CubaBrief: Revisiting the courageous flight by Orestes Lorenzo Pérez to save his wife and children

Orestes Lorenzo Pérez campaigned for his family’s reunification

Thirty years ago, on December 19, 1992, Cuban Air Force Major Orestes Lorenzo Pérez flew back to Cuba and rescued his family. One year and nine months after defecting to the United States in a MiG-23 and months of petitioning the Cuban government to allow his family to leave the island without success, Orestes flew to Cuba in a civilian plane and picked up his wife and two sons.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost rejected by Castro left a deep impact on the Cuban military. Cuban General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who had studied in the Soviet Union, and had close ties there  was arrested on June 12, 1989, subjected to a political show trial and executed by firing squad on July 13, 1989. This was seen as sending a message to Cuban officials sympathetic to Glasnost and Perestroika.

Major Orestes Lorenzo Pérez, who had fought in Angola, then gone for further training in the Soviet Union, was also deeply affected by the glasnost of Mikhail Gorbachev. He realized that the history that he had been taught in Cuba was a lie, and that he was being manipulated. 

This is why he defected on March 20, 1991.The Cuban Air Force Major would spend the next 22 months trying to get his family out of Cuba.  Gigi Anders in her February 14, 1993 article published in The Washington Post, titled THE MOST ROMANTIC STORY IN THE WORLD highlighted some of the actions taken, and people successfully petitioned.

“People of great sensitivities responded positively and tried their best to help liberate my family,” he says. “Coretta Scott King, President Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, more than 50 senators and congressmen, the Valladares Foundation {a Virginia-based human rights organization} … they all wrote to Fidel Castro.” He pleaded his case before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Diplomacy was failing. In the summer of 1992, Orestes participated in a week-long hunger strike in Madrid, where Castro was attending the Iberian-American Summit. There was plenty of publicity for seven days. And then the conference ended.

Raul Castro sent a challenging response to the request for family reunification: “If Lorenzo had the pants to leave with one of my MiGs,” he said, “maybe he has the pants to come and get his family.” Inside Cuba, Raul Castro’s assistant explained to Vicky Lorenzo that she and her children would never be reunited with her husband and their father. When she asked why, she was told, “Because you are scum.”

On December 19, 1992 flying low in a 1961 Cessna 310, Orestes Lorenzo returned to Cuba to pick up his family. He had one minute to land, pick them up, and take off back for Florida.

“I came in very low, very low, about 10 feet above the waves, and I saw the bridge near Matanzas. I banked hard. I saw a car, a truck and bus on the road,” Lorenzo, 36, said this morning, his eyes red from almost three days without sleep. “There was a concrete barricade. A street sign. I banked again and landed hard, fast. I had one chance to land. One chance. That was it.” Lorenzo says he will never forget the look of shock on the face of the truck driver on the road, who stared at the pilot as he turned his plane about 30 feet away. Lorenzo’s wife, Victoria, 35, and their two sons, Reyniel, 11, and Alejandro, 6, ran to the aircraft. His younger son was still without shoes this morning. He had lost them running to the plane.” … “After a dramatic takeoff from the same road, the family returned to Marathon, where they were met by a handful of friends and supporters, including Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Valladares Foundation in Alexandria, Va., a Cuban-exile group headed by Armando Valladares, a former political prisoner in Cuba.”

In 2017, former Cuban fighter pilot Orestes Lorenzo Pérez met former South African pilot Arthur Douglas Piercy.  Joe Moraca, in his article “Dash For Good: A Pilots story”  published in Dash News on August 18, 2017, reported on this unexpected friendship.

Arthur was a young fighter pilot in the South African air force who was shot down in 1987 by a missile fired from a Cuban Mig 21. He was paralyzed from the waist down after being injured during the ejection from the aircraft. South Africa and Cuba were engaged in air combat against each other during the South African Border War. Both Orestes Lorenzo and Arthur Douglas Piercy fought in the same theater of combat, but later became friends. Below is footage taken from their flight together in 2017.

Orestes Lorenzo Pérez has a presence on Youtube, and has demonstrated over the past thirty years his dedication to nonviolence, and speaking truth to power. Today he is also a loving grandfather. You can learn the details of what happened thirty years ago in the book “Wings of the Morning: The Flights of Orestes Lorenzo” by Orestes Lorenzo Pérez on Amazon.

