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Posted May 24, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Americans

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia | Washington Post Staff Writer

Publisher note: Original title Exile to Reveal Plan For Post-Castro Cuba and subtitle Goal Is Indictment of Leader’s Successor

Political intrigues don’t come any more epically scaled than this one: the future of Cuba after the inevitable death of Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-reigning head of state and an American government nemesis like few others.

The singular obsession that consumes the exile community here only grows more passionate as Castro, 78, ages. It tends to crescendo at the tiniest hint of vulnerability, such as the fall last year that broke his kneecap and arm, erupting in banner headlines and talk-radio vitriol in Miami. Castro has named his brother Raul, who is five years younger, to succeed him. But a Cuban exile daredevil who once flew missions over the island to drop human rights leaflets wants to get in the way.

Jose Basulto, president of Hermanos al Rescate, or Brothers to the Rescue, plans to announce Tuesday afternoon that he is offering $1 million for information leading to the indictment of Raul Castro on charges of drug trafficking and of murdering four Brothers to the Rescue pilots and passengers whose two small planes were shot down by Cuban MiG fighter planes off the island’s coast in 1996.

The offer is intended to publicly pressure the U.S. government into resurrecting investigations of long-standing claims of criminal wrongdoing. But—more important—it also is intended to weaken Raul Castro and his allies politically and to complicate or even make illegal his succession.

“It would throw a wrench in the machinery,” Basulto said of the hoped-for indictment.

Basulto already has enlisted influential figures. Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami who prosecuted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and was instrumental in the indictment of three Cuban airmen for the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, said in an interview Monday that “there is significant evidence” in the public record to warrant indicting Raul Castro in connection with drug trafficking and the shoot-down or, at the very least, to prompt law enforcement to further investigate.

Evidence surfaced in the Brothers to the Rescue investigation, Lewis said, that Raul Castro was at the top of the chain of command that ordered the civilian group’s planes shot down. During the Noriega trial, Lewis said, witnesses testified that Raul Castro facilitated cocaine smuggling to the United States. Drug kingpin Carlos Lehder has implicated Raul Castro in testimony in other cases. And a former hit man—now in a Colombian prison for a political assassination—who worked for drug kingpin Pablo Escobar told Spanish television network Television Espanola this month that Raul Castro was the Medellin cartel’s contact for drug shipments to Miami.

Some have questioned the credibility of the former traffickers. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami declined to comment on the allegations.

The reward money for information leading to Raul Castro’s indictment would come out of a $1.7 million judgment against the Cuban government awarded in January to Basulto, whose plane escaped the same MiGs that shot down his colleagues. Basulto plans to try to collect the money from the $192 million in seized Cuban assets held by the U.S. Treasury, which awarded $93 million in 2001 to the families of three Brothers to the Rescue members.

Indictments of Raul Castro have been considered before. The Miami Herald reported in 1993 that federal prosecutors had drafted an indictment accusing him and other top Cuban officials of helping the Medellin cartel funnel 7.5 tons of cocaine to the United States through Cuba. For months, passions were stirred by reports in various media outlets that an indictment was imminent, but no charges were announced.

Indicting a foreign leader, though difficult, is not impossible. When former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested, the British House of Lords said he was not protected by head-of-state immunity because the allegations against him involved torture. In the U.S. system, indictments of foreign leaders are political, as well as law enforcement decisions, said Michael P. Scharf, an international law expert at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“It’s in the discretionary hands of the executive branch,” he said.

The Bush administration has tried to foster good relations with the exile community, but Scharf said, “I can’t even imagine what an international firestorm” an indictment of Raul Castro would set off. Basulto’s legal team believes emphasizing the Cuban government’s designation by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism would provide the extra impetus in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, political climate that might not have been there before.

“The concept of terrorism and terrorist governments has changed,” said Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, one of Basulto’s lawyers. “This is a threat that’s 90 miles away. Anything we can do to weaken that state makes us safer.”

Indicting a foreign leader does not necessarily give the United States the right to incarcerate him, Scharf said, but it could subject the leader to arrest and extradition to the United States during his travels, effectively making him “a prisoner in his own country.”

The proposed indictment of Raul Castro is a piece in a much larger, and often disjointed, movement aimed at one of the signal moments in recent history: the end of Fidel Castro’s reign in Cuba, which began with his revolutionary takeover in 1959. Nettlesome questions about the property rights of exiles and of enemies of the Castro regime in Cuba—as well as the economic, political and diplomatic tangles that may ensue—are endlessly debated here. The University of Miami even has a team of researchers, known as the Miami Transition Project, dedicated to developing solutions to avert the chaos that has accompanied so many power shifts in other Latin American nations, particularly considering that several hundred thousand Cuban exiles are only a short boat ride away in Miami.

