A presentation by Jose J. Basulto, President of Brothers to the Rescue
to The Cuba Vision Series, a joint studies program of the American Enterprise Institute and Universidad Latinoamericana de la Libertad Friedrich Hayek
Washington, D.C., April 23, 1997
BTTR: A CUBAN NATIONAL STRUGGLE, A STRATEGY IN THE MAKING
After six productive years of helping to save the lives of thousands of Cuban refugees in the Florida straits, BTTR established itself within Cuba as a champion of life, freedom, and respect for human dignity. All throughout this period, on which we dealt with the symptoms of Cubas dictatorship, we never lost track of a growing call to a higher service, that is, to work towards uprooting the cause of the problem itself, and promoting a way to attain a permanent solution. This is BTTRs present goal.
First a recount of events is necessary to set the stage for BTTR role and present position.
Historically, after Castro, the Cuban people within the island have responded to their difficult situation in three distinct ways:
1) Confronting the government,
2) Simulating allegiance to its official doctrine, and
3) Escaping the problem itself. Each response mode has had its periods and peak moments, although the three forms have taken place concurrently, to a degree, most of the time.
Confronting the new government through the use of violent action, was perhaps the first response chosen. This involved a strong underground opposition movement within the island, plus the training of an expeditionary force abroad, during the years 1960 and 1961. Participation in this effort could be measured by the number of arrests, which peaked at over one hundred thousand in April 1961.
This opposition movement encountered its demise after its Cuban leadership became dependent upon the U.S. for support and direction, when it failed to attain a quick victory over Castro in April 1961, during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
At this time, the Cuban people experienced abandonment and broken promises from the least expected source: the United States.
In October 1962, the last significant episode of violent confrontation, had the Cuban people as a bystander of a superpowers standoff during the Cuban missile crisis. Once again, the big looser was the Cuban people. The U.S. negotiated their own way out of the crisis by mortgaging the freedom of Cuba, with promises of non intervention, to the Soviet Union.
After much disappointment and frustration for the pro-U.S. and pro-democracy forces within the island, and the entrenchment of Castro through a growing perception of invincibility and strength, created by U. S. failures, soviet subsidies, rearmament and internal repression, the remaining two options came into full play.
First: Simulation. At a high moral cost on self respect and personal dignity, and while the Soviet subsidies lasted, many Cubans within the island pretended public allegiance to the dictator in order to put food on their families table, from the only source available: The Cuban Government.
Simulation to survive, an intricate form of double standard morality, gave way to new detrimental attitudes within the island.
Common trust, the basic element of bond within the Cuban culture, disappeared. A new atomized society, where each individuals concern did not go beyond his own personal and daily needs, emerged. "Yo resuelvo", [ I solve my own problems ] and everything else was left for others to do. Enterprise and simple cooperation for a common goal , were gone. The concept of a civil society had been lost.
The Cuban family had been broken by the state, brothers became "compaņeros" [comrades] as if only bound together by virtue of the states own needs or casual circumstances. No healthy human relations or enterprise remained possible under the watchful eye of the only lasting official institution: Repression.
Then came: Escape. From day one, Cubans who had links with the former government, those who were able to see ahead, or perhaps thought they had the financial means to weather the political storm abroad, started abandoning Cuba .
These Cubans left the others to solve the problem that belonged to all. The first "Cuban rafters" made it to the U.S. on a Pan Am flight.
In January, 1959, the young Cuban nation was highly dependent on the U.S. culturally, economically and politically. Cubans were still under the socio-political influence of the " Platt Amendment " to the Cuban Constitution, which had previously provided for a U.S. military intervention.
The Cubans were also staunch believers in the U.S. commitment to the Monroe Doctrine. The events that would follow , which included communism 90 miles from the U.S. and the Soviet military presence within the island, would prove to be very hard to accept or understand to this small pro-American nation.
The U.S. response to Castro and Soviet interventionism in Cuba left much to be desired. Drawing from early Cuban exiles as recruits, an invasion of Cuba was organized, supplied and directed by the U.S.; the men were launched into battle counting on the promise of air coverage and military support from the U.S. which never materialized.
John F. Kennedy Jr., president of the United States, unsure of his own countrys commitment to democracy in Cuba, as well as the promises made to the invasion force, attempted to distance himself from the invasion and chose anonymity over success, by retrieving U.S. support at the last minute; disaster and shame followed. The Cuban nation lost all hope and began to escape.