We Are The Mighty, October 27, 2022

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Cuban pilot defected to the US then went back to rescue his family

Miguel Ortiz

Published October 27, 2022

Pérez (center) shakes hands with an American naval officer after landing at NAS Key West (U.S. Navy).

Being a pilot affords people under communist rule a unique escape opportunity. Flying an aircraft can make the journey to asylum in a Western country easier than evading ground patrols and crossing land borders. Of course, flying a communist warplane towards American airspace poses its own risk of being interpreted as an act of aggression. However, to escape Cuba, Air Force Major Orestes Lorenzo Pérez took that risk and defected to the United States.

Pérez was trained in the Soviet Union where he learned to fly the Aero L-29 Delfin jet trainer and the MiG-21 Fishbed fighter jet. He deployed to Angola as part of the Cuban contingency supporting the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola in their civil war. Pérez was again posted to the Soviet Union before he was stationed at Santa Clara Air Base, Cuba, 165 miles east of Havana.

The MiG-23 was a Soviet third-generation fighter jet (DoD)

On March 20, 1991, Pérez took part in a Cuban Air Force training mission. Flying a MiG-23 Flogger fighter jet, he slipped out of Cuban airspace and headed for Key West, Florida. To avoid being shot down by American forces, Pérez flew low and under radar. When he arrived above Naval Air Station Key West, Pérez circled three times and waggled his MiG’s wings to signal friendly intent. He also made radio contact with the tower at NAS Key West and was given clearance to land. When the 38-year-old Cuban climbed out of his MiG, he verbalized his intention to defect with his limited English. The American who met Pérez on the ground shook his hand and welcomed him to the United States.

Pérez‘s MiG-23 on the ground at NAS Key West (U.S. Navy)

Naturally, Pérez was hurriedly flown to Washington, D.C. to be debriefed and begin the formal process of acquiring his political asylum. When his safety in the United States was secured, Pérez began lobbying to bring his family over from Cuba. Although his wife and two sons were issued U.S. visas, the Cuban government refused to let them leave. Meanwhile, the MiG-23 that Pérez arrived in was returned to the Cuban Air Force and flown back by a Cuban delegation.

The Cessna 310 was also used by the Air Force as the U-3A Blue Canoe (U.S. Air Force)

President George H. W. Bush made a televised speech, imploring Fidel Castro and the Cuban government to release Pérez’s family. However, the communists wouldn’t budge. Pérez spent nearly two years gathering support for his cause until he found a way to get his family out himself. With the help of the Valladares Foundation, a Cuban human rights organization, he learned of a 1961 Cessna 310 aircraft that was being sold for $30,000. The foundation purchased the plane for Pérez to fly to Cuba and get his family out.

Pérez’s family dressed in orange so that he could spot them on the night of the rescue (Orestes Lorenzo Pérez via Facebook)

Pérez trained for the rescue mission in Virginia where he learned to fly the twin-engined Cessna and earned his American pilot’s license. Despite his lack of experience on the aircraft and only one landing, with a co-pilot, he pressed on with the rescue. On December 19, 1992, at 5:07 p.m., Pérez took off from the Florida Keys for Cuba. He sent a secret message to his wife a few days prior to meet him on a coastal highway in Varadero, Matanzas Province where he would pick her and their sons up.

Flying low to avoid radar, Pérez penetrated Cuban airspace undetected. He landed on the highway along El Mamey beach, just 10 yards from a civilian pickup truck. After turning the plane around, Pérez hurried his wife and two sons aboard and took back off. Less than two hours later, the family landed safely in Marathon, Florida. All four became American citizens.

​​https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/cuban-pilot-defected-to-the-us-in-a-mig/

Dash News, August 18, 2017

Dash For Good: A Pilots story

Posted by Joe Moraca

Dash recently helped a pilot, disabled from being shot down in war, to meet with a pilot from the unit he was fighting against. They met in friendship and were able to fly a small jet together. This is the story of Arthur Douglas Piercy, Orestes Lorenzo and Dash Force One.

Orestes Lorenzo (left) and Arthur Douglas Piercy

I am a long time Antiwar.com supporter but that is at the government / political level. I do support the “war fighters” the low level soldiers, sailors etc., of course, I think the best thing that can be done for them is a fast trip home but they don’t have that choice.  Like most people the story of brave young men fighting with honor to protect their “team” has strong emotional power for me.

