HALLIE: When I met Lily Prellezo at the Miami Dade Writers Conference, she told the class that she had a story entrusted to her that she had to write. It was the about “Brothers to the Rescue,” a humanitarian group of courageous men and women who risk their lives to pluck men, women, and children from certain death, fleeing Castro’s Cuba on makeshift rafts.
Lily’s just published book, Seagull One: The Amazing True Story of Brothers to the Rescue, is also a thriller -- one that really happened. Lily tells how two spies, one who was a double agent working for the FBI infiltrated the group and collaborated with the Castro government in planning the shoot down over international waters of two unarmed Cessnas in 1996.
Welcome to Jungle Red, Lily! Please, tell us about your collaborator José Basulto who entrusted you with his story.
LILY: José Basulto is a patriot, a family man, and a dreamer. He's larger than life, and yet, he's a gentle grandfather, a devoted husband, and he loves to hang out with his friends. He fought in the Bay of Pigs, worked for the CIA, bombed a hotel full of Russians (no one died), enlisted in the US Army, helped the Nicaraguan contras building field hospitals for the mutilated men, and then converted to the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, at age 50, he started Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR).
I had never met him until four years ago when mutual friends, René and Marta Guerra, approached me and declared: "You are going to write the story of Brothers to the Rescue!" We were at the Sony Ericcson Tennis Tournament here in Miami and after two glasses of wine, I said, "SURE!"
I met him, we hit it off, and we started going through a warehouse full of information on BTTR.
HALLIE: I remember reading some pages of your manuscript and being so captivated. One of your challenges was writing such a vast cast of characters--you interviewed hundreds. How did you manage it?
LILY: First I created a timeline with the significant events of BTTR's history and literally taped it up on the walls of the A+ Mini Storage warehouse where we worked every day. It went around the three walls.
Then as I interviewed, I would tape up that person's story under the correct chronological date. It was like a puzzle, not done in order, and not even doing the borders first, put just putting the right piece in the right place.
HALLIE: I remember seeing, on exhibit near Key West, one of the boats that had been used to flee Cuba, and realizing for the first time what a treacherous journey it was, and how desperate and courageous one would have had to be to risk it. Did you talk to any of the survivors who had been helped by the Brothers?
LILY: Boat is a big word for what some of these rafters, these balseros, came on. That's where they got that moniker, rafter, because they came on truck tire inner tubes and such.
Yes, I interviewed several of them and tried to recreate their journeys as best I could in the book. Several of them were here at my launch party and they were reunited with the pilots who saved them. It was the most moving evening of my life. It felt like I opened my copy of Seagull One, and all the characters jumped out and were walking around my home.
HALLIE: And how did you uncover the group’s infiltration and the murders?
LILY: Well, I read what investigative reporters and the FBI and the spy trial attorneys had uncovered. I interviewed one of the spy's ex-wife, Ana Margarita Martinez, who was married to Juan Pablo Roque, the spy who got away. René Gonzalez is still in jail at Marianna State, and we exchanged letters, but he never really answered my questions, but rather, sent a bunch of propaganda.
The murders were also very well documented, but the most arresting testimonials came from the survivors who were on Basulto's plane. Also, the four families of the murdered men took the time to speak with me, also.
HALLIE: Did you ever feel that the work you were doing put you in any danger yourself?
LILY: No, although I've been warned about that! But some other people may have felt in danger, in particular the Havana Air Traffic Controllers that I interviewed. Their story was the most gripping. Some would not allow that I use their name because they still have family in Cuba.
A group of eight controllers, who were supposed to work the day of the shoot down, and at the last minute were told not to come to work on February 24, 1996, because another team would replace them. That other team was manipulated during the events of the shoot down. But when the original team of controllers came back, they endured six months of de-programming on the events of that day--and then were all fired! And when you're fired from a government job in Cuba, you are fired for life--you can never work again. It took some of them eight years to be able to leave and come to the U.S.
HALLIE: Tell us what you’re up to now? Book promotion? Working on a new project? And where can our readers find you talking about this amazing story?
LILY: I am busy, busy, busy promoting my book. I've been on TV, radio, newspapers, and my first book presentation was Thursday, October 7. Over 100 people attended and the radio, newspaper, and television covered it. We hope to tour the rest of Florida, then New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Puerto Rico. The list of events can be found on my website, www.seagullone.com
I am currently working on the memoirs of a 101 year-old Cuban American woman whose life I find fascinating. I've also been approached by several very prominent persons to write their biographies. I believe so strongly that people's voices should be heard, their stories told. It's an honor to do that.
HALLIE: For more information about the book and and Brothers to the Rescue, visit Hermanos al Rescate. For information on Seagull One: The Amazing True Story of Brothers to the Rescue, visit www.seagullone.com.
Lily will be visiting with us on Jungle Red all day today, so please, share your comments and questions.