A military officer who ostensibly defected from Cuba four years ago and joined Brothers to the Rescue, a band of anti-communist exile pilots in Florida, vanished mysteriously Friday, then appeared in Havana on Monday evening denouncing the organization on television as a “counterrevolutionary organization.”
Speaking on Cuban television late Monday, Juan Pablo Roque accused the group’s leaders of having ties to the CIA and flying over the island in the past to prepare for acts of sabotage.
Roque’s dramatic re-emergence appeared to confirm suspicions among U.S. officials and Miami’s Cuban exile community that he was an infiltrator loyal to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. There was no sign in the 20-minute television appearance that Roque was making the statements under duress, and there was no explanation of how he had traveled from Florida to Cuba.
The timing of Roque’s disappearance, around midday Friday, also raises the possibility that the Cuban government knew in advance of Saturday’s Brothers to the Rescue operation in which a Cuban fighter jet shot down two of the group’s planes, killing four of its members.
Roque is a former Cuban air force MiG fighter pilot who purportedly defected to the United States four years ago by swimming to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s southeastern tip. He became active in Brothers to the Rescue - which ostensibly picks up rafters fleeing Cuba and carries out protests against the communist government - and developed a close relationship with founder Jose Basulto.
“It appears that it was a penetration of the group,” Steve Walton, an American Airlines pilot who has flown 100 missions with Brothers to the Rescue, said in Miami. “I used to laugh at these guys for being paranoid. I guess they weren’t paranoid enough.”
Walton said Roque ranked high enough in the organization that he would have known about plans to mount an operation Saturday and may have known who would be aboard the airplanes.
In the television interview, Roque spoke in detail about alleged Brothers activities, listing dates and locations of the group’s operations against the Cuban government. The interview was a clear attempt to bolster Cuba’s contention that the group is involved in terrorist activities and that its humanitarian work is a front.
“I am in Cuba because I want to denounce to world public opinion the real character of Brothers to the Rescue,” Roque said.
Roque recounted conversations with Basulto, saying they had discussed ways to bring explosives into Cuba to blow up high tension wires critical to the country’s electrical system. He said Basulto also talked about smuggling arms into Cuba to use in attacks against the country’s leaders, including Castro.
Roque claimed that Basulto personally tried to buy a Czech airplane to train the group’s pilots in landings on highways, and displayed what was allegedly a letter from Basulto requesting the purchase. He said the group was founded in 1991 by Cubans who had previously worked for the CIA.
Asked why the group continued flying missions near Cuba after it had been warned not to do so, Roque said, “The main motive was to provoke incidents that created tensions between Cuba and the United States. That’s what the extreme right in the United States wants.”
He said the U.S. government knew about the group’s activities, and that he personally informed an FBI agent in Florida about all of the group’s violations of Cuban airspace.
FBI agents went to Roque’s suburban Miami home Monday to investigate reports that Roque may have returned to Cuba. Roque’s wife told the agents that her husband had not been home for several days, a Miami television station reported. He told a friend he was going on a weekend fishing trip.
In Washington, an administration official said speculation that Roque was a Cuban agent planted in the exile organization was “consistent with our information.”
Billy Schuss, a co-founder of Brothers to the Rescue, said that if Roque was an infiltrator, he would have been able to tell Cuban authorities much about the group’s activities. “He was one of our regulars,” Schuss said. “He was very close to us.”
Roque is well-known among the Cuban exile community in Miami and has written a book called “Defector.” Last July, Roque was one of six Brothers to the Rescue pilots who flew over an exile flotilla of a dozen boats that tried to enter Cuban waters to mark the first anniversary of the sinking of a tugboat crammed with refugees.