This is the story as told by Scott Farnsworth:

Through Dash’s sponsorship I was able to volunteer our jet and make a huge difference in a former pilot’s life. Arthur Douglas Piercy was a young fighter pilot in the South African air force. South Africa and Cuba were engaged in air combat against each other during the South African Border War. Arthur was shot down from a missile fired by a Cuban Mig 21. (almost unheard of in modern age). He was injured during the ejection and has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1987.

Through different channels, Arthur and Orestes Lorenzo (Cuban fighter pilot in the squadron of the battle, but not the shooter) became friends. Because of Dash’s support of my team. I was able to donate Dash Force One to getting Arthur back at controls of a fighter jet after decades in a wheelchair.

Getting Arthur Piercy up into Dash Force 1

There is a documentary about Arthur being filmed and it will include footage of his return to the cockpit aboard Dash Force 1. Of course, this is great publicity for Dash, however I’d really like to convey the message of “Dash for Good“. I live a life in the sky and it’s hard to describe the freedom and peace within the pilot community. I put myself into young Arthur’s life as a man that had this adventure and passion for flight taken from him. Seeing his face and sharing a beer after the flight is probably one of the most important events in my aviation life.

We can only guess what Arthur is feeling.

Some Backstory

The story of Arthur Douglas Piercy is pretty interesting to read but don’t miss reading about Orestes Lorenzo he was a Cuban pilot who spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union.  The socialist system in both countries seemed so corrupt he decided he had to escape.

“I returned from the Soviet Union disillusioned about everything we had been told to believe. The socialist system never worked, despite the fact that to the masses socialism was touted as the best form of government. The standard of living was incredibly poor. Sanitary and living conditions for ordinary citizens were atrocious. Alcoholism and adultery were epidemic, and racism was systemic.” Orestes paused to make a critical point, “Humane socialism does not exist.

On March 20, 1991, then Major Orestes Lorenzo on his first solo flight in a MiG-23 flew from Cuba to Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West where he was granted political asylum.  The plane was later returned to Cuba.

More incredibly in December of 1992 Orestes secretly (illegally) flew a small private plane to Cuba to get his wife and children – and successfully made it back to the US where they now live.

Dash For Good

Dash is a digital abstraction, it is really the Dash community that works together to fund projects that help the community.  Those projects are usually things that will, over time, help to create economic value for the investors in Dash.  But some of those projects can also actually “do good” like this one.  The best marketing / public relations results in people wanting to associate themselves with the product, stories like Scott’s’ hit that mark

https://dashnews.org/dash-good-pilots-story/

The Washington Post, February 14, 1993

THE MOST ROMANTIC STORY IN THE WORLD

By Gigi Anders

February 14, 1993

They always knew they would be together again. That is what they say now, and after what has happened, who are we to dispute them?

“Nunca tuve duda … ” she says. “I never had any doubt. I trusted him absolutely.” She is a beauty, with caramel skin and espresso eyes. “I knew that even if it took 20 years, I would wait for him and he would wait for me.”

“Yo tuve fe …” he says. “I had faith. More than anything, I had faith in her and in myself.” He is tall and elegant and darker than she, with a mischievous comma of hair across his forehead; their eyes are weirdly the same, as though they were brother and sister.

“There was never any question that I was going to go and get her and our children. I love her because she loves me so much. I believe that no woman could love me the way Vicky does.”

Victoria Lorenzo and her husband, Orestes, are at the flimsy dining room table of their one-bedroom rental in Alexandria, Va. The place betrays the impermanence of their lives; they are staying here until they can secure more commodious quarters. And so the apartment is an anarchy of piles — piles of clothes, of cosmetics, of little metal toys. Their older son, Reyniel, 11, is sprawled across the carpet, guiding his toy trucks along an imaginary highway. His brother, Alejandro, 6, is in a flight of fancy. In his outstretched hand he holds a little white metal airplane, banking it around the furniture and then sweeping it clear into the open. He’s going gnyrrrrr, imitating an engine. He banks the plane down sharply through the nimbus of his father’s cigarette smoke.

“Aquí viene el avión! Aquí viene el avión!” Alejandro shouts.

Here comes the plane.

Two months ago, in a feat of astonishing audacity, former Cuban Air Force Maj. Orestes Lorenzo, flying an ancient borrowed Cessna, banked sharply out of the clouds over Matanzas, Cuba, touched down on a busy highway, and roared off moments later with the wife and two children he had left behind when he defected to America 21 months before.

