Exiles May Take Old Tack With Castro

The downing of two planes threatens a fragile consensus among Florida's anti-Castroists to depose Cuba's leader through nonviolent means

JOS BASULTO was a frightened but determined teenager on a man's mission in 1960. He joined other Brigade 2506 members in an abortive invasion of a beach in Cuba: the infamous Bay of Pigs. Despite the debacle, Mr. Basulto's obsession to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz remained.

For years, Basulto and other exiles spent hours in cigar-smoke-filled coffee shops in Little Havana plotting Castro's demise. But the hard-liners, who formed groups such as Alpha 66 and Omega 7 and spent weekends drilling in the Everglades, gradually became more marginalized in the Cuban exile community.

Until the Cuban air force blew two Cessna Skymasters out of the sky on Feb. 24, most anti-Castroists in south Florida, including Basulto, had largely given up on launching a violent overthrow of Castro from Miami. Most advocated a strategy that called for nonviolent protests here and abroad in support of a ''counter-revolution'' that must come from within Cuba itself.

But the downing of the unarmed civilian aircraft, may prompt tougher talk and measures. The Clinton administration's moves to tighten the economic embargo on Cuba and the United Nation's condemnation of Cuba's actions aren't likely to mollify the Cuban-American community. Analysts say the anti-Castro movement, at least in the short term, is likely to shift back toward a hard-line approach, perhaps triggering a revival of the groups advocating armed rebellion.

''It's going to harden some hearts even more,'' says Max Castro, a research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center in Coral Gables. ''What you're seeing now is a clamor again for an external solution.''

Giving up the idea of an armed invasion took decades to germinate here. The Cuban exile community is highly politicized and embittered toward Castro. Many exile families remain torn apart by the exodus of thousands to Miami following the 1959 Cuban revolution. Some family members (grandparents, husbands, wives, and children) separated by the 90-mile stretch of water rarely, if ever, see each other.

But experts note several factors that contributed to the change, if not softening, among many of this city's dozen or more exile groups. First, the euphoria that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Soviet support for Cuba, soon faded. Predictions that Castro would fall without Soviet aid did not pan out.

Second, most groups simply realized that the US was not going to invade Cuba and that exile invasion attempts had been consistently unsuccessful. So, the change must come from inside Cuba, some reasoned.

''There is a greater realization by outsiders of accepting that changes have to be from within. It's a process of challenging the internal leadership,'' said University of Miami political scientist Enrique Baloyra, himself a member of a moderate exile group.

Several groups, impressed by the success of nonviolent tactics in Czechoslovakia and Poland, have joined together in Miami to express solidarity with Concilio Cubano, an umbrella group of island dissidents who have come under recent attack by the Cuban government.

''The ideal scenario is to see a growing civil society in Cuba independent of the state,'' said Ramon Cernuda, Miami representative of Coordination of Human Rights Groups in Cuba, an island group and Concilio member. ''That will corner the totalitarian government and eventually force it to dismember itself.''

Perhaps the most unlikely advocate of a nonviolent approach is former political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo, who came to Miami in 1987 after spending 23 years in a Cuban prison. Last June Menoyo enraged hard-liners when he flew to Havana for a three-hour meeting with Castro, asking the leader if he would consider loosening restrictions if offered a relaxed US trade embargo.

Yet today, Cambio Cubano, although not embraced generally, has great visibility because of its emphasis on dialogue as a solution. ''There is more tolerance today,'' says Mr. Menoyo. ''The majority [of Cubans here] no longer thinks in the traditional mode.''

Whether that tolerance will continue in the wake of the Feb. 24 incident, remains to be seen.

Juan Clark, a Miami-Dade Community College sociologist, suggests exile groups might be unified rather than divided by the event. ''This country was never as united as after Pearl Harbor. I'm not saying this is a Cuban-American Pearl Harbor, but it is something everyone will resent.''

But the shootdown might lead to an unraveling of the fragile rapprochement among exile groups, warns Mr. Castro at the University of Miami. ''There has been an evolution of tactics, but not of strategic objectives,'' he says.

Indeed, Basulto, who founded the Brothers to Rescue, embodies that strategy shift. His volunteer pilots flew weekly missions over the Florida Straits in search of rafters fleeing Cuba. When the two planes were shot down, Basulto was in a third plane, apparently on a mission to drop anti-Castro leaflets on Havana.

But others have not made the shift to nonviolent tactics. Earlier in February, three Cuban exiles vowed to continue their invasion plans following a Los Angeles raid by US federal agents that netted more than two truckloads of weapons and equipment in a warehouse.

And in January, US customs agents captured and later released five anti-Castro activists caught in the Florida Keys with a boatload of weapons and explosives.

Esteban Bovo, a Brigade member who flies with Brothers to the Rescue, says his humanitarian missions haven't dulled his philosophy. ''We went along with civil disobedience. [But] we haven't changed our mind. Change has to be through war,'' he says.

Given such talk, Max Castro says, ''I don't discount the possibility of further tragedies. Both sides have come out with hard-line positions,'' he says ''It's hard to see exactly where it's going to lead.''

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