- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

Brothers to the Rescue, the Cuban-American pilots organization that flew missions spotting and rescuing thousands of rafters fleeing communist Cuba, announced yesterday that it was grounding its fleet after 12 years of service.
"We are not stopping the organization, we are only grounding our airplanes," said Jose Basulto, one of the group's founders, in a telephone call from Miami.
Citing rising expenses of more than $100,000 a year to maintain and fly search-and-rescue missions, as well as changed circumstances, Mr. Basulto said the decision was taken to focus on other areas.
"We are redundant. The Coast Guard is so effectively intercepting everyone who comes out of Cuba. Of course, they are doing it for different reasons, because the Coast Guard sends them back. But flying regular rescue missions is no longer needed," he said.
Mr. Basulto said his group spotted its last refugee four months ago.
Brothers to the Rescue came to international attention Feb. 24, 1996, when Cuban MiGs fired on planes of the humanitarian group, destroying two craft and killing four group members, over the Florida Straits separating Cuba from Key West.
Cuba accused the group of violating its airspace to distribute leaflets against its leader, Fidel Castro. While Brothers had buzzed Havana in the past, an international panel concluded the group's airplanes were downed over international waters on that day. Mr. Castro publicly took responsibility for ordering the attack.
It was later revealed that Brothers had been infiltrated by a Cuban agent, who escaped back to Cuba.
"It is the seventh anniversary, and there is still no justice," said Mr. Basulto, who was piloting a third plane that day but escaped into the clouds. He said his organization is trying to have Mr. Castro indicted in Belgium for murder and has enlisted the help of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based judicial watchdog group.
He accused the Bush administration of sweeping the issue under the rug and of covering up for the misdeeds of the Clinton administration.
Mr. Basulto and his partner, Billy Schuss, both Bay of Pigs veterans and ardent opponents of Mr. Castro, began the group in 1991, after seeing a child rescued from a raft who was near death from dehydration and several days of exposure in the tropical sun.
They started with 10 airplanes and 36 pilots and spotted 224 rafters escaping Cuba in the first year. At its peak, the group was flying 32 missions a week.
The flights were reduced to 16 a week, then four, and finally only operated Saturdays. The group is now down to just two airplanes and four pilots, and only flies if it receives an emergency call. Its last mission was two weeks ago, searching for fishermen from Naples, Fla., whose boat capsized and who eventually were found dead.
Mr. Basulto said that the Brothers group was credited with 4,200 rescues from 1991 to 1994 and for participating in the rescue of 36,000 more rafters who came out of Cuba in the ensuing years. Critics of U.S. policy on Cuba said the 40-year-old economic embargo on the island forced Cubans to risk their lives on rafts to flee crushing economic conditions. Mr. Basulto and his group argued that Cubans were risking their lives in the pursuit of freedom.
But rafts are passe today. Most Cubans who try to make it across the 90 miles between Cuba and Florida use speedboats. Most are intercepted by the Coast Guard and returned to Cuba because of the "wet foot, dry foot" immigration policy that dictates only those who touch dry land can be given U.S. asylum. So fewer Cubans are taking the higher risk of using a raft to escape Mr. Castro's regime.
Opposition, however, is growing and becoming more vocal, exemplified by Oswaldo Paya's Varela Project that has gathered more than 30,000 signatures on a petition asking for a referendum on Cuba's socialism.
"We will continue to struggle for freedom in Cuba, assisting the internal opposition, which is growing larger every day," Mr. Basulto said.

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