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Jose Basulto
by Michael Lane
November 15, 1998


Miami, FL

hen Jose Basulto speaks, men listen. Women praise him. And children shower him with adoration. All because of his courageous work for a noble cause that could make soldiers weep and babies cry.

For the past four decades Senor Basulto has been an integral part of the movement to free Cuba in more ways than words. Trained in the 60s as a CIA operative, he became an unsuspecting pawn in a disastrous invasion we've come to know as "The Bay of Pigs." Since then, Basulto has spent his entire adult life committed to his homeland and its eventual freedom from Castro's tyranny. Whether working behind the lines down in the trenches or organizing stateside with other expatriates through the media, his mission has been two-fold: to give Cuba back to its people and to save those who flea by sea.

In 1991 a tragic event in the Florida Straits caught the attention of both the international press and many Cubans in exile. A fifteen-year-old boy, Gregorio Perez Ricardo, died at sea from dehydration after embarking on an ill-fated voyage to flee Cuba on a flimsy raft. His was not the first death. The ninety miles of shark-infested Florida Straits between Cuba and Florida had seen thousands more perish in desperate attempts to escape. But Gregorio Perez Ricardo turned the tide.
Joining together with over seventy pilots from around the globe, Jose Basulto and Bill Schuss founded Brothers to the Rescue, a non-profit corporation that began flying humanitarian missions over the ocean in an ambitious hunt for rafters stranded at sea. Having flown close to 2000 aerial search missions in the decade since its founding, Brothers has directly participated in the rescue of more than 4,200 men, women and children. And yet even with such success, it is estimated that for every life saved another is lost at sea.

Jose Basulto is a tireless man. On an evening before flying another mission, he sat in a small office in the heart of Miami. Behind him hung a painting of four pilots who were recently shot down by the Cuban military. Their names were Pablo Morales, Carlos Costa, Mario de la Pena, and Armando Alejandre. When he speaks their names it is with a reverence reserved for saints. It is in their memory, and in the hope of saving another rafter at sea, that his mission of mercy carries on.

MONK: Let's start from the beginning. How did Brothers to the Rescue get its start?

JB: Years ago I was planning a peaceful demonstration in front of Havana using boats, in memory of people who had died in the Resistance and in memory of people who had died crossing the Strait of Florida. This friend of mine who was with me in the infiltration to Cuba, Bill Schuss, who is co-founder of Brothers to the Rescue, said, "Jose, you are organizing a symbolic demonstration while we have all these deaths that are taking place in the Strait of Florida. Why don't we do something about saving all these lives?" And he told me, "Why don't we get the fishermen to organize in the Keys looking for the rafters?" And I said to him, "Really I don't think that would work out, but I do have an airplane and we'll make an attempt to see if this can be worked out using airplanes." So in 1990 I conducted several missions on my own and concluded that it was feasible to locate the rafters. The founding day for Brothers to the Rescue was May 13, 1991, and a week after we found our first rafter.

MONK: How did you get others interested?

JB: I had a press conference in the airport, and I called for the community of pilots and the community in general to assist me. That anyone who had an airplane or that was willing to come with me on this mission to do so. To my surprise my first response was from three brothers who were Argentinean. That's how Brothers to the Rescue caught an international flavor from day one.

MONK: Is that where you got your name?

JB: Yes, because of the three brothers. The first two or three months the organization ran on my credit card. From then on people realized that we were for real, and they have sent donations to the organization to this day. Seventy-five percent of the donations we receive are ten dollars or less. We have thousands of donations, meaning a tremendous broad base of support from humble people.

MONK: So it formed here in Miami as a direct response to the people who are being lost each year?

JB: Yes. We were perfectly aware that there were hundreds of people leaving Cuba and losing their lives in the attempt to cross the Strait of Florida. We were seeing many rafts wash ashore empty even on the beaches here in Miami. The gulf current drove them to our area here. In 1993, we did a study with the University of Miami Department of Marine Science on what the trajectory would be of a free-floating object from Cuba. The scientists reached the conclusion that less than five percent could make it here without some means of controlling the motion of the vessel. For the most part the rafts that we found were that kind.

MONK: Generally speaking, the rafters themselves, are they experienced at sea?

