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Hope Floats in Airborne Missions to Search and Rescue

June 24, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — "See that?" Aurelio Hurtado de Mendoza asks, pointing to a strip of land faintly visible along the horizon. "That's Cuba."

If Mendoza, a co-pilot for the nonprofit group Hermanos al Rescate, means that news to be reassuring, it isn't. Two years ago, on a search-and-rescue mission exactly like the one we are flying, two of the group's planes were blown out of the sky by Cuban MiGs. Other planes have been chased. A few have merely crashed. And now, here we are, flying straight into the belly of the beast.

But we're not looking for trouble. We're looking for rafters, those desperate, haggard souls so weary of life on the island that they take to the shark-infested Straits of Florida in barely seaworthy vessels, hoping to survive the 90-mile trip to freedom in Florida.

Most don't make it, succumbing to hunger, thirst or simply fatigue. Others are fished out of the water by the U.S. Coast Guard and either sent back to Cuba or, if they're lucky, sent to immigration purgatory in the Bahamas. We hope to find them before the sharks do, so a quarter-mile north of Cuban waters, pilot Jose Basulto banks our four-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster to the west and we begin a four-hour search over hundreds of miles of turquoise water so clear you can see the reef formations deep beneath its surface.

"This happens to be an area where many boats have been found," says Basulto. "If you're really good, you can see a raft from two miles. But you don't find it--it kind of finds you."

Although we're just 500 feet above the water, I doubt I could spot the Queen Mary even if we flew right over it, so I hold out little hope of finding a crude inner-tube raft the size of a coffee table. I don't dare share my doubts with the others in the painfully cramped cockpit, however. For them, this is not a weekend joy ride but serious business--serious business that has taken them away from their families one or two days a week every week for the past seven years. Serious business that, two years ago, claimed the lives of four friends and ignited a crisis that landed Basulto and his group in the international spotlight.

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Since its founding in May 1991, Hermanos--whose name means Brothers to the Rescue--has lived a dual existence. To those on the left, it's a provocative group tied to the U.S. government, whose frequent forays into Cuban airspace made the deadly confrontation with Cuban warplanes inevitable. To those on the right, it's a hapless band of humanitarian do-gooders with allies in Cuba, a fact that, combined with their opposition to the dogmatic politics of Cuban American leaders in Miami and Washington, make them soft on communism.

The reality, of course, is somewhere in between.

"We believe the solution should come from within Cuba," says Basulto, whose group includes more than 70 volunteers representing 18 nations. "We are promoting . . . those opposition forces that within Cuba are trying to bring about change and an independent political position very much native to Cuba.

"We have to set ourselves apart from that perception that there are only two poles here, one Castro and one Washington. No sir. There is another pole: the Cuban people and their opposition. They are to be acknowledged."

That philosophy marks a major change for Basulto, 57, a CIA-trained veteran of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion who, at age 20, nearly lost his life trying to impose Washington's solution on the Cuban people. He escaped the island only by scaling a fence and crossing a minefield to reach the safety of the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo. But for the last three years he has embraced nonviolent struggle, covering the walls of his south Miami office with portraits of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and handing out tracts by nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp.

In fact, clad in tan Dockers and Birkenstocks, the thoughtful and soft-spoken Basulto, an engineer by training, seems more a Jesuit priest than the founder of a political movement. And he follows a similar calling, too, saving lost souls while trying to win them over to his side. Because, truth be told, Basulto hates the whole idea of rafters.

"So long as people in Cuba think that there is hope for them individually, they will grab ahold of it," he says. "The raft is one of those things and we're continually saying to them, 'Don't use a raft. You may die.' "

Still, in Basulto's mind, those rafters are his brothers, so he directs weekly flights over the Caribbean searching for them. And, historically, those flights have been successful: His pilots have helped recover more than 4,200 men, women and children from the sea, flown supplies to Cubans held in Bahamian refugee camps, and crash-landed trying to get assistance to gravely injured rafters stranded among the small, rocky islands that dot the route between Cuba and Florida.

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