Taking to the Sky to Rescue Rafters

TO save some of the "rafters" lost at sea, members of Miami's Cuban community are flying patrol flights over the ocean in private planes.Jose Basulto, a veteran of the American-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, helped organize Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue) despite concerns the flights would encourage more Cubans to face the risks of fleeing by sea. "It's suicidal," Mr. Basulto said during a recent flight. "We call it Cuban roulette. In Russian roulette, you have one bullet in the gun. In Cuban roulette, you have only one chamber empty," he says. The flights leave from the Florida Keys, the closest point to Cuba, and at 500 feet above the water, head south into Cuban airspace. They patrol back and forth, east-west, about 50 miles north of Havana. After three hours of searching in a hot, cramped twin-engine Cessna Skymaster, Basulto, his pilot, and two spotters found one raft. It was empty. At least two planes, sometimes as many as six, have been going out Saturdays and Sundays since the beginning of May. Wednesday flights started late in June after a fund-raising marathon on local television and radio generated nearly $40,000. "We have found 15 rafts. Ten of them were empty. But on the others there were 16 people," Basulto said. "It's a tremendous feeling to find those people, but it has been depressing, too. We found raft after raft empty."

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