Escaping within Cuba took many forms. For the most desperate, suicide was common. Mental disorders, as well as alcoholism, rose well above Latin-American standards.
Escaping from Cuba gave us, by 1990, the deadliest of all forms: The raft. These home built artifacts, made out of anything that would float, came into common use. It was the only instrument within the island, capable of providing immediate freedom abroad to the ordinary citizen.
Meanwhile, an exiled Cuban community unable to generate its own response to solving the Cuban problem by itself through conventional means, continued looking after the U.S. for a solution , and hence felt frustrated and acted divided. The Cuban exile organizations while focused on Castro, did not react to the rafters problem.
The U.S. Coast Guard had no intention or official mandate to conduct search operations for the refugees, unless called to a sighting by a third party. The rafters problem seemed to be nobodys problem.
Stories of success in the crossing of the Florida straits, encouraged new attempts. Failures in the thousands, hardly made the news, that was only for the sharks to know. We, the founders of BTTR, took notice and decided to act. After considering political action as an option, we decided that our best action would be: To act ourselves.
This was, in brief, the social and political setting for the birth of "HERMANOS AL RESCATE", BTTR.
News of much too frequent deaths in the crossing of the Florida straits triggered the flights of the newly formed humanitarian organization. Results of the mercy missions followed, and an initially skeptic exiled community responded with an unprecedented financial support for the group. Small donations below ten dollars, made up the bulk of a one million plus yearly budget. No U.S. government funds were ever received or solicited by the organization.
Without realizing it at first, a new channel of solidarity uniting the Cuban people had been formed. Our pilots continued their quest to save lives at the risk of their own, and heeding no threats by the Cuban government to stop the flights, the missions continued to deliver the much needed commodities of hope and trust to and within the Cuban people.
The Cuban government soon realized the damaging potential that the new activity held upon them. Members of the international press following the activity aboard the flights, reported news of this unique suicidal exodus that clearly evidenced the nature of the government that produced it. The Cuban government complaints to the U.S., as well as MiG harassment to the flights, date back to 1992.
Castro was now facing a unique challenge from an unlikely source: A humanitarian group dedicated to saving the lives of those which his system had discarded and rejected. No questions asked, all rafters had a brother in the sky. The brother, by the way, could be an Argentinean or any other pilot from seventeen participating nationalities united under a common cause. The cause was universal in its nature. The press took notice of the fact.
Without realizing it, we had given birth to a new instrument of political defiance to a dictatorial regime. Only in Cuba: Search and rescue!!
Meanwhile the U.S. Coast Guard continued providing the rescue services upon BTTR calls for help. Privately, however, some U.S. Government officials preferred to blame BTTR, not Castro, for the refugees. This attitude, would be equivalent to blame the builder of a hospital for encouraging people to become sick, simply tragic!
A new role begins to take shape, the organization slowly becomes aware of its own potential in influencing political events from outside Cuba and inside the island. In the quest for the hearts and minds of the Cuban people "HERMANOS" ranked first.
We touched upon an important nerve, the Cuban people admired, respected and trusted their " brothers". What could we do with such potential, which was turning as well into additional responsibility ?!
It did not take long for us to find out. In 1994, the U. S. Government slam shut the door on the Cuban refugees. Official government semantics had given us a cue of this move, when earlier, the new term "migrants" was coined in reference to the rafters, without any change in the political conditions in Cuba, that had made them "refugees" to begin with.
A complete reassessment of the situation had to be done after the U.S. action. BTTR envisioned another opportunity for a new confrontation with Castro in the making , this time it could be under our own terms.
Clinton had closed Castros pressure relief valve, it would only be a matter of time for the critical pressure to peak again. The next time we would be better prepared !
We started looking at our options now that escaping Castros island was no longer possible. Would this create once again, conditions favorable to internal confrontation ? If so, of what kind ? We certainly do not want a civil war, or a coup detat resulting in a young new dictator. What next?!
Searching for a strategy akin to our own humanitarian nature, morality, as well as our limitations [real and self imposed], we carefully studied the models of non violent struggle provided by black America: Martin Luther King Jr., in his quest for civil rights, Gandhi, in India, the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, and the fall of the Soviet block.
