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100 Minutes to Freedom

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BICYCLE ONE TO BICYCLE TWO,” crackled the voice on the radio, “there is a plane full of love heading your way.” For friends of Orestes Lorenzo Perez, anxiously monitoring a receiver at the tiny Marathon Key, Fla., airport, that was the signal—their long day’s wait was over. For Lorenzo, speaking from the cockpit of a 31-year-old twin-engine Cessna, something else was over—nine months of plotting and 100 minutes of flying as if his very life depended on it.

On Dec. 19 the handsome young pilot—a former Cuban Air Force major and decorated combat pilot who had defected to the U.S. in March 1991—was involved in a perilous mission demanding near-perfect timing. He was off to rescue the wife and two young sons he had left behind in Castro’s Cuba. During the daring operation he would need to fly dangerously low to avoid detection by Cuban radar, make a hazardous landing on a busy coastal highway and take off again within a 40-second window before he could be targeted by missiles. “Even I thought the plan was crazy,” says Lorenzo, 36, “but I had to try. I would rather die than leave my family there.”

In March 1991, Lorenzo had departed Cuba by flying his MiG-23 fighter under U.S. radar and landing in Key West. “I was slowly dying in Cuba,” he explains now. “Everything they told us was lies.” Although to avoid suspicion Lorenzo had been forced to take off alone, he believed “the Cuban government would be so embarrassed by my defection that they would allow my family to leave.” He was wrong. Instead officials urged his wife, Victoria, 35, a Havana dentist, to forget her husband. They told her at different times that he was a homosexual, a traitor or planning to remarry.

Actually, Lorenzo was working single-mindedly to get her and their two sons, Reyniel, now 11, and Alejandro, 6, out of Cuba. Helped financially by cousins in the U.S. and by the Valladares Foundation, a Northern Virginia-based human rights group, the project became “my full-time job,” he says. Lorenzo lobbied Congress and President Bush, who during a campaign speech in Miami urged Fidel Castro to let the family leave. He even went on a week-long hunger strike.

Finally, Lorenzo was forced into a desperate plan urged by little Alejandro. During one of the infrequent calls the flier was able to place to Havana through Canada, his son begged, “Daddy, you are a pilot, come get us in a helicopter. Fly over the house and drop down a ladder.”

It wasn’t quite that easy. First, Lorenzo had to get a U.S. pilot’s license. Then he had to find a plane. Valladares cochairwoman Elena Diaz-Verson Amos, a wealthy Cuban-born widow, put up $30,000 to buy one. (Lorenzo didn’t want to use a rented aircraft because, he says, “I thought if I rented a plane and got shot down in Cuba, then people would think of me as a thief.”) Finally came preparations, including planning the 90-mile flight from Marathon to a beach east of Havana and devising elaborate codes to communicate the plot to his wife.

Lorenzo was able to smuggle details of his family’s escape, which was to be disguised as a seaside outing, to Victoria in a letter hand-delivered by two Mexican human rights activists. (The note used his pet name for her, Cuchita, so she would know it was authentic.) The pair also accompanied Victoria on a reconnaissance visit to the pickup site and bought fluorescent orange shirts and hats for her and the kids so they would be easy to spot.

On the tense night before the mission, Lorenzo spent some time at Elena Amos’s Columbus, Ga., home with her and Kristina Arriaga, the foundation’s executive director. Both would meet him at the Marathon airport the next day. While Lorenzo was praying at a local chapel, he says, “this sister came and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. Your long trip will be a success.’ How could she know about my plans? I believed that Cod was speaking to me then and that God would be with me.”

Lorenzo needed all the help he could get when he left the Marathon airfield at 5:05 P.M., bound for a sunset landing. To avoid radar he flew in almost skimming the waves. At 5:43, Victoria spotted the plane, which was about to land on the highway two blocks from the El Mamey beach. “Run, run!” she cried to the children. “It’s Daddy!”

Narrowly skirting a bus, a traffic sign and a boulder in the middle of the road, Lorenzo braked to a stop about 10 yards short of a stunned truck driver. But the hardest part, he says, was when his wile and kids jumped into the plane—and he didn’t even have time to touch them. “They were crying. I had to say to the children, ‘Shut up and sit down,’ ” Lorenzo says with apparent pain at the memory. “I had to fly the plane.” Twenty-one minutes and 43 seconds later, they entered U.S. airspace. “We did it!” Lorenzo shouted triumphantly. “We did it!”

Lorenzo laughs at Cuban claims that the rescue was orchestrated by the Bush Administration. “I would not put my loved ones in the hands of politicians,” he says. The Federal Aviation Administration says it is investigating the affair, as well as the Dec. 29 incident in which some 50 Cubans requested asylum after hijacking an airliner to Miami. But sources at the North American Aerospace Defense Command maintain that when military radar operators called the FAA after spoiling the incoming Cessna, they were told it was “friendly.”

The reunited family enjoyed a low-key Christmas in Springfield, Va., where Lorenzo has been living in a small apartment. They plan a trip to Disney World, then hope to resume a normal life. Victoria wants to study for a U.S. dental license; her husband is considering a return to the skies as a commercial pilot while weighing hook and movie offers. Both would like another baby—”a girl to be born here in America,” Lorenzo says.

But for now he could use a good night’s sleep. “I wake up every night at 4 A.M. I look at my wife. I kiss my sons. I watch them sleep.” Lorenzo says. “I cannot believe that they are here with me.” Says Victoria: “I knew he would come, I always knew it. I believe in him. I believe in love.”


DON SIDER in Miami and ELIZABETH VELEZ in Washington, D.C.