by Michael Lane
November 15, 1998
BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE
Jose Basulto speaks, men listen. Women praise him. And children
him with adoration. All because of his courageous work for a noble
that could make soldiers weep and babies cry.
For the past four decades Senor Basulto has been an
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
we've come to know as "The Bay of Pigs." Since then,
has spent his entire adult life committed to his homeland and its
freedom from Castro's tyranny. Whether working behind the lines
the trenches or organizing stateside with other expatriates through
media, his mission has been two-fold: to give Cuba back to its
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
boy, Gregorio Perez Ricardo, died at sea from dehydration after
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
Cuba and Florida had seen thousands more perish in desperate
to escape. But Gregorio Perez Ricardo turned the tide.
Joining together with over seventy pilots from around the globe,
Basulto and Bill Schuss founded Brothers to the Rescue, a
that began flying humanitarian missions over the ocean in an
hunt for rafters stranded at sea. Having flown close to 2000 aerial
missions in the decade since its founding, Brothers has directly
in the rescue of more than 4,200 men, women and children. And
with such success, it is estimated that for every life saved another
lost at sea.
Jose Basulto is a tireless man. On an evening before flying another
he sat in a small office in the heart of Miami. Behind him hung a
of four pilots who were recently shot down by the Cuban military.
names were Pablo Morales, Carlos Costa, Mario de la Pena, and
Alejandre. When he speaks their names it is with a reverence
for saints. It is in their memory, and in the hope of saving another
at sea, that his mission of mercy carries on.
MONK: Let's start from the beginning. How did Brothers to the
JB: Years ago I was planning a peaceful demonstration in front of
using boats, in memory of people who had died in the Resistance
memory of people who had died crossing the Strait of Florida. This
of mine who was with me in the infiltration to Cuba, Bill Schuss,
is co-founder of Brothers to the Rescue, said, "Jose, you are
a symbolic demonstration while we have all these deaths that are
place in the Strait of Florida. Why don't we do something about
all these lives?" And he told me, "Why don't we get the
to organize in the Keys looking for the rafters?" And I said to
"Really I don't think that would work out, but I do have an
and we'll make an attempt to see if this can be worked out using
So in 1990 I conducted several missions on my own and concluded
was feasible to locate the rafters. The founding day for Brothers
Rescue was May 13, 1991, and a week after we found our first
MONK: How did you get others interested?
JB: I had a press conference in the airport, and I called for the
of pilots and the community in general to assist me. That anyone
an airplane or that was willing to come with me on this mission to
so. To my surprise my first response was from three brothers
Argentinean. That's how Brothers to the Rescue caught an
flavor from day one.
MONK: Is that where you got your name?
JB: Yes, because of the three brothers. The first two or three
the organization ran on my credit card. From then on people
we were for real, and they have sent donations to the organization
this day. Seventy-five percent of the donations we receive are ten
or less. We have thousands of donations, meaning a tremendous
of support from humble people.
MONK: So it formed here in Miami as a direct response to the
are being lost each year?
JB: Yes. We were perfectly aware that there were hundreds of
Cuba and losing their lives in the attempt to cross the Strait of
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
study with the University of Miami Department of Marine Science
the trajectory would be of a free-floating object from Cuba. The
reached the conclusion that less than five percent could make it
without some means of controlling the motion of the vessel. For the
part the rafts that we found were that kind.
MONK: Generally speaking, the rafters themselves, are they
JB: Absolutely not. Sometimes they are people that didn't even
to swim. The first time they ventured into the ocean was the time
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
to their own resources at sea, making it extremely difficult for
to survive under those circumstances. Rafters usually last no more
four or five days. By the fourth day they were hallucinating
It all depends on combinations of weather, how the sun had treated
the circumstances under which they left, in what physical shape
and so forth.
How many people do you think have made it to the U.S.
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
made it out. Thirty thousand of them. We participated in the
many of those. This was the crisis in '94. After that the U.S.
decided to shut the door on Cuban refugees in order to avoid
these tricks again. It was unfortunate for the refugees, namely the
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
rafters by air, what happens?