Jaime Suchliki, the project’s director, expects that martial law will be declared in Cuba as soon as Fidel Castro’s death is announced and that U.S. law enforcement agencies will swing into high alert. “The party is going to be in Miami,” he said. “This town is going to be paralyzed for two days.”

The dumbest thing for the exile community to do, Suchliki said, would be to try to install a political leader in Cuba, rather than patiently awaiting gradual democratic changes. Basulto, with his dive-bombing days behind him, might be just the sort of celebrity exile who some think could generate a following to become the leader—or at least a high-ranking official—in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. Basulto, though, says he’s not putting up $1 million to get into office, but to keep Raul Castro out.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 25, 2005 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    There is so much wrong with this story that I hardly know where to start.

    I don’t know this reporter and have to admit I don’t really know the history of Brothers to the Rescue but this is just another Cuban exile that will do anything to look stupid in the press.

    1. Publisher note: Original title Exile to Reveal Plan For Post-Castro Cuba and subtitle Goal Is Indictment of Leader’ Successor

    So, what is it Mr. Basulto? Do you have a plan for a post-Castro Cuba or are you out for revenge for your illegal activity of flying into foreign airspace and trying to get shot down?

    2. “The reward money for information leading to Raul Castro’ indictment would come out of a $1.7 million judgment against the Cuban government awarded in January to Basulto…”

    So you are offering monopoly money for something that can never be proved? Seems to me you are using this poor reporter to make a story out of nothing.

    3. “Basulto, with his dive-bombing days behind him, might be just the sort of celebrity exile who some think could generate a following to become the leader—or at least a high-ranking official—in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.”

    Really? You believe this? Even more evidence for my arguement that you have no idea what you are talking about. You? A leader in a post-Castro Cuba? I’m sure 11 million Cubans are just waiting for you to swoop in and save them with your Cuban-American sense of Freedom.

    Sad, just sad.

    Cuba consulting services

  2. Follow up post #2 added on May 25, 2005 by YoungCuban with 409 total posts

    Someone help as I am peeing on myself from laughing so much! Hahahaha!

  3. Follow up post #3 added on May 25, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    Calm down YoungCuban, take deep breaths grin

    Hey, this guy made out alright! His colleagues got shot down and killed but he escaped that close call, and now he has a chance of getting $1.7 million assuming he has a connection who can help him convince the U.S. Treasury to pony up the funds. Nice of him to offer a reward, but I doubt anyone will actually “win” it. All this just looks like he’ angling for some press coverage. I doubt he’ serious about a leadership position in Cuba, but with this possible seed money and the press he’ getting, maybe he’ thinking about a political office in Miami for starters. . .

  4. Follow up post #4 added on May 26, 2005 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    Basulto has shares responsibility for the shoot-down of the planes, since he was directing the overflight operation and should have known the dangers the youger, inexperienced pilots faced, especially in the context of continued warnings by the Cuban authorities that they would take action if the flights continued. I wonder to what degree those pilots were just pawns in the game of provoking the Cuban government. It is interesting that Basulto was conveniently fare enough away to avoid being shot down. If the Cubans did not care about international airspace, as he claims, why didn’t they go after him. He could have never outrun the Mig-29s. Or maybe because the other planes were in Cuban airspace and he intelligently kept his distance. A cunning Basulto indeed…

  5. Follow up post #5 added on May 26, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    Well, let’ be careful here. I believe those planes were shot down in international airspace, as far as we know. They were warned, but since they had flown over Havana several times in the past without repercussion, perhaps they mistakenly thought the warning wasn’t serious. That time, it obviously was.

    I still scratch my head over this bizarre incident. I wonder if this was a major brain-fart on the part of Castro or if some socialist bureaucrat just plain screwed up. Hopefully in the future, we will know the whole story because it’ politically crazy as far as I can tell.

    I’m surprised that such a wily cat as Castro didn’t think or try this strategy out: return the favor and send small unarmed Cuban planes over U.S. airspace. Have them drop some socialist leaflets over Miami. grin  That might have gotten the U.S. govt. involved and put unofficial pressure on the Brothers to the Rescue group to quietly back off on the Havana-bound flights.

    In any case, it’ all history now. After that incident, Clinton had no choice but to sign Helms-Burton into law. Before that, people were thinking he has going to do a “slick Willy” and pocket-veto the bill.

    Now of course, in a post-9/11 world, something like a Brothers to the Rescue wouldn’t be accepted by any country. Maybe Basulto should try buzzing over the White House on a PR mission to promote his cause. . .  wink

  6. Follow up post #6 added on May 26, 2005 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    Although it is possible that the planes were shot down in international airspace, there was never any conclusive evidence either way. The only explanation I can think of is that the Cubans THOUGHT the planes were still in their airspace, which also explains why they did not shoot down Basulto, who was much farther out but still within their range. Regarding the idea of flying some unarmed Cuban planes over Miami…well, we know how the USAF F-16s would have taken care of them.
    One more thing on Basulto…people overlook that fact that for many years he was a pilot running shady flights for the CIA in Central America…illegal guns, drugs, death squad advisors, illegal wars, etc…

  7. Follow up post #7 added on May 26, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    “Regarding the idea of flying some unarmed Cuban planes over Miami…well, we know how the USAF F-16s would have taken care of them.”


