The Miami Herald
March 13, 2001

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
                                      Fidel Castro.

                                      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.