You have heard of their story; it is soon to be a book and a made-for-TV movie.

To find a comparable act of courage and daring in the service of love, where in the world would you look?

The Scarlet Pimpernel? Tristan and Isolde? Achilles and Helen?

That is all there is. Fiction. Legend.

Like many love stories, this one begins with a kiss. It was stolen in a darkened theater in a time and place impossibly remote from this homely high-rise in Alexandria. But to begin this story there would be to succumb to sentiment, and so we start instead with a white-knuckled military pilot forcing a routine smile at his buddies from the window of his plane, and flying off alone on a treasonous journey for which he risked death by firing squad.

He did not take his family, because he saw no way to smuggle them onto the plane without being seen, and because, in those moments he was most candid with himself, he understood he might not survive. If he made it to the United States, he promised to retrieve them by whatever means necessary: by diplomacy, by international humanitarian appeals, by bribery or by stealing them from out of the sky. Whatever it took.

It was March 20, 1991. Flying his Russian-built MiG-23, Lorenzo took off from the naval base at Santa Clara, veered north-northwest, wave-hopped as low as 12 feet above the water to elude American radar, and arrived unannounced at Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West, Fla. The Cuban air force searched for him for more than two hours. Finally someone from Boca Chica called Santa Clara and taunted, “Hey, are you guys missing a MiG?” It took less time for Orestes Lorenzo to fly from Cuba to Key West than it did for him to drive home in rush hour. Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, responded over the airwaves with a dare:

“If Lorenzo had the pants to leave with one of my MiGs,” he said, “maybe he has the pants to come and get his family.”

But it had less to do with “pants” than it did with heart.

In the end Orestes Lorenzo would wind up displaying a prodigious amount of both.

Husband and Wife

Okay, now the kiss.

They met at a private party in Havana in 1974. She was 16. He was 18. They were good Communist youth, the children of loyal party workers. She found him the most serious-minded young man she had ever met, which did not displease her. And he found her … let us say it plainly, in the beginning he found her very easy to look at.

Their first dates were comical, oppressively chaperoned events. One day they somehow shook free their tail of clucking relatives, and found themselves alone in the Trianon Cinema, watching something called “Terror Ciego.” It was an American movie with Spanish subtitles. It was “Wait Until Dark.”

“That was the first time he kissed me,” Vicky says. “Imagine, I didn’t even know how to kiss! He started kissing me and said, ‘No, sweetheart, not that way.’ I was so embarrassed! I asked him to forgive me, and he started to laugh.”

“That movie was suspenseful,” he says.

He actually remembers the movie!

Here is the curse and the blessing of the fighter pilot. Orestes remembers everything. He plans everything meticulously, remembers everything obsessively.

“It’s about a blind woman who has to deal with an assassin who breaks into her house,” he says. “She can handle herself, but she’s very frightened. Finally, the husband rescues her.”

Orestes grins at the irony. He is thickening a little around the middle, but is still big-screen handsome. Andy Garcia, it is reported, will likely play him in the movie.

In the next room, the boys are wrestling. Orestes has no job and only a little money, but the children do not lack for playthings: trucks, planes, cars. When he was a child, Orestes was not allowed to play with toys, but at age 7 he could assemble a combat rifle.

The walls of this place are decorated with drugstore art, earnest if plebeian watercolors, outdoor scenes on glossy paper. Orestes chose them.

“Ayyy,” Vicky says. “Look at his taste in artwork!”

Orestes scowls, then smiles. “Boy, that first kiss caused me a lot of trouble.”

They were married in Havana on July 16, 1976. Almost immediately Orestes was sent to the Soviet Union for two years of military training. Back in Cuba, Vicky became a dentist.

She was attracted to the profession, she says now, because unlike Orestes’ work, this one carried no political baggage. “Teeth are teeth,” she says. “There are no communist teeth, no capitalist teeth.”

The children were born; there were sporadic separations as Orestes traveled back and forth to Angola and Russia. And finally, in 1987, they went abroad for the first time as a family, to the Soviet Union, where Orestes was to get advanced flight training. In a small town between Moscow and Leningrad, their lives would forever change.

Her Cuban dentistry license useless in Russia, Vicky worked in a bottling plant where, one day, a machine ripped her hand open. At the hospital, she had an adverse reaction to a vaccine, suffered seizures and nearly died. At her bedside that night, husband asked wife a question that had somehow never come up before.