The common denominator was evident: The mutual awareness of each mans inherent human dignity as a non violent political instrument, and his willingness and right to restore and preserve it, individually as well as collectively, had the strategic political energy required to produce the necessary changes.
We had to find our own way to " empower the people " with our own method and within our own circumstances. The search for a Cuban strategy to meet the needs of its very own struggle soon began. Also our first encounters in political defiance with Castros forces, which were met with their usual violence.
We arranged seminars on the subject of non violent action with the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute for Non Violence, in Atlanta Georgia, through their Florida chapter, as well as with The Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Mass. These contacts proved to be inspiring and enlightening.
On July 13, 1995 BTTR staged its first act of open civil defiance to the Castro regime by becoming part of a demonstration in Cuban waters to remember the martyrs of the " 13 de Marzo " tug boat sinking north of Havana the previous year by Cuban security forces. Cuban gun boats rammed and attempted to sink the "Democracia", the lead boat of a small 13 boat flotilla of Cuban exiles staging the demonstration.
Three of the seven BTTR aircraft on the demonstration proceeded to fly over Havana, in the presence of two MiGs and several other military aircraft, in a successful attempt to draw attention away from the boats. This action worked and the boats were able to retreat. Fortunately, on that occasion, Castro had not yet issued orders to shoot down civilian aircraft,. . . it would be only a matter of time.
This first event of civil defiance to the dictatorship, an experiment if you will, gave us our first feedback on its effectiveness from Castros side. Our conclusion: We are on the right track.
In December 1995, BTTR pledged its support and publicly gave an undisclosed amount of funds to Concilio Cubano. This newly formed alliance of pro-democracy organizations within the island had pledged to meet publicly in Havana on February 24, 1996, to present an open challenge to Castros rule.
This move by BTTR proved to be so threatening to Castro, that a veiled direct warning to stop was given to BTTR, through Juan Pablo Roque, (former MiG pilot and a Castro agent who infiltrated BTTR and the FBI), who claimed to have received "Unofficial information from personal sources in Cuba".
On January 9 and 13, 1996, [ the 50th. anniversary of Cubas introduction of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the U.N. in London ], taking advantage of the prevailing winds, two BTTR aircraft dropped one half million leaflets on Havana from international airspace.
These leaflets contained individual articles of the declaration on one side, and on the other, simple messages such as: COMRADES NO, BROTHERS. I AM THE CHANGE. YOUR NEIGHBOR THINKS LIKE YOU. They proved to be very effective.
On January 14, 1996, Castro, as he later told ABCs Dan Rather, gave standing orders to shoot down BTTR.
On February 24, 1996 during a routine BTTR search and rescue mission, in an air to air ambush, four of Castros MiGs attacked three unarmed civilian aircraft from BTTR destroying two, missing the third, and murdering four of the occupants; three of them, U.S. citizens.
Throughout the fifty three minutes that the MiGs were in pursuit of the BTTR aircraft, the U.S. military opted to watch motionless and in silence as events unfolded. Perhaps we will some day find out why !
The first hot encounter of our non violent struggle for democracy in Cuba had left a balance of four casualties from our side. On the other hand, Castros plan failed because it required the downing of all three aircraft for the only alleged "survivor" (the previously mentioned, Juan Pablo Roque), to have any credibility.
The four survivors from the third aircraft, along with the passengers and crew of two commercial vessels in the area, set the record straight. However, the incident left behind a series of unanswered questions from the U.S. regarding its own responsibility in the downing.
Our quest to promote hope in the future of Cuba after Castro, within the island, as well as incentives to the Cuban movement of non violent political defiance, recently received a welcomed boost from an offer of economic help for a Cuba after Castro, made by the President of the United States.
This offer was made in acceptable of and in honorable terms to the Cuban people and it recognizes the important role of the Cuban military in assisting to provide for an orderly transition to democracy in the island, as well as in its future stability.
However, BTTR remains to this date skeptical about the U.S. governments present and future attitudes towards allowing a wholly Cuban nonviolent struggle. A struggle, willing to challenge Castro within the island, and allowed to take its own course, with exile support, and outside of the characteristic control and manipulation that has kept it for 38 years confined to a matter between Washington and Havana, while ignoring in the process, the true Sovereignty of Cuba, which rests only on its people.
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