JB: Absolutely not. Sometimes they are people that didn't even know how to swim. The first time they ventured into the ocean was the time that they jumped into a raft. Many lost their supplies, mainly their water and food, in the first hours if not day. It either got contaminated by the waves or was simply washed aside of the raft and they were left there to their own resources at sea, making it extremely difficult for them to survive under those circumstances. Rafters usually last no more than four or five days. By the fourth day they were hallucinating already. It all depends on combinations of weather, how the sun had treated them, the circumstances under which they left, in what physical shape they were and so forth.

MONK: How many people do you think have made it to the U.S. shore?

JB: When Castro unleashed an exodus of rafters by making it legal to depart Cuba using rafts in order to create a crisis with the U.S., many rafters made it out. Thirty thousand of them. We participated in the rescue of many of those. This was the crisis in '94. After that the U.S. government decided to shut the door on Cuban refugees in order to avoid Castro playing these tricks again. It was unfortunate for the refugees, namely the opportunity for any human who left Cuba to find freedom in the U.S.

MONK: At this point what's the response of the U.S? Once you've spotted rafters by air, what happens?

JB: So far as we're concerned, we've told Cuban people not to leave in a raft. That is not the way to obtain freedom, and that freedom had to be obtained by their own efforts inside the island. Changing the circumstances for everybody and not trying to change the circumstances individually was the solution to the problem. However, that was no more than words on our part because people out of desperation will keep trying up until the situation in Cuba has changed. The official policy today is that if they make it all the way to U.S. soil they are allowed to stay here. In the event we spot rafters we drop a small radio and with that small radio they communicate back what their intentions are. If they want to be rescued, we call the U.S. Coast Guard and give them the coordinates. If they don't want to be picked up, we simply go on.

MONK: If they are picked up, what happens to the rafters?

JB: The government has its own way of going about this thing and we're not privy to what they're doing. Most likely they would be sent back to Cuba. If for some reason they establish a motive for which they should be considered refugees and not be taken back to Cuba, I think they're taking them to Guantanamo and from there allowed to find another country to go to.

MONK: Do you have any connection to the Cuban-American National Foundation?

JB: None whatsoever. About four years ago the Cuban-American National Foundation in Puerto Rico took part in raising funds to donate an aircraft to Brothers to the Rescue, which is still flying with us. But there is no political connection between Brothers and the Cuban-American National Foundation. We have a different idea, a different strategy on how the Cuban thing should be handled. There are several strategies here and I can enumerate most of them. One is trying to raise funds for weapons and go to war against Cuba by small groups, which is ridiculous because Castro will always have more money, more weapons and more power in that respect. We consider that a waste of time. Secondly, lobbying the United States to accomplish the changes in Cuba, which is what the Cuban-American National Foundation had been doing for years. We think time has proven that line of thinking doesn't lead anywhere. Then we have another one, a third way of going about it which is the use of non-violence on the island to empower people to accomplish their objectives on their own. We have been sending literature to Cuba. We even dropped leaflets on Cuba. One time we flew over Havana. Two other times we did it from international air space taking advantage of air currents. One time we dropped half-a-million tiny leaflets. On one side it has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We had the 30 articles to the Declaration of Human Rights written on these tiny things, an article each. And then we had several slogans written on them. This one here, written in Spanish, means "I am the change." (Showing a leaflet.) Take responsibility for your own actions. We have received response in the last two weeks that is very encouraging. Right now we're trying to assist the Cuban people to make it possible to have a democratic process within the island so that they can determine which way they want to be ruled.

MONK: Historically, most expatriates have felt dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. government has handled the Cuban situation. You obviously feel the best approach is to take matters into your own hands?

JB: The political strategy of the U.S. is something that we can't change. The U.S. can do whatever they please with their foreign policy. In essence, what we're saying is, we have to take our own course of action. We can't depend on the U.S. government. And not only can we not depend on the U.S. government, the U.S. government can also be our enemy.

MONK: How so?

