. citizens and a legal alien.
Immediately after the shootdowns, reports began to filter out from "Pentagon sources" (now completely retracted) that our planes were headed to Cuba to pick up people (supposedly Mr. Roque) and take them out of the country. We can only imagine that the source of this information was the Cuban government, and that Mr. Roque, who had slipped back into Cuba the day before, was to be the state's "star witness" for this phony attempt to portray our mission as one of sabotage. Other early indications from Cuba state the existence of a possible survivor, whose status was later changed to that of detainee.
But the Cubans had made a major miscalculation. They had not expected that my plane would escape. When I saw the MiG attacks commencing, I turned off the transponder on which the MiGs had homed their radar, and then I took off into the cloud cover. Hence Mr. Castro was precluded from portraying Mr. Roque as a surviving member of a Brothers to the Rescue "terrorist" flight who was plucked out of the water or who had infiltrated Cuba.
As it became clear that I had survived, and that I had audio tapes and proof of my location and earlier communications with Havana's tower, Cuba's story began to change. Mr. Roque could no longer claim to be a survivor of a failed terrorist mission. Cuba was forced to enact damage control. Mr. Roque's status was downgraded from an evil terrorist to that of a disgruntled ex-member of our organization.
Fidel Castro has once again demonstrated his violent intolerance. In addition, he has shown that his first fear is not U.S. foreign policy or lack of foreign investors or even international public opinion. It is the fear of his own people, who have organized in a nonviolent manner inside of Cuba to oppose his violent regime with dignity.
Copyrightt © 1996 Brothers to the Rescue, Inc.