Basulto testifies on role as anti-Castro operative
BY GAIL EPSTEIN NIEVES
Brothers to the Rescue founder José Basulto took the stand
in the Cuban spy trial Monday and shared with jurors his
history as a 1960s anti-Castro CIA operative and his
admitted cannon assault on a Cuban hotel nearly 40 years
``Terrorist attack!'' defense attorney Paul McKenna labeled
the hotel incident. But Basulto, firmly unapologetic, called
the assault a ``Cold War'' mission justified by a phalanx of
Russian missiles pointed toward the United States.
That exchange, coming on the first day of Basulto's
long-anticipated testimony, reflected McKenna's strategy to
cast Basulto as a cold-hearted terrorist and agent
provocateur rather than a proud patriot.
McKenna's client, accused spy ringleader Gerardo
Hernández, faces a life prison term if convicted of murder
conspiracy for helping Cuba shoot down two Brothers to the
Rescue planes in 1996.
More recent events posed a greater challenge to Basulto's
memory, however. He said he didn't remember a federal
aviation official warning him in the summer of 1995 -- seven
months before the Feb. 24, 1996, shootdown that killed four
Brothers fliers -- that Cuba could shoot down his plane if he
invaded Cuban airspace.
``He may have; I don't recall,'' Basulto said.
Charles Smith, a retired Federal Aviation Administration
enforcement officer, testified Wednesday that he gave
Basulto just that warning, and that Basulto responded, ``You
must understand I have a mission in life to perform.'' That
mission, according to Basulto's history, was to rid Cuba of
A native of Santiago de Cuba, Basulto testified that he was a
young Boston College student when he joined the CIA-led
war against Castro. Basulto trained in Panama, Guatemala
and the United States and was infiltrated back into Cuba --
posing as a physics student at the University of Santiago --
to help prepare the ground for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Under questioning, Basulto acknowledged that he was
trained in intelligence, communications, explosives,
sabotage and subversion.
Although the invasion failed, Basulto adopted the number
2506 for his airplane -- the number used by the brigade that
stormed Giron Beach on the Bay of Pigs on April 15, 1961.
``You're proud of your Bay of Pigs involvement?'' McKenna
``I'm proud of all my participation in Cuba,'' Basulto
Under CIA sponsorship, Basulto infiltrated Cuba again in
1961 for a commando operation intended to sabotage a
missile site. He said he used fake identification documents.
The mission was canceled.
In August 1962, Basulto testified, he took a boat to Cuba
and fired a 20mm cannon at a hotel full of Russians, who
``were invaders, as far as we were concerned.'' He also
carried a machine gun. ``We fired the gun at the hotel 16
times,'' opening holes in the facade, he said.
Asked if that mission's objective was to assassinate Fidel
Castro, Basulto said it was ``far-fetched'' to think that would
have happened. But it would have been a welcome outcome,
he said, adding that the goal was to ``promote democracy.''
``I think it was in the interest of my country, Cuba, and of the
United States,'' he said.
In the '80s, Basulto flew medical supplies to the Nicaraguan
Despite repeated questions from McKenna, Basulto denied
any linkage to the CIA for those contra flights or any other
activities since the 1960s. He denied working in Brazil in
1963 against guerrilla leader Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara, one of
the founders of Cuba's revolution, who was killed in 1967.
However, Basulto acknowledged he was friends with ex-CIA
agent Félix Rodríguez, who took the phone order to execute
Guevara and then stepped back as a Bolivian sergeant shot
Guevara in the chest.
Basulto, who became a prosperous builder-engineer in
Miami, said he founded Brothers to the Rescue as a
humanitarian rafter-rescue group. The group is credited with
rescuing some 4,300 Cuban rafters.
But Basulto acknowledged that the group's focus shifted
after changes in immigration policy meant rafters got sent
back to Cuba.
Brothers didn't see a single raft between August 1995 and
March 8, 1996, Basulto acknowledged.
Without rafters, the money dried up, Basulto agreed.
Brothers to the Rescue tax returns showed that the nonprofit
charity raised more than $1.1 million in 1993 and an
additional $1.15 million in 1994. In 1995, contributions
dropped to $320,455. Basulto took a salary most years.
On July 13, 1995, Basulto violated Cuban airspace and
threw leaflets about human rights from his plane as part of a
flotilla with the Democracy Movement.
At the time, Basulto called the flight over Havana ``an act of
civil disobedience'' to signal ``to the people of Cuba that civil
disobedience is possible.''
In his testimony, Basulto insisted there was no advance plan
to overfly Cuba that day.