JB: So far as we're concerned, we've told Cuban people
to leave in a raft. That is not the way to obtain freedom, and that
had to be obtained by their own efforts inside the island. Changing
circumstances for everybody and not trying to change the
individually was the solution to the problem. However, that was no
than words on our part because people out of desperation will
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
here. In the event we spot rafters we drop a small radio and with
small radio they communicate back what their intentions are. If
to be rescued, we call the U.S. Coast Guard and give them the
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
not privy to what they're doing. Most likely they would be sent
Cuba. If for some reason they establish a motive for which they
be considered refugees and not be taken back to Cuba, I think
taking them to Guantanamo and from there allowed to find
to go to.
MONK: Do you have any connection to the Cuban-American
JB: None whatsoever. About four years ago the Cuban-American
Foundation in Puerto Rico took part in raising funds to donate an
to Brothers to the Rescue, which is still flying with us. But there is
no political connection between Brothers and the Cuban-American
Foundation. We have a different idea, a different strategy on how
Cuban thing should be handled. There are several strategies here
can enumerate most of them. One is trying to raise funds for
go to war against Cuba by small groups, which is ridiculous
will always have more money, more weapons and more power in
We consider that a waste of time. Secondly, lobbying the United
to accomplish the changes in Cuba, which is what the
Foundation had been doing for years. We think time has proven
of thinking doesn't lead anywhere. Then we have another one, a
of going about it which is the use of non-violence on the island to
people to accomplish their objectives on their own. We have been
literature to Cuba. We even dropped leaflets on Cuba. One time
over Havana. Two other times we did it from international air
advantage of air currents. One time we dropped half-a-million tiny
On one side it has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We
30 articles to the Declaration of Human Rights written on these
an article each. And then we had several slogans written on them.
one here, written in Spanish, means "I am the change."
a leaflet.) Take responsibility for your own actions. We have
response in the last two weeks that is very encouraging. Right
trying to assist the Cuban people to make it possible to have a
process within the island so that they can determine which way
to be ruled.
MONK: Historically, most expatriates have felt dissatisfaction with
way the U.S. government has handled the Cuban situation. You
feel the best approach is to take matters into your own
JB: The political strategy of the U.S. is something that we can't
The U.S. can do whatever they please with their foreign policy. In
what we're saying is, we have to take our own course of action.
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
planes were shot down by the Cubans, the U.S. government knew
and they decided not to act. They let Castro shoot down our
I can tell you, for instance----and this is documented----that a
before the shoot-down of the airplanes the government issued an
for the radar of South Florida to follow a flight of Brothers to the
planes that day. They were listening to our communications as we
there. Ten days before the shoot-down an admiral, Eugene Carol,
Cuba as part of a think tank for the U.S. When they came back
in a report, "I was asked by one of the chiefs of the Air
Cuba, 'What would U.S. response be if we were to shoot down a
to the Rescue plane?'" The U.S. State Department didn't do
with that information, didn't warn us, didn't send a note to the
government saying don't you dare. They simply didn't respond. I
they knew this was about to happen and they just simply didn't
interfere. When the airplanes took off we were still north of the
parallel, halfway between Cuba and the U.S.
Not even close to Cuba. They took off at 3:00 p.m. At 3:21 p.m.
down the first aircraft. Seven minutes before they shot down the
aircraft, an independent U.S. radar operator called the Air Force
and gave them what is the equivalent of a 911 call saying,
you seen what I'm seeing? Have you seen what's happening to the
to the Rescue plane?" "Yes. We're taking care of
the response. This is documented in sworn testimony. They knew
happening before the first aircraft was shot down. Eight minutes
the second aircraft was shot down. At 3:53 the MiGs were in
my aircraft. They had identified me three times and they were
ready to shoot me down when the mission was canceled because
complained that he was much too close to the United States. We
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
interceptors to protect national security. That afternoon the order
came was to stay put. They aborted the takeoff. Somebody gave
so that the interceptors wouldn't take off. The U.S. has the
to send interceptors to where we were shot down in five minutes.