“He said, ‘Do you believe in God, Vicky?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘You never told me!’ And I said, ‘You never asked.’ ” That sort of discussion is frowned upon in Cuba, which is officially atheistic.

“Later, when I went home,” Orestes says, “I told God, ‘I don’t believe in You, but Vicky has so much faith. Why don’t You help her so she won’t die?’ “

An insolent little quasi-prayer. God must have been amused; Vicky recovered.

The Flight of His Life

Nothing was the same after that. As political openness swept across the Soviet Union, Orestes found himself drawn to the libraries and devouring the newspapers, where he learned a new version of history. Most everything he had been taught in school was a lie.

In particular, he was appalled to discover that Nicholas II, the last czar, was not executed alone by the Bolsheviks for crimes against humanity. That was the way it had been taught in Cuban school. In fact, Nicholas butchered along with his wife and five children, and even the family dog.

Children, bayoneted in the name of communism. The new father felt a revulsion he could not dispel.

It would carry him to a reevaluation of everything, and, a few years later, to the cockpit of his MiG, and a flight to Key West.

Alone in America, he undertook a relentless campaign to free his family.

“People of great sensitivities responded positively and tried their best to help liberate my family,” he says. “Coretta Scott King, President Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, more than 50 senators and congressmen, the Valladares Foundation {a Virginia-based human rights organization} … they all wrote to Fidel Castro.”

He pleaded his case before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Diplomacy was failing. In the summer of 1992, Orestes participated in a week-long hunger strike in Madrid, where Castro was attending the Iberian-American Summit. There was plenty of publicity for seven days. And then the conference ended.

In Cuba, Vicky and her children waited. She could not tell Alejandro where his father had gone, because in school he had learned that the United States was el monstruo. The monster. She feared he would be terrified for his father in such a place. And so she told him that Orestes went to “a better Soviet Union.” It was the best she could do.

Military security officers visited her home, probing for a motive. Had Vicky ever witnessed Orestes’ making flight plans? Were she and her husband experiencing any marital problems? Could she recall ever noticing her husband’s behaving in an effeminate manner? Maybe he left her because he was ashamed. Why would he do this? Why?

She kept claiming complete ignorance, which was a lie. Orestes did not believe in surprises, and he never left anything to chance. They had discussed his flight for weeks beforehand, what she would say (nothing), how she would behave (stunned) and what she would do (wait forever, if necessary, for instructions from him).

Finally, the men ordered her to leave the house so they could search it. As she walked out, she realized she had left in a purse Orestes’ farewell note to the family. It would have supplied enough evidence to put her in prison as a conspirator. The officers never bothered to open the purse.

She was visited by a succession of government agents and once by a man who claimed to be a close friend of Orestes, an air force buddy. He was similarly disillusioned with communism, he said. He wanted to help her escape. He would find a boat, and run with her. She declined.

It turned out to be a shrewd decision. Orestes would later tell her he had never heard of this man; he had apparently been a government plant to lure her into an act of treason, so she would be captured in flight, jailed for life.

Instead, she wrote to Raul Castro, asking to be released for humanitarian reasons.

Cuban immigration authorities officially informed her that as the family of a traitor, she and the children must stay behind for five years. But Raul Castro’s assistant was more honest. Vicky Lorenzo would never be permitted to leave, she said.

Why?

“Porque tu eres escoria.” Because you are scum.

Through messages carried by trusted friends, Orestes instructed Vicky to be ready on Saturday, Dec. 19. Wear an orange blouse, he said, to stand out in the dying light. After leaving Marathon Airport in Key West at 5 p.m. in a six-passenger Cessna 310, he flew the 90-mile course to Matanzas, hovering low above the Straits of Florida. After 43 minutes, he saw the bridge at Matanzas and banked hard over the Varadero Highway. He saw a car, a truck, a bus, a flash of orange on the side of the road, precisely where it was supposed to be. He just cleared a concrete barricade, and thumped down with a jolt in front of an astonished truck driver.

“It’s your Papi — run!” Vicky and the children bolted from the side of the road. Alejandro literally ran out of his shoes. They remain in Cuba.

