In one of the most daring defections ever from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a helicopter pilot Friday stood up a group of tourists scheduled for a sightseeing hop around the island and instead picked up his wife, 32 family members and friends and flew to Miami.
The pilot, identified as Cuban Air Force Lt. German Pompa-Gonzalez, 26, apparently fooled guards and air traffic controllers at Varadero Airport, some 50 miles east of Havana, by dressing his brother-in-law and another man in his spare uniforms and boarding the Cubana Aviation helicopter for what was to be a routine air tour.
Pompa then flew the Russian-made MI8 troop transport to an area about 15 miles away and picked up 14 other men, eight women and nine children, including a 6-month-old infant.
Flying low over the water, the flight to Florida took 80 minutes. When the helicopter was picked up by radar as it neared the Florida Keys, U.S. Customs officials scrambled a Blackhawk helicopter and a jet, which met the defectors and escorted them to a small commuter airfield about 20 miles southwest of Miami.
Upon landing, all 34 Cubans asked for political asylum.
The spectacular escape caused a sensation here, where most Cuban defectors come by sea, often in makeshift inner tube rafts. Last year, 2,203 Cubans were met by the U.S. Coast Guard and brought ashore. Eight Cubans arrived Thursday in Key West by boat, and drew no new media attention at all. But flying in aboard a huge red-and-white chopper emblazoned with the name of Cuba’s state-run airline is something else.
“Usually on a Friday morning we’ve got small planes doing touch and go’s,” said Todd Perry, a maintenance man at Tamiami Airport. “Nothing like this. This is big. This is definitely a Kodak moment.”
Within minutes of stepping onto the runway, the passengers were being interviewed by Spanish language television, and borrowing reporters’ cellular telephones to call relatives in Miami.
One defector who would not give her name was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “Obviously, I’m very happy. Freedom is marvelous. I just couldn’t take it there any more.”
In addition to a squad of police officers and Defense Department and Federal Aviation Administration officials, the refugees were also met by former Cuban Air Force Maj. Orestes Lorenzo, who flew a Russian MIG jet to Key West Naval Air Station last March.
According to officials of the Cuban American National Foundation, Pompa served under Lorenzo, and the major had hopes that his own wife and children were aboard. They were not.
Still, the arrival of the helicopter was seen by many Cubans here as further evidence that the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the steadily deepening economic hardship in Cuba, could only hasten Castro’s fall.
“This defection reflects the state of crisis that the Cuban armed forces must be going through,” said Francisco J. Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation. “As a military man, he risked the firing squad if caught. But we’re seeing whole families now taking this risk. I won’t be surprised to see others.”
The desperation of some to leave the island was underlined last week when a Cuban man hooked a trapeze-like swing to a U.S.-bound charter plane. He was killed when he fell from the plane in flight.
Friday’s well-planned flight followed two earlier, aborted attempts by Pompa. It reportedly began before dawn when Pompa’s relatives and friends traveled from Havana to the rendezvous point near Varadero, Cuba’s best-known beach and a major tourist destination for Canadians, Germans and Spaniards.
Pompa, while apparently still in the Air Force, had been assigned to ferry tourists around the island. His regular co-pilot and navigator were left sleeping at the barracks, according to Hernandez, the foundation president.
The arrival of the 34 Cubans comes in the midst of a yet-unresolved crisis over immigration posed by some 7,000 Haitian refugees being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and points up the difference in the reception each receives here. While the Cubans were to be held overnight Friday in detention, they were sure to be quickly released to relatives under a special status reserved for them as refugees from a communist regime.
The Haitians, on the other hand, are considered economic refugees who must prove a fear of political persecution in order to win U.S. asylum.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy in Washington and researcher Anna Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.