Twenty-two years ago this week, Cuban activist and pilot Jose Basulto set out on a unique humanitarian mission over the Florida Straits.
Concerned by the massive emigration of Cuban balseros or rafters escaping the island by sea in homemade rafts, Basulto founded the famed Brothers to the Rescue, made up of local pilots, not all Cuban, who wanted to help. They flew over the Florida Straits in search of Cubans floating toward South Florida shores.
Now, two decades after Brothers to the Rescue was born on May 13, 1991, Basulto is on a mission to connect the still-active group with the desperate refugees it helped rescue.
“We want to collect the names of the thousands of balseros helped by our group in the spirit of brotherhood between the exile community and the new arrivals, and our common hope for a free Cuba,” Basulto said.
Basulto, 72, will be at this weekend’s Cuba Nostalgia collecting the names of balseros at The Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald exhibit area.
If you are a balsero who was first spotted by a Brothers to the Rescue plane, Basulto is inviting you to come and meet him during the three-day festival. Basulto is trying to compile a list of the names of all rafters who recall being spotted by the private planes in the period between 1991 and 1996. The hope is to create a balsero names database, with the date of arrival, and link the refugees with the missions that found them.
The original mission of Brothers to the Rescue was to have the group’s small private planes — two to begin with — find the refugees as they floated to freedom — then alert the Coast Guard, which would rush to the rescue of the balseros before the treacherous waters could swallow them.
Jose del Rio is among those believed to have been rescued during a Brothers to the Rescue mission. On Aug. 23, 1994, del Rio was one of five men floating toward Miami when they were spotted.
“A small private plane flew overhead and we went crazy and started waving a white sheet at them; they acknowledged us, flew around us and went on. A little bit later, a Coast Guard helicopter flew overhead and dropped a giant raft next to us. We had made it after three days at sea,” said del Rio, who settled in Miami after spending a year at a refugee camp in Guantánamo Naval Base. “We assumed the small plane gave them our coordinates.”
Basulto says del Rio’s story can be repeated for 4,200 balseros rescued by the group.
The majority were spotted between 1993-1994 when the rafter crisis escalated and eventually reached 35,000, attracting the attention of President Bill Clinton, who moved to stop the flow by implementing the wet foot/dry foot policy still in effect today. Brothers to the Rescue made international headlines in 1996 after Cuban MiGs shot down two of its planes, killing four of its pilots.
But the group continued flying missions. They eventually stopped after the Coast Guard began trailing their plane to find refugees and return them to Guantánamo under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. Under the policy, only balseros who made it to shore could stay in the U.S.; those intercepted at sea could not.
Basulto says even today he is stopped in the street by former balseros who want to thank him for rescuing them. “It’s a good felling,’’ he said. “I’m very proud of the work we did.”