Cuban combat pilot released after longest-ever US marijuana jail term

By Lioman Lima
BBC Mundo, Miami

image source, Myra Bascaro
image captionBascaro was a fighter pilot for the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba

When the gates of the Miami Federal Correctional Institution closed behind him, ending his 39-year incarceration, Cuban exile and former anti-communist pilot Antonio Bascaro emerged holding an ominous record.

Bascaro, 84, has served the longest known US jail sentence for a non-violent marijuana conviction.

The city he finds is far from resembling the place he left back in the late 1970s when he was convicted of participating in a criminal organisation that smuggled more than 270,000 kg (600,000lbs) of Colombian marijuana into the United States.

Skyscrapers now soar above the south Florida horizon and many of the old tile houses of Little Havana, the Cuban exile neighbourhood where he spent most of his days before prison, no longer exist or have been converted into bars and restaurants.

There are even some legal medical marijuana dispensaries around the city which, for the octogenarian ex-cannabis smuggler, could not be more ironic.

Bascaro's release after almost four decades also brings uncertainty about his future.

image source, Facebook/ Freeacubanhero
image captionBascaro ate a full Cuban breakfast with his family after his release from jail
image source, Facebook/ Freeacubanhero
image captionWearing a Bay of Pigs veteran hat, he drinks a Cuban coffee for the first time in 39 years

As a non-US citizen convicted of a major felony, he will find out next month if he will be deported.

His daughter Myra Bascaro is grateful he is free to go. "But where to?", she wondered in an interview with BBC Mundo.

"To Cuba where he could get arrested again for having fought against Fidel Castro? To Guatemala where he met my mother but where he has nothing and nobody... the country that deported him to the United States almost 40 years ago?"

But in the meantime, he is back to enjoying Cuban coffee with his children. His first meal outside the walls of a federal penitentiary in 39 years was four eggs, double ham, bacon and a guava and cheese pastry. As he tucked in, he marvelled at the silverware, telling his family that he had not been allowed to use metal cutlery in decades.

Sitting alongside his son and grandson, who also became pilots, he thanked them and his supporters outside the jail, but added "it took too long".

'My big mistake'

Back in 1977, Florida was the gateway for drugs into the United States. Miami was the capital of drug trafficking and Little Havana was the covert entrance into the booming underworld.

The state, the city and the Little Havana neighbourhood grew at the vertiginous pace of drug sales while the streets became the battleground where Cuban and Colombian mafias used bullets to settle business disputes.

By the late 70s, the cartels' "Cocaine Cowboys" had already turned the market around, substituting white powder for weed.

But in Little Havana, marijuana was still the main cash crop.

One day in 1977, Bascaro's friend Guillermo Tabraue, who owned local a jewellery shop, invited him around for a meal.

image source, Getty Images
image captionLittle Havana is one of the most iconic Cuban neighbourhoods in Miami

"That's where I met the boss and singular owner of the conspiracy," Bascaro said in emails exchanged with the BBC before his release.

"After a tasty meal and some drinks, he challenged me to join him," in receiving a shipment of drugs, he said.

"I accepted the challenge and I enjoyed the feeling of excitement," said the former Cuban prisoner of war. "I had not felt it in years, so I ended up getting involved."

But 39 years later, the CIA-trained veteran says he now feels "many regrets about what I did".

He now hopes to spend his remaining years living "a peaceful life" near his family, and to focus on trying to "improve my deteriorated physical and mental health, try to re-organise my life, and be productive for my family and for society".

'The fighter pilot who fought Castro'

Myra Bascaro was 12 years old when her father was convicted in the US. She did not see him again until she was 24 during a visit to a prison in Pennsylvania.

"He had always been a hero for me: the fighter pilot who fought against Fidel Castro's regime," she says, describing him as an admirable man of conviction.

image source, Myra Bascaro
image captionMyra Bascaro was 12 years old when her father was sentenced in the United States

Myra said that she has always believed that her father got into drugs because he was divorced from her mother and felt pressure to earn money to help her and her brothers.

She tells BBC Mundo that for decades she fought to keep her father's past from affecting her life.

But when he turned 80, she decided to quit her job and start a social media campaign to try to convince the US government to reduce his prison sentence.

"I did everything I could, but I didn't achieve anything. Even though several [White House] administrations of the United States granted clemencies to hundreds of prisoners, it was always denied to my father," she said.

Over the 39-year stretch that he spent in prison, several laws were passed that reduced penalties for people convicted of drug crimes. But none benefited Bascaro.

"Since his conviction in 1980, many new laws have benefited prisoners [who were] arrested afterward. But because he had been in jail for so long, those reductions were for people sentenced after him," she said.

"It seems like they thought that anyone with a conviction so far back would be already dead."

'I never betrayed my military honour'

Bascaro left medical school to join the Cuban Naval Academy in 1952, and later studied aviation in Pensacola, Florida, in 1954.

By 1956 he returned to Cuba and joined the country's air force.

"I served as a Naval air pilot at the Mariel Air Base until Fidel Castro landed in Cuba. I volunteered to oversee the air patrols to prevent invasions or the entry of weapons into the area occupied by the guerrilla groups," he recalls.

"I was the youngest naval lieutenant that ever served in Cuba's navy. I was promoted to that post before turning 24-years-old, in 1958."

image source, Myra Bascaro
image captionBascaro fought as a pilot against Fidel Castro's guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra

"That year, I had to carry out an emergency landing with my plane, the Marine 50," he said describing the plane which is now kept in the Museum of the Cuban Revolution in Havana.