words, the U.S. military was already on alert for something they
was going to happen. And they did nothing to prevent the planes
shot down. What I'm saying is that it was in the interest of the
administration to allow that to happen. We were screwing up the
of relations between Cuba and the U.S. by our own actions in
the opposition within the island. Castro was later asked if he had
committed an error. And he said, "Well, I have never
strategic error. I have committed a tactical error." And I'm
to explain to you what the tactical error was. The tactical error
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
prove this was an assassination attempt against my person, and
group. They were going to wipe us out, all of us. Seven days prior
the shoot-down there were practices by the Cuban MiGs on
small airplanes with the same characteristics of our airplanes, flying
north of Cuba. This was documented by U.S. intelligence.
magazine reported that they had been practicing for the
MONK: Your simple mission of mercy is, in a way, a cog in a
JB: We became a problem to the Castro government, of course,
and to the
attempts of the Clinton administration in opening relations with
The Castro administration repeatedly complained to the Clinton
about the existence of Brothers to the Rescue flights. They simply
us to stop flying. And the Clinton administration said that they had
legal recourse against us because we weren't
MONK: You've been closely involved in the resistance for several
Where did this all begin for you?
JB: I was born in Cuba in 1940. I lived there up until I was
at which time I became a student in Boston, Massachusetts. I went
to Cuba to join my friends in the underground against Castro in
1960. I was sent by the underground, the MRR, to be trained by the
after arrangements had been made with the Central Intelligence
They were going to train a few of us to be sent back to Cuba to
in the overthrow of the Castro government. I was trained for
11 months here in the U.S. I was trained in Guatemala and I was
in Panama by members of the U.S. Government Intelligence
I was sent back as a radio operator to make arrangements for the
that ended up when the Bay of Pigs failed. I was sent inside as a
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
and I knew about 300 of them that were in the group because at
I was taken out of Guatemala the entire invasion force was not
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
Guantanamo Naval Air Station and I was received there by a
is a friend of mine to this day. We were flown to an Air Force
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.
five of us radio operators in the Province of Oriente. I'm the only
who escaped unharmed from the entire operation in Oriente. After
of Pigs I went back to Cuba again in another infiltration operation
a group from the CIA that was organized here to conduct
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
mission. I was there for three days that time. The mission was
and we had to exit. I decided that the way the operations were
was irresponsible, that we were being used exclusively for
Castro government. I decided not to lend myself any more to any
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,
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
in Cuba. So we went there and just took a canon and fired the
a hotel that was full of Russians to prove that he was wrong. A
Russians on Cuba soil would look bad for them. That, of course,
the U.S. government and the Cuban government and the Russian
To this day I haven't been questioned on that attack. That was my
covert action that I undertook. After that I had the federal
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
so I decided to cool it. Then came the missile crisis and after the
crisis Kennedy exchanged us for the U.S. national security by
the Soviets not to invade. And he promised not to let anybody do
in there. So we were not only tied we had also been sold. The
for the freedom of the Cuban people had been sold by the
by Kennedy himself, in order to attain national security and the
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
Cuban refugees were coming here on account of a situation that
by both the Cuban government and the U.S.
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
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
a doctor you couldn't treat only the symptoms of the person you
you have to take care of the illness. We've already organized
here in Miami to learn about the methods they used at the
in the '60s. We also started sending funds to the opposition in the
We are proposing a confrontation using civil disobedience to defy
government, to deny them support. And again, this is based on the
that the power of the government comes from the people. If
power to the government, the government has no power to wield.
premise we are trying to organize the Cuban people into a
an open resistance by the way. There's nothing hidden or
To promote the organization of such force that would simply force
government out. I think we are the only group that has a coherent
to bring this about. That's what makes us dangerous or a threat to
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
the Clinton administration that has been acting as undercover
for financial interests.
MONK: Have you ever personally met and interacted with rafters
assisted their rescue?
JB: Yes. I have seen more rafters out on the street more so than
else. They come and salute me and say I rescued them. Perhaps
touching day of my life was the day that I was invited to an
school here. The principal of the school had about 20 children of
and some of them whom I had found. They presented me with a
It was children who were giving this recognition to me. That's been
greatest honor I've received in my entire life.
MONK: Do you think that within your lifetime this will be
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
there have been many. It will be resolved. I hope on our terms, and
I say on our terms, I mean the Cuban people's terms. Namely, the
of the work done by the Cuban people to change their own
We all have a right to determine our own destiny. We all have a
to be free.