Hope Floats in Airborne Missions to Search and Rescue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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.

Yet the group, which operates on a $1-million annual budget raised solely through contributions, was virtually unknown outside Miami--and Havana--until the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1996, when two unarmed planes were shot down by a pair of Cuban brothers flying Soviet-made fighters equipped with air-to-air missiles. Killed in the attack were four Cuban American fliers, including 29-year-old Pablo Morales, who came to the United States four years earlier after being spotted on a raft in the middle of the Gulf Stream by a Hermanos pilot.

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The Clinton administration, which prior to the 1996 incident had adopted a strategy of detente toward Cuban leader Fidel Castro, quickly reversed field, slapping a number of sanctions on Cuba and throwing its support behind the Helms-Burton Amendment, which tightened the 36-year-old U.S. economic blockade of the island.

Ten weeks later, the U.S. government struck out at Basulto, too, revoking his pilot's license. Still without his license, he flies with Mendoza, a flight instructor, to avoid further sanction. After 90 minutes in the air, Basulto spots something in the water below and decides to go down for a closer look, banking the plane into a steep, nausea-inducing corkscrew dive. Before we left Miami's tiny Opa-Locka Airport, I had been handed a box of plastic bags and briefed on where I could and could not throw up. Now I realize why.

Eventually, we determine the object is a coil of rope and not the remains of a raft. In fact, it has been 10 months since a Hermanos plane has recovered a group of rafters, something the group blames largely on the Clinton administration's decision to reclassify rafters as migrants. In the past, rafters scooped up by the Coast Guard were considered refugees entitled to political asylum in the U.S. But as migrants, their rights are limited and many are quickly returned to Cuba. So with the most likely scenarios being death at sea or repatriation to Cuba, few seem willing to risk leaving the island by raft. Where once the sea was filled with rafters, now one attempted crossing a week is considered average.

Several miles to the northwest, the crew of a sister Hermanos plane is flying a similar search-and-rescue mission. The crews of the two planes check in with one another frequently, exchanging locations, sharing jokes or just chatting about the weather in heavily accented Spanish. At 10:45, nearly two hours into our flight, the excited voice of Raul Martinez, the co-pilot of the other plane, crackles over the headphones.

"Tenemos un find!" he shouts, almost too quickly to be understood. "We have a find! We've spotted a small vessel with four, make it five, passengers aboard."

Basulto pounds the top of the control panel with joy and points our plane toward a rendezvous with Martinez and pilot Billy Schuss. He and Mendoza have been waiting 10 months for this moment, so they can hardly bear the 11 long minutes it takes us to reach the discovery point just a few miles from Cayo Elbow Cay in the Bahamas.

"I'm so excited my heart's pumping," says Mendoza. "You're so happy you want to cry. I don't know. There's so many emotions."

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Even though we know exactly where the raft is, it's still almost impossible to spot from the air. It appears first as a dot no larger than a pencil point, which to my untrained eye looks like nothing more than another rocky outcropping like those so prevalent in these hazardous waters. We quickly drop to less than 100 feet over the water and make about a dozen close passes of the boat so Basulto can take pictures documenting the event. In the other plane, videotape is being shot to share with Miami television stations.

It turns out the raft is actually a 12-foot wooden shore boat powered by crude oars and a patio umbrella that has been fashioned into a sail. But there is no wind today and the five men on board are hungry, dehydrated and have no energy to row farther. The boat, which is unsuitable for these deep waters, has been drifting aimlessly for hours, stuck halfway between Cuba and Florida. If Brothers to the Rescue had not spotted them, it's likely the five men would have died at sea.

Schuss drops a radio to the crew to make sure no one on board is in serious danger and learns the five young men are from the Felix family. They hope to be reunited with relatives in Miami, family members we try unsuccessfully to reach by cellular phone. They are also in dire need of fresh water, but not expecting to actually find anyone today, both planes took off without provisions.

After a few passes, the giddiness of the moment passes and the gravity of what has happened floods the cockpit. No one speaks for some time; Basulto and Mendoza appear to be crying. I know I want to. Finally I ask if they're disappointed that the other pilots found the boat first. It's a dreadfully inappropriate question.

"No," Mendoza snaps. "You know what a really sad feeling is? Finding an empty raft. I've done that far too many times."

The Coast Guard quickly responds to our distress calls, dispatching a spotter plane and a cutter to retrieve the migrants.

Three days before our search, the Coast Guard had found a raft and, after questioning its passengers, determined they were migrants and returned the nine men, four women and a child to Cuba. Three days after our search, the U.S. returned 10 more. The reason so many are fleeing has more to do with economics than politics: In the first five years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Cuban economy shrank by 33%, and though it has begun to bounce back, experts say that, based on current projections, the standard of living on the island won't return to 1989 levels until 2014.

Our rafters are slightly more fortunate than most, talking the Coast Guard into taking them to Nassau, where they remain in limbo. But at least they have a future, even if it is an uncertain one. A few more hours at sea and their fate would have been determined by a force even greater than an immigration judge.

"They have sterilized the process by calling these people migrants instead of refugees," says Basulto. "They're the same refugees that have been coming here for years under the same conditions.

"The change in policy was done by the Clinton administration [so] the U.S. Coast Guard should not be blamed for any decision they have to make. Unfortunately, they are being forced to act as an extension of the repressive Cuban regime."

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Back on the ground, the pilots head for a south Miami Cuban restaurant to celebrate and meet the media. But a sober Mendoza points to the changing weather patterns and issues a warning.

"This is just the first boat of the season," he says. "There will be a lot more coming out now."

His words proved prophetic when, four days later, five rafts carrying more than 25 people washed ashore in Key Biscayne and Miami Beach. Two of the rafters, small children, were hospitalized after the ordeal.

So this Saturday, like every Saturday, he and Basulto will be in the air again, looking for people the U.S. calls migrants, the Cubans call traitors and they call brothers.

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