Antonio Bascaro's aviation skills and his love for flying all manner of airplanes, including CIA and United States military jets, had a lot to do with how the Cuban émigré, with no criminal record, ended up in federal prison for conspiracy to sell marijuana. No one ever imagined that he'd spend nearly four decades there.
Ending the longest-served sentence in a U.S. federal prison for a first-offense, non-violent marijuana conviction, the 84-year-old Bascaro walked out of the Florida Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Miami on May 1, 2019, into the arms of his three adult children who met him with a Cuban sandwich and a cup of strong Cuban coffee.
As local TV cameras gathered around, Bascaro, who suffers from chronic back pain, remained composed as he leaned on his cane and spoke in Spanish.
“Sometimes I can't believe how long it's been but here I am, outside the prison walls with no chains, no handcuffs,” Bascaro told the Spanish News Agency, EFE. “The worst thing is that I missed my family. Thank God they're healthy and all here now.”
The group then moved the celebration to a restaurant two blocks from the FCI where more friends and family members including some of Bascaro's eight grandchildren, many of whom he had never met, and several nieces and nephews.
“The last time we all saw my father in freedom, we were 15, 13, and 11 years old,” said Myra Bascaro of herself and her two siblings. “It's the first time I'm going to get to hug him when he's not in jail.”
Sitting at the long table in the Casavana Cuban Cuisine where Cuban specialties were served gratis, three generations of pilots — Bascaro, his son, Antonio, and one of his grandsons — talked about flying.
Aviation is in the Family
While in his 20s, Bascaro served as a military pilot for the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. When Fidel Castro and his group of revolutionaries overthrew the Batista regime in 1959, Bascaro fled Cuba for the U.S. Having established a reputation as a skilled pilot, Bascaro was recruited in 1961 by the CIA to take part in a clandestine mission to overthrow Castro. The failed operation became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Bascaro subsequently moved around Central America, settled in Guatemala, and married a local woman. When they divorced, Bascaro moved back to Miami, where his aviation skills were once again in demand — from marijuana smugglers.
It was the late 1970s when another Cuban émigré invited Bascaro to join the booming operation that was bringing in tons of pot, mostly from Colombia, into the U.S.
In 1980, Bascaro was arrested and convicted of smuggling more than 300 tons of marijuana into the southeastern U.S.
Originally sentenced to 60 years without parole, he received time off for good behavior and served 39 years in prison. Unlike his crime partners, Bascaro consistently refused to take a plea or inform on others.
“They sentenced me with the toughest sentence made special for the big, Italian mafia people, and I paid because I didn't cooperate,” Bascaro told Fox Miami affiliate WSVN-TV.
Amy Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders) explained that federal drug cases rely heavily on defendants pleading guilty for a reduced sentence and for turning in others.
“The only reason he received such a harsh sentence is because he refused to cooperate and testify against others in a drug conspiracy case. In my book, that means Antonio had more moral integrity than his co-conspirators,” Povah said.
“If he had cut a deal, he would have been home long ago. Sadly, that's how all federal cases are prosecuted. It doesn't matter who the kingpin was — the most guilty often go free if they merely cooperate and send even low-level drug offenders to prison.”
The CAN-DO Foundation recently submitted a list of clemency candidates to the White House. One list comprised 22 people who are serving time for marijuana-only offenses, most of whom have already served more than 10 years. CAN-DO also is seeking signatures on a Change.org petition that asks for clemency, arguing, “People should not serve time for pot while others are simultaneously profiting from the same activity without fear of any legal consequences.
Beth Curtis, director of LifeforPot.com whose 70-year-old brother, John Knock, has been serving a life sentence on a first-time marijuana offense since 1996, is overjoyed for the Bascaro family but said the fact that her brother is still in federal prison “is like a cloud that covers my life.”
“John and the other marijuana offenders with life will not be able to outlive their sentences. They do not receive any relief from the recently passed First Step Act,” said Curtis, referring to a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed in December 2018.
The landmark bill, which will reduce life sentences for some drug offenders and could free up to 4,000 prisoners with good behavior, attracted the support of such public figures as Patricia Arquette, Mark Cuban, and Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West.
Meanwhile, the Bascaro family celebration will be brief: deportation looms.
Bascaro, who is not a U.S. citizen, is expected to meet with immigration officials on June 11, 2019. He and his family are hoping that his service as a Bay of Pigs veteran will protect him from deportation to Cuba, where authorities might not welcome a man who tried to overthrow them.
“If he goes to Cuba, he will be a political prisoner. Either way, he will be in danger,” said Myra Bascaro. “So we're hoping they do the right thing and keep him here with us.”
Featured Image: After serving 39 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent marijuana violation, Antonio Bascaro, 84, is surrounded by his three adult children in Miami. From left to right: Monica, Antonio, and Myra huddle around their father. (Photo courtesy of the Bascaro family)