March 30, 2000
Behind the Elian Case
By Jerry Meldon
The Elian Gonzalez case has centered on the fate of a six-year-old boy and the no-risk politics of talking tough about Fidel Castro. But the controversy also underscores the moral ambiguity of the U.S. diplomatic position on Cuba for the past four decades.
The boy landed among those old antagonisms when he was pulled from the Straits of Florida on Thanksgiving Day after an over-crowded 17-foot powerboat capsized killing Elian’s mother, her boyfriend and other passengers. Legal principle required that the boy promptly be returned to his surviving father.
But anti-Castro politics soon intervened. The powerful Cuban-American National Foundation labeled Elian “another child victim of Fidel Castro.” Hard-line elements of the Miami community seized on the case as another way to do battle against their old enemy in Havana. Politicians, including Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, voiced opposition to sending the boy back to Cuba.
Little noticed by the U.S. news media, however, was the fact that some of the Cuban-Americans fanning the flames had long-standing ties to anti-Castro terrorism. Some also collaborated with drug-tainted right-wing forces that carried out bloody human rights violations in the 1970s and 1980s. Their commitment to family values and the rule of law might have been drawn into question.
For instance, one prominent Miami-based spokesman on the Elian case is Jose Basulto. A Bay of Pigs veteran, Basulto has acknowledged past involvement in terror attacks on Cuba in the 1960s as well as work for Argentina’s military government, a regime that tortured and “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 political dissidents from 1976-83 -- and allegedly financed some of its operations with drug proceeds.
Basulto’s experiences in secret wars against Castro and other leftists dated back to 1959. In that year, Castro’s revolutionary army overthrew a Mafia-connected dictator, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, and Basulto emigrated to the United States. In Miami, he and his friend Felix Rodriguez signed up with the CIA-backed Brigade 2506. They were infiltrated into Cuba before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
After the invasion failed, Basulto and Rodriguez escaped back to Miami, where they nursed grievances over alleged U.S. betrayal. They also continued work for CIA-funded groups and plotted new ways to strike at Castro.
On Aug. 24, 1962, the 22-year-old Basulto manned a 22mm cannon aboard a boat that had maneuvered 200 yards off the coast of Miramar, west of Havana. Castro was known to frequent the Hornedo de Rosita Hotel, a crowded tourist spot that also housed Soviet bloc specialists. At 11:30 p.m., Basulto opened fire, shattering windows and sowing terror but failing to kill Castro (who wasn’t there) or anyone else.
Reflecting back on these activities 35 years later, Basulto acknowledged that “we were pretty [lousy] terrorists, let me tell you.” [Washington Post Magazine, May 20, 1997]
On March 20, 1963, Basulto and 50 other Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the U.S. Army with commissions as second lieutenants. Basulto received psychological warfare training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga. After leaving the Army, he returned to the shadowy world of anti-Castro politics in Miami.
[One of Basulto’s Cuban comrades in the U.S. Army was his friend, Felix Rodriguez, who would go on to a long career in the CIA before representing Vice President George Bush’s office in Central America during the 1980s.]
In the years after the Army, Basulto claimed he adopted the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. But outside experts believe Basulto remained active in the anti-Castro terrorist underground.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Basulto seemed to confirm that suspicion. He said: “About that time in my life, I have only one thing I want to say. We had come to the conclusion that the only hope for the Cuban people lay in the physical elimination of Fidel Castro.”
Basulto insisted that he dropped out of politics in the 1970s. But his old political passions apparently were rekindled by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
After Reagan’s victory, American ultraconservatives sought out the Argentines to fight the new leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. John Carbaugh, an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., first broached the idea with the defeated remnants of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard who were licking their wounds in Honduras.
Carbaugh then flew to Buenos Aires for talks with Argentine intelligence officers who agreed to assist the contras. [For details, see Roy Gutman’s Banana Diplomacy.]
In March 1981, two months into the Reagan-Bush administration, Argentine leader, Gen. Roberto Viola, made a state visit to Washington. After Viola’s trip, President Reagan authorized the CIA to begin collaborating with Argentina’s contra-support operation.