"I landed in the mountains, in the area that was controlled by Raul Castro."

After the guerillas captured him, he was taken to hospital, where the brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro came to see him.

"He tried to convince me to join his group and I rejected the offer because I would never betray my principles or my military honour," he says.

image source, Myra Bascaro
image captionAntonio, fourth to the right, as an aviation student

After refusing, he was jailed from 11 November of 1958 until 2 January of 1959 (one day after the Cuban Revolution ousted the Batista regime).

Later, he was sent by boat to Havana's Castillo del Morro prison where he remained until mid-March before being released and discharged by the navy a few days later.

image source, Getty Images
image captionLa Cabaña Fortress was used as a prison by the government of Fidel Castro after the beginning of the revolution

"At the Morro prison I used to hear bursts of gunfire every night," he says, adding that he was twice subjected to mock executions.

"I still don't know why they didn't kill me. Looking back, I have more lives than a cat."

A piece of history

The old cedars of Havana provide shade most of the year to a small square where an eternal flame burns.

Guarded day and night by soldiers, the fire flickers over the "relics" of the revolution.

image captionThe Vought Kingfisher, which Bascaro says he was flying, on display in the Cuban Museum of the Revolution

In the yard of the Cuban Museum of the Revolution sits a red delivery truck that a group of young people used in an attack on the presidential palace in March 1957, with the intention of killing then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, an attempt that failed.

There's also the Granma, the yacht that Fidel Castro and his followers sailed to Cuba to start their insurrection.

And in front of that, in an overlooked corner, there's a plane - a Vought Kingfisher that became the first aircraft used by the rebels.

image captionIn the Museum of the Revolution, a plaque tells the story of the plane that Bascaro says he was piloting

The sign next to it describes how it was taken after being forced to land in the area of the II Oriental Front led by Raul Castro.

It was one of those rare instances in which a Latin American guerrilla had access to a plane, and was, in fact, the first aircraft in the hands of La Revolución.

Bay of Pigs failure

In his emails with the BBC, he described being released from revolutionary prison by mistake, which caused him to go into hiding in Cuba for two months at his godmother's house.

He then requested asylum from Uruguay before fleeing Cuba for Guatemala to join a CIA mission training Cuban exiles to invade their home country through the Bay of Pigs.

The air squadron that he commanded never took off to assist the CIA-trained agents, as the mission fell apart soon after the invasion began.

image source, Getty Images
image captionThe invasion of the Bay of Pigs was organised by the CIA

"On that day, the brigade had to disperse into the swamps and most of the officers left behind were captured," says Bascaro.

"At that moment, I was ready to fly anything that had a motor or wings to help out my comrades abandoned in that secluded beach without escape routes," he said.

"That was something that disturbed me and many of my comrades for a long time. I know that many of them decided to never fly again and ended up working in other activities.

"Not because of a lack of valour, but because of the deception caused by the fact that the brigade had been abandoned and sent to a certain death."

Refusing a deal

Fast forward to 1987 and the criminal organisation to which Bascaro belonged - under the leadership of a Cuban man 20 years younger than him - has a wide network of Colombian suppliers, lawyers, ships, planes and corrupt police officers in Florida.

But a combination of bad weather - and perhaps bad luck - brought an end to their endeavour when a shrimp boat they used to move drugs through the Gulf of Mexico got stranded and was detected by the FBI.

On 21 February, 1980, Bascaro was arrested in Guatemala. He was sent to Miami and handed over to the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

After a trial in Georgia, he was found guilty of "conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana".

Bascaro rejected offers from US authorities to reduce his sentence in exchange for his co-operation on other investigations, leading to his sentence of 60 years in prison.

"I refused to co-operate because my moral values and ethics, as well as my military training, kept me from using someone else or from testifying against another person to solve my problems.

"No one forced me to join the conspiracy. That is why I did not co-operate or try to use anyone else to save my neck."

image source, Antonio Bascaro
image captionBascaro is currently 84-years-old

As every member of the criminal organisation was eventually tried, sentenced and released, Bascaro became the last one of the group without his freedom.

He sometimes has wondered if there is some hidden reason for why every one of his requests for early release had gone ignored, before in 2019 his sentence was finally reduced by 20 years due to good behaviour.

'Judicial quirk'

Amy Povah, president of Can-Do Foundation, a US group working to reduce sentences for people arrested for drug-related crimes believes that the sentence against Bascaro will go down in history.

"Antonio was accused of conspiracy, which is one of the most abusive in the arsenal of the Department of Justice (DOJ) because it charges someone for the actions of others unless they co-operate," she told BBC Mundo.

She said that because Bascaro rejected collaboration with prosecutors, he was charged with all the crimes committed by his accomplices.

A quirk of the justice system, Ms Povah says, is that those who reach agreements with US prosecutors receive lower sentences for helping them convict anyone who declines to co-operate.

In order to get the benefit of a plea bargain, one does not just confess, she said.

"Co-operation means you must give substantial assistance which, in legal terms, is defined as assistance 'directed to the investigation and prosecution of criminal activities by persons other than the defendant.'"

According to Ms Povah, most defendants take the agreement, but those that refuse often end up with a "draconian conviction".