JB: It has in the past. That day, the 24th of February, 1996, when our planes were shot down by the Cubans, the U.S. government knew about it and they decided not to act. They let Castro shoot down our airplanes. I can tell you, for instance----and this is documented----that a week before the shoot-down of the airplanes the government issued an order for the radar of South Florida to follow a flight of Brothers to the Rescue planes that day. They were listening to our communications as we were there. Ten days before the shoot-down an admiral, Eugene Carol, visited Cuba as part of a think tank for the U.S. When they came back he stated in a report, "I was asked by one of the chiefs of the Air Force in Cuba, 'What would U.S. response be if we were to shoot down a Brothers to the Rescue plane?'" The U.S. State Department didn't do anything with that information, didn't warn us, didn't send a note to the Cuban government saying don't you dare. They simply didn't respond. I think they knew this was about to happen and they just simply didn't want to interfere. When the airplanes took off we were still north of the 24th parallel, halfway between Cuba and the U.S.

JB: Not even close to Cuba. They took off at 3:00 p.m. At 3:21 p.m. they shot down the first aircraft. Seven minutes before they shot down the first aircraft, an independent U.S. radar operator called the Air Force Base and gave them what is the equivalent of a 911 call saying, "Have you seen what I'm seeing? Have you seen what's happening to the Brothers to the Rescue plane?" "Yes. We're taking care of it" was the response. This is documented in sworn testimony. They knew what was happening before the first aircraft was shot down. Eight minutes later the second aircraft was shot down. At 3:53 the MiGs were in pursuit of my aircraft. They had identified me three times and they were getting ready to shoot me down when the mission was canceled because the pilot complained that he was much too close to the United States. We learned in court that after the MiGs crossed the 12-mile limit, there is a line which appears in the radar at which point the U.S. is supposed to employ interceptors to protect national security. That afternoon the order that came was to stay put. They aborted the takeoff. Somebody gave the order so that the interceptors wouldn't take off. The U.S. has the capacity to send interceptors to where we were shot down in five minutes. In other words, the U.S. military was already on alert for something they expected was going to happen. And they did nothing to prevent the planes getting shot down. What I'm saying is that it was in the interest of the Clinton administration to allow that to happen. We were screwing up the opening of relations between Cuba and the U.S. by our own actions in assisting the opposition within the island. Castro was later asked if he had ever committed an error. And he said, "Well, I have never committed a strategic error. I have committed a tactical error." And I'm going to explain to you what the tactical error was. The tactical error was not to shoot down the third aircraft that I was in.

MONK: So the intent of Cuba was to kill you, personally?

JB: Yes, yes. We're convinced of that. There are two more things that prove this was an assassination attempt against my person, and the entire group. They were going to wipe us out, all of us. Seven days prior to the shoot-down there were practices by the Cuban MiGs on shooting down small airplanes with the same characteristics of our airplanes, flying north of Cuba. This was documented by U.S. intelligence. Time magazine reported that they had been practicing for the shoot-down.

MONK: Your simple mission of mercy is, in a way, a cog in a greater wheel.

JB: We became a problem to the Castro government, of course, and to the attempts of the Clinton administration in opening relations with Castro. The Castro administration repeatedly complained to the Clinton administration about the existence of Brothers to the Rescue flights. They simply wanted us to stop flying. And the Clinton administration said that they had no legal recourse against us because we weren't regulated.

MONK: You've been closely involved in the resistance for several decades. Where did this all begin for you?

JB: I was born in Cuba in 1940. I lived there up until I was 19-years-old at which time I became a student in Boston, Massachusetts. I went back to Cuba to join my friends in the underground against Castro in early 1960. I was sent by the underground, the MRR, to be trained by the U.S. after arrangements had been made with the Central Intelligence Agency. They were going to train a few of us to be sent back to Cuba to assist in the overthrow of the Castro government. I was trained for approximately 11 months here in the U.S. I was trained in Guatemala and I was trained in Panama by members of the U.S. Government Intelligence Agency. Then I was sent back as a radio operator to make arrangements for the operations that ended up when the Bay of Pigs failed. I was sent inside as a clandestine operator.

MONK: So you were there when the Bay of Pigs occurred.

JB: Yes. I was there. I was on Cuban soil when the Bay of Pigs occurred and I knew about 300 of them that were in the group because at the time I was taken out of Guatemala the entire invasion force was not more than 350 persons.

MONK: So when did you come back to the U.S.?