When word of this Argentine training agreement reached Miami, anti-Castro Cubans began shipping out to Central America, optimistic that the road to Havana ran through Managua. Basulto was one of the volunteers who advised “Argentine forces in Central America,” he acknowledged to a Wall Street Journal reporter. [WSJ, Aug. 9, 1988]
According to William Turner, a former FBI agent who kept tabs on Basulto’s anti-Castro activities, the Cuban émigré served as an adviser to Argentine intelligence officers who were training the contras in methods of torture. [Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1996]
Years later, congressional investigators learned that the Argentine intelligence services had turned to the drug trade to finance their regional anti-communist operations.
In sworn U.S. Senate testimony, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse, a financial officer for the Argentine intelligence services, said Bolivian drug lord Roberto Suarez contributed more than $30 million to finance the Argentine-backed “Cocaine Coup” in Bolivia in June 1980 and to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels and other paramilitary operations in Central America. Sanchez-Reisse said Suarez’s $30 million was laundered through businesses in Miami. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
In 1998, a CIA inspector general’s report also found that contra operatives subsidized their activities with cocaine smuggling into the United States. Through the decade, as this contra-connected cocaine trafficking continued, the CIA took special steps to head off criminal and congressional investigations that threatened to reveal the secret, the inspector general’s report admitted. [See Lost History.]
Although Basulto was not mentioned in the CIA report, the inspector general found that other Cuban-Americans who had volunteered to assist the contras were moonlighting as drug traffickers or were serving as money launderers for the Medellin cocaine cartel.
The Argentine military also had an odd way of demonstrating its commitment to family values.
During the Argentine "dirty war," when the military’s secret police captured a pregnant female deemed subversive, they would subject the woman to a Caesarean section or induce labor. They then would give the baby to a military family and murder the new mother, usually by shackling her naked to other captives and then dumping her from a plane into the ocean to drown. Sometimes, the infants were literally raised by their mothers’ killers.
For his part, Basulto underwent a dramatic public makeover in the 1990s. He transformed his image from renegade terrorist to the leader of a humanitarian group called Brothers to the Rescue, an organization that mixed the rescue of Cubans crossing to Miami by sea with provocative flights over Cuba that dropped anti-Castro propaganda.
Basulto’s operation led to a new crisis in U.S.-Cuban relations on Feb. 24, 1996, when Cuban MiGs shot down two of the group’s unarmed planes after they left Cuban airspace. Four pilots died, but Basulto escaped in a third plane. Because of the incident, President Clinton agreed to sign the Helms-Burton Act, a law that tightened the U.S. economic embargo against the island.
Basulto was back in action again after the rescue of Elian Gonzalez. Basulto launched his group’s planes for an unsuccessful search for other survivors. He also cranked up the rhetoric as the boy’s status became an international cause celebre.
“This is not a simple case of delivering a child to his father,” Basulto said. “It’s delivery of a child to a government. He’ll be like an orange and they’re going to squeeze the last drop of juice from him.” [USA Today, Jan. 6, 2000]
Later, Basulto hailed Elian’s survival as a case of Divine Intervention against Castro’s Cuba. “This was a clear case of a miracle,” Basulto declared. “When they found Elian, he was surrounded by dolphins,” the mammals presumably sent by God to protect the boy. However, the fisherman who pulled the boy out of the water and the U.S. Coast Guard reported no dolphins in the vicinity at the time of the rescue. [The New Republic, Jan. 24, 2000]
When 100 demonstrators marched on the Immigration and Naturalization Service in support of an initial U.S. government decision to return Elian to his father, Basulto was drawing headlines again. He denounced the marchers as dupes of Castro. “They’re following directives from Cuba,” he charged. [Dallas Morning News, Jan. 30, 2000]
The onetime “terrorist” had helped transform the Elian tragedy into a propaganda club against his old enemy, Fidel Castro.
Jerry Meldon is chair of the chemical engineering department at Tufts University.