    Then, Castro would have held HUGE rallies, make a 5-hour speech on television basically announcing to the world that Cuba was only responding to the Brothers’ flights and that the country will not tolerate any more flight incursions from that group or anyone else for that matter. He would have been able to argue at that point that Cuba can take any means necessary, including military, to stop the flyovers. That the country was well within its rights to protect itself, blah, blah. That would have been a big tipoff to Basulto to back off with his plan and politically speaking, Castro would have had the upper hand.

    That’ lowball politics but that’ the kind of strategy I would expect from someone as devious as Castro. For example, he could have tried to freak out the Brothers and send his planes to fly as close to theirs as possible, thereby making it harder for F16s to shoot them down without accidentally taking out one of the “good guys.”

    But by being the first to take military action, the country ended up looking really bad. They lost that round to the Miami hardliners, Castro ended up looking like a “tonto util” in this incident.

    The only way I can understand this whole thing is that either some military commander f***ed up bigtime or Castro brain-farted. But if anyone has any other thoughts, I’m all ears. . .  grin

  8. Follow up post #8 added on May 27, 2005 by I-taoist with 213 total posts

    I arrived in Cayo Largo the day after the shoot-down incident in 1996.  My sense was that Cubans realized it had been a terrible mistake to go so far as shooting the planes down.  It was a public relations disaster for the island.  I also had a deep intuitive sense that the actual shoot down may have indeed been a mistake. One can easily imagine such a scenario:  On hearing of yet another incursion, a red faced Castro yells at Raul “Do something!!”  Raul, disturbed from his afternoon siesta after a sumptous lunch, yells at the Air Force general “You’ve got to do something!!”  The general, pulled away from his villa on the beach, yells at the colonial, “We’ve simply got to do something!!” The colonial yells at the squadron commander, “The say we’ve absolutely got to do something!”  The squadron captain tells the pilots “The Colonial said it came from Fidel, he wants us to go up and shoot the bastards down!”

  9. Follow up post #9 added on May 27, 2005 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    I agree with you that the shoot-down was an over-reaction which the Cubans have come to regret. They had been contantly provoked and decided that could not continue to put up with it. In retrospect, they had more subtle options than destroying the planes with air-to-air missles. Heck, the Mig-29s could have simply done a very close fly-by and the Cessnas would have been knocked out of the sky. But as you should know, when someone is pushed to the limit, decisions are often taken and consequences considered afterwards.
    The part I do not agree with you is your depiction of the Cuban military high command living in luxury (beach villas, siestas, sumptuous lunches). I know several Cuban military officers and can tell you one thing, whether you agree with their politics or not, they are a very Spartan group of people who, unlike the military elites in other Latin American countries, do no live the life of luxury. Most of them are working too hard to enjoy the finer things of life. That is my personal experience.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on May 27, 2005 by Dana Garrett with 252 total posts

    In this book there is a frank admission that Brothers frequently intruded Cuba’ airspace and dropped anti-Castro leaflets in populated areas:


    It’ been a while since I read the book, but it could be Jose Basulto who makes the admission.  I don’t remember for sure.  In any case, it was someone associated w/ Brothers who was in a position to know.

    As we all know, the shooting down of the plane caused Clinton to strengthen the embargo against Cuba although his intention was to lessen it.  This all occurred during the special period so I doubt that Castro or any Cuban official would order the planes to be shot down unless they had violated Cuba’ airspace. 

    And I’ve frankly never bought the theory (it’ really just propaganda in my view) that secretly Castro loves the embargo because it enables him to scapegoat the USA for Cuba’ problems and because he fears exposure to USA citizens will cause Cubans to riot for Walmarts & beanie babies.  There is simply no convincing empirical evidence for the claim.  In fact, if anything the evidence points to the contrary.  Castro wouldnít publicly enable USA citizens to visit Cuba without detection if he wanted to cut off the USA. 

    Why is it so damned hard to believe that some nations would love regular diplomatic and economic relations w/ the USA, but they donít want to sacrifice their sovereignty or have their national pride insulted as a consequence? 

    Now hereís a theory that no one considers as far as I can tell.  What if Brothers frequently transgressed Cuban airspace during this period in order to provoke a response from Cuba that would sabotage any plans Clinton had of relaxing the embargo?  They might not have anticipated their planes being shot down and their pilots dying, but they could have easily hoped that Cuba would respond in some threatening way. 

    After all, itís not as though some exile groups have engaged in actions like that before. 

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