By Madeline Baro Diaz | Sun Sentinel
MIAMI—Jose Basulto’s television station can fit in a suitcase and be broadcast from a small plane.
In his South Miami home, Basulto demonstrates his $4,000 worth of equipment, a camcorder, a transmitter and devices to measure and amplify signals. The shoestring operation, which Basulto has employed twice, was an attempt to show that if a couple of amateur radio aficionados could broadcast to Cuba, so could the U.S. government with its $10 million-a-year enterprise, TV Mart�.
“It’s so crummy, so poor, so Radio Shack,” he said of his amateur equipment.
Such is Basulto’s life these days. Basulto became nationally known as the head of Brothers to the Rescue, the group that patrolled the Florida Straits for rafters and was credited with saving thousands of lives.
This year, however, he announced that the rescue mission of Brothers was kaput, an acknowledgement that now that U.S. policy mandates the return of most Cubans found on the high seas, the Brothers’ rescue efforts were obsolete. Continuing them, he said, actually could lead to the repatriation of rafters who were trying to flee Cuba.
Basulto, 62, hung up his rescuer’s hat, but not his activist’s hat, continuing his efforts to support the internal opposition in Cuba through non-violent means. Broadcasting was his latest high-profile pursuit, fueled by his belief that TV Mart�, broadcast for a few hours every night, is an important venture but one that is not reaching the majority of Cubans.
“I do not know one Cuban [on the island] who has ever seen TV Mart�,” he said.
But in recent years Basulto has also rubbed some hard-line Cuban-Americans the wrong way by taking controversial positions such as supporting Cuban dissident Oswaldo Pay�, whose effort to bring a referendum on civil reforms in Cuba has been viewed with suspicion by some exiles.
“I don’t think he has a major leadership role at this point,” said Max Castro, senior research associate at the University of Miami’s North-South Center. “He seems to be working hard to maintain some sort of relevance.”
Basulto was a young man hoping to free his country from Fidel Castro’s grip when he returned to Cuba prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Basulto said he was trained by the U.S. government in weapons, explosives and communications. His mission was to tell his fellow Cubans that the United States would be there for them when they rose up against Castro.
“It was a message of hope that was betrayed,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Basulto and his Brothers to the Rescue became known for rescuing rafters and dropping political leaflets over Cuba. On one Brothers to the Rescue flight in 1996, Cuban MiGs downed two planes with four Cuban-Americans inside. The only plane that survived was Basulto’s.
The incident put an end to the leafleting, but Basulto threw himself into a quest to have Castro indicted for the deaths of the four men. He gathered 10,000 signatures on a petition and presented it to President Bush at a Cuban Independence Day celebration at the White House in 2001.
Basulto said he has received no response from the administration.
Although federal prosecutors have not charged Castro in U.S. courts, something experts say would be difficult to do because he is a sitting head of state, the families of three of the men won $188 million in a federal lawsuit against the Cuban government.
In 2002, Basulto became the latest person to sue the government of Cuba over the incident. When the Cuban government did not respond to his suit, he won a default judgment and is now asking for more than $100 million in damages, which he said he would donate to the internal opposition in Cuba, if he ever collects any money.
Basulto began publicizing his broadcast venture this year when he announced that Brothers to the Rescue was taking to the skies again to show that a broadcast to Cuba was possible, despite the U.S. government’s contention that Cuba’s jamming of the signal made that impossible.
The first flight was on Feb. 24, the anniversary of the shootdown. Before the flight, Brothers to the Rescue were featured on a segment on TV Mart� where they showed Cubans how they could fashion a TV antenna out of materials like a hanger, a broom handle and a toilet plunger.
Basulto said their transmission, from 100 miles southwest of Marathon, near where the planes went down, was seen in Havana.
On May 20, Basulto and a colleague, Osvaldo Pla, made another attempt but their amplifier failed.
That same night the federal government used Direct-to-Home satellite service and a transmission system on a military plane to broadcast TV Mart�, in an attempt to enhance the signal. TV Mart� officials say they will conduct further tests before determining how to proceed.
That was not enough for Basulto, who does not know whether his activities pushed the U.S. government to respond.
“We are asking for 365 transmissions a year,” he said.
Basulto’s exploits have caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which sent him a notice of violation informing him that his ham radio license did not allow him to broadcast to Cuba. He did not mind, though, because he made his point.
“I wanted to get a message to the White House,” he said. “We have raised the veil of hypocrisy. Mission accomplished.”