As always, Orestes had planned things meticulously. Vicky had been warned to approach the aircraft from the rear, to avoid the propellers. She and the children were told which seats to sit in to avoid even a moment’s confusion, and above all, to say nothing to Orestes. Not even to look at him. He did not want to risk getting emotional; he dared not risk even a single tear clouding his vision. And so it is that his first words to the family he hadn’t seen in 21 months were a gruffly barked command: “Don’t talk and don’t touch me!”

The wheels spun, shedding crumbs of Cuban soil. There was not enough highway in front of him to take off, and traffic was bearing down. “It was humanly impossible,” Lorenzo says. But the instant he ran out of asphalt, he ran into air.

For this, Orestes Lorenzo credits the God he did not believe in at all five years ago. His description of his liftoff is in some ways a testament to the fairy tale in which he finds himself living:

“There is no way,” he says, “that this can happen in real life.”

Neither Orestes nor Vicky will reveal the first words he said to her when it became plain they were off Cuban soil, and undetected. They are embarrassed.

At 6:45 p.m., they were on the ground in Marathon, in the Florida Keys.

Time to Move On

Vicky wants to know who is hungry. She offers to prepare a yellow rice. Orestes waves his hand. He loves the idea that here he can order food by telephone. He wants Chinese.

“I can get the little spare ribs!” Reyniel rejoices.

“And Coca-Cola!” adds Alejandro. “They don’t have Coke in Cuba.”

The United States, particularly the exiled Cuban community in the United States, has embraced this heroic family. Earlier that day, at the Elks Club in Fairfax, the Lorenzos were feted by members of Casa Cuba, an organization of Cuban Americans living in the metropolitan area. There were gifts. One pale young man sheepishly offered a silver crucifix. A chubby middle-aged gent gave a sterling platter engraved with a love poem and two intertwined hearts. A woman with jet-black eyes and a red mouth presented the couple with a framed collection of photographs: Vicky and Orestes with Jay Leno, Alejandro and Reyniel laughing, about a dozen pictures in all, pressed under glass with a crushed wild flower picked from the field in Marathon where Orestes landed the Cessna. People proffered personal checks and cash sealed inside white envelopes. Someone gave a gift certificate from Hecht’s.

Their days of relying on contributions from friends will soon be over. They have received a small advance on a six-figure payment for the rights to their life stories. Book revenue will add to that.

On the last day of the old year, the family went to Disney World, where Orestes was named grand marshal of the New Year’s Day parade. Since then he has appeared on Larry King’s CNN show, on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He’s been to the White House to see President Bush, spent a weekend with Ronald Reagan in California.

Orestes lights his millionth cigarette of the day. His eyes are red. Vicky gathers the scattered toys and prepares to pack. In the morning, the family is off to New York, where Orestes is to give a speech. And then they fly to Madrid. Since they began their American life, they have only had time to deal with the past. Orestes is growing impatient.

“I never thought we’d become public people the way we have. I really am not crazy about all this publicity, because it takes a lot of time away from being with my family. I dreamed of helping my boys ride bikes and play baseball — I really love sports — but we haven’t had time to do it. I hope that this will pass soon.”

Is that where this story will end, on a note of disquietude?

Not likely. Not today.

During his hunger strike last summer, Orestes noticed a pretty church on the streets of Madrid. He pledged to himself that when he and Vicky were together again, he would take her to this church, to renew their vows with their two sons standing by.

And that’s where they are right now, and that’s what they are doing.


Gigi Anders Gigi Anders, a freelance journalist in New Jersey, is the author of Jubana! and Little Pink Raincoat.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1993/02/14/the-most-romantic-story-in-the-world/da79e418-e58b-4340-b6c0-f7029572d622/

The Washington Post, December 21, 1992

1 MINUTE TO FREEDOM: RESCUE FROM CUBA

By William Booth

December 21, 1992

MIAMI, DEC. 20 — Orestes Lorenzo Perez, the dashing Cuban military pilot who defected last year in a Soviet-built MiG, was either going to return to Cuba and free his wife and two young sons, or die trying, he said today.

Lorenzo did not die. Instead, the Cuban major, who is considered a traitor by the government of Fidel Castro, flew an aging six-passenger Cessna 310 on Saturday from Marathon in the Florida Keys to Matanzas in Cuba, where he landed on a crowded road, picked up his wife and sons and returned to the United States. Total time on Cuban soil? About a minute.