JB: I was infiltrated into Cuba in the first days of February, 1961. I operated there until May of 1961. In May, 1961 I jumped a fence at the Guantanamo Naval Air Station and I was received there by a gentleman who is a friend of mine to this day. We were flown to an Air Force Base in Florida.

MONK: So those were very dangerous times for you when you were still in Cuba after the failure of the Bay of Pigs.

JB: Yeah. If I would have been caught I would have been shot. There were five of us radio operators in the Province of Oriente. I'm the only one who escaped unharmed from the entire operation in Oriente. After the Bay of Pigs I went back to Cuba again in another infiltration operation with a group from the CIA that was organized here to conduct activities against Castro. I went over in a raft and I left in a raft together with three more. It was a commando operation and I was the radio operator for the mission. I was there for three days that time. The mission was canceled and we had to exit. I decided that the way the operations were being conducted was irresponsible, that we were being used exclusively for harassing the Castro government. I decided not to lend myself any more to any of those purposes, so I told the CIA people never again.

MONK: They were sending you there on reconnaissance?

JB: That time we had explosives and there was a target that day, a military objective that we were going to take care of.

I also organized a raid on a hotel there in Cuba which was full of Russians. At the time Kennedy said there was no Russian penetration in Cuba. So we went there and just took a canon and fired the canon against a hotel that was full of Russians to prove that he was wrong. A few dead Russians on Cuba soil would look bad for them. That, of course, upset the U.S. government and the Cuban government and the Russian government. To this day I haven't been questioned on that attack. That was my last covert action that I undertook. After that I had the federal authorities continuously after me. I was being watched most of the time.

MONK: By the U.S.?

JB: Yes. We had at least two or three more boats confiscated at the time, so I decided to cool it. Then came the missile crisis and after the missile crisis Kennedy exchanged us for the U.S. national security by promising the Soviets not to invade. And he promised not to let anybody do anything in there. So we were not only tied we had also been sold. The aspirations for the freedom of the Cuban people had been sold by the Kennedy administration, by Kennedy himself, in order to attain national security and the removal of the missiles from the island. That, to a point, is why I resent so much that Mr. Clinton shut the door on the Cuban refugees because the Cuban refugees were coming here on account of a situation that was created by both the Cuban government and the U.S. government and its policies.

MONK: There must be a tremendous amount of resentment toward Clinton within the Cuban community.

JB: There is. I must say that the resentment gets further aggravated by the death of those four young men that were shot down.

MONK: What do you see in the future?

JB: A long time ago we came to the conclusion that if you wanted to be a doctor you couldn't treat only the symptoms of the person you were treating, you have to take care of the illness. We've already organized seminars here in Miami to learn about the methods they used at the demonstrations in the '60s. We also started sending funds to the opposition in the island. We are proposing a confrontation using civil disobedience to defy the government, to deny them support. And again, this is based on the premise that the power of the government comes from the people. If people deny power to the government, the government has no power to wield. From that premise we are trying to organize the Cuban people into a resistance movement, an open resistance by the way. There's nothing hidden or clandestine here. To promote the organization of such force that would simply force the government out. I think we are the only group that has a coherent strategy to bring this about. That's what makes us dangerous or a threat to the type of relations that both Cuba and the United States want. When I say the United States I'm not blaming the American people for this. I blame the Clinton administration that has been acting as undercover lobbyists for financial interests.

MONK: Have you ever personally met and interacted with rafters after you've assisted their rescue?

JB: Yes. I have seen more rafters out on the street more so than anywhere else. They come and salute me and say I rescued them. Perhaps the most touching day of my life was the day that I was invited to an elementary school here. The principal of the school had about 20 children of rafters, and some of them whom I had found. They presented me with a life-jacket. It was children who were giving this recognition to me. That's been the greatest honor I've received in my entire life.

MONK: Do you think that within your lifetime this will be resolved?

JB: Yes, I have that hope. My God, I've been involved with this thing in one way or another for 40 years. It's a very personal thing. It's a commitment made to those that have lost their lives over the years, and there have been many. It will be resolved. I hope on our terms, and when I say on our terms, I mean the Cuban people's terms. Namely, the result of the work done by the Cuban people to change their own circumstances. We all have a right to determine our own destiny. We all have a right to be free.