A Cuban general who holds a top position in that nation's military command defected with his family to the United States on Thursday, flying a small plane to the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Florida.
A U.S. intelligence official described the defector, Brig. Gen. Rafael del Pino Diaz, as a "very big fish." He is believed to be the highest ranking military officer ever to flee the Havana regime of Fidel Castro.
Information about the defection was sketchy, and U.S. officials said they are uncertain whether Del Pino was serving as chief of staff of the Cuban air force or as deputy chief of defense when he abandoned his homeland.
"An airplane carrying a family of five Cubans landed at Key West this afternoon," Anita Stockman, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a brief announcement about the defection. "These five individuals have been turned over to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), and the INS has paroled them into the United States."
With the parole, they will be able to remain in the United States without visas.
The State Department declined to make any additional immediate comment about the incident, and the Cuban interests section, a quasi-diplomatic office here that represents Cuba in the United States in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two nations, could not be reached for comment.
Prisoner Release Due
Del Pino's defection comes as Havana is preparing to release 61 political prisoners and family members next week, and U.S. officials said that they are not certain whether the episode will affect that action.
Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that Del Pino landed at the naval air station with his wife, a 27-year-old son, a teen-age child and a younger child.
Jervis said the family is being interviewed at the station and will be housed there until processing is completed.
A Justice Department spokesman told United Press International that "obviously, there are a lot of people who want to talk to him (Del Pino)."
Return of Plane
Jervis said that the United States will return the plane, a 10-passenger, twin-engine Cessna 402, which news agency reports said belongs to the Cuban armed forces.
The fact that the Del Pino family would have access to such a plane, a rare commodity in Cuba, is an indication of the officer's importance, U.S. intelligence officials said. Spanish-language radio stations in Miami said that Del Pino is a veteran of Cuba's expeditionary force in Angola.
The only similar defection of a Cuban military officer to the United States occurred Oct. 5, 1969, when Lt. Eduardo Guerra Jimenez of the Cuban air force flew a MIG-17 jet to Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami and asked for asylum. Ten years later, Guerra hijacked a U.S. airliner and forced it to take him back to Cuba.
U.S. authorities said Del Pino and his family could be eligible for U.S. citizenship within two years.