“I came in very low, very low, about 10 feet above the waves, and I saw the bridge near Matanzas. I banked hard. I saw a car, a truck and bus on the road,” Lorenzo, 36, said this morning, his eyes red from almost three days without sleep. “There was a concrete barricade. A street sign. I banked again and landed hard, fast. I had one chance to land. One chance. That was it.”

Lorenzo says he will never forget the look of shock on the face of the truck driver on the road, who stared at the pilot as he turned his plane about 30 feet away.

Lorenzo’s wife, Victoria, 35, and their two sons, Reyniel, 11, and Alejandro, 6, ran to the aircraft. His younger son was still without shoes this morning. He had lost them running to the plane.

The family had been waiting. Through coded phone calls and with letters and diagrams delivered by friends, Lorenzo’s wife and sons knew to be by the side of the Matanzas road Saturday, about an hour before sunset.

After Lorenzo defected in the MiG, his family, despite having visas, was forbidden to leave Cuba. Victoria Lorenzo said today that Cuban officials told her she would never leave Cuba and that she should forget her husband who, they told her at various times, was a traitor, a homosexual or planning to marry another woman.

“I never believed them,” she said.

Cuban officials in Washington could not be reached for comment today.

After a dramatic takeoff from the same road, the family returned to Marathon, where they were met by a handful of friends and supporters, including Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Valladares Foundation in Alexandria, Va., a Cuban-exile group headed by Armando Valladares, a former political prisoner in Cuba.

“This is not a man who talks. He acts,” Arriaga said. “He told me if he wasn’t back by 6:30 p.m., he was in big trouble.”

Lorenzo, who now lives in Virginia and returned home with his family tonight, said he had no assistance from the U.S. government. He made a videotape before leaving on his perilous journey, saying he was acting alone and was unarmed. He brought with him only his flight plans.

To avoid Cuban radar and surface-to-air missiles, his plane skimmed almost atop the waves of the Straits of Florida as he made the 90-mile dash between the United States and Cuba.

Lorenzo said he feared detection by the Cubans but believed that Cuba’s deteriorating conditions would mean that radar posts would be unmanned or dysfunctional. He also said that many planes in Cuba are without fuel, both because of shortages and the Cuban government’s fears that more pilots would defect if given the chance.

A military pilot in a crop duster recently was shot down fleeing the island. A year ago, another military pilot escaped with 33 people aboard a tourist helicopter.

If Lorenzo had been captured, he said he almost surely would have been imprisoned or executed.

When he defected in a MiG-23 in March 1991, Lorenzo was not identified until he flew over the Boca Chica Naval Station in Key West, tipping his wings and circling the landing strip. The penetration of U.S. airspace by a Cuban MiG embarrassed the U.S. military.

But Lorenzo said he did not breach U.S. air defense this time because he was flying a U.S. registered plane and had advised air traffic controllers that he was airborne — just not where he was headed, the Miami Herald reported. A spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said Lorenzo’s aircraft was picked up on its radar and determined to be “friendly.”

Lorenzo, a child of the Cuban revolution, was schooled in war colleges in the Soviet Union and decorated for valor in Angola. As a young man, he said, he was a dedicated socialist, and even today, his more moderate views toward Cuba anger conservative Cuban exiles in Miami.

Lorenzo said his views changed in the Soviet Union, under the glasnost of Mikhail Gorbachev, when Lorenzo said he realized Cuba’s revolution had failed and that its citizens were being manipulated and lied to by Castro’s government.

“I was slowly dying in Cuba,” Lorenzo said. “It was all lies.”

Lorenzo has spent much of the last year trying to get his wife and sons out of Cuba. During Castro’s visit to Madrid during the Summer Olympic Games, Lorenzo went on a well-publicized hunger strike. His family’s plight was mentioned by President Bush in a speech in Miami during the campaign. Dozens of senators and representatives had signed letters asking Castro to let the family go.

An estimated 11,000 to 13,000 Cubans annually attain residency status in the United States. Many enter on visitor visas and just stay. A smaller, but growing, number board rafts or small boats to make what can be a deadly crossing.

Lorenzo said he fears worsening conditions in Cuba will lead to civil unrest. He said he had a premonition that he had to get his wife and sons, who were being harassed, out of Cuba now or it would be too late.

William Booth William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/12/21/1-minute-to-freedom-rescue-from-cuba/0e841bf1-338d-4283-8b3a-5ed4856c4a60/