09/29/13 - The Ledger - Former Cuban Pilot Risked Life to Pursue Dreams in U.S.
He didn't know a single word in English, he said. But he was escaping Cuba
The former Cuban Air Force pilot has received a lot of attention over the
past two decades since his escape and daring flight back to Cuba to rescue
his family. He wrote a book about his journey in 1994 and shared his story
again at the Florida Air Museum at Sun n Fun on Saturday.
It was a daring rescue that his friends would have called a suicide
mission, he said.
He was risking his life and the lives of his wife and two sons, but he
said it was worth it because they were pursuing their dreams.
The only experience Lorenzo had with aviation before being recruited into
the Cuban air force was with toys. In the military, Lorenzo, now 57,
earned a scholarship to attend flight school in the Soviet Union, where he
learned to fly a small Czechoslovakian Aero L-29 Delfin two-seat jet
trainer and a MiG-21.
He was part of the Cuban forces sent to Angola to support that country's
"I was raised by the government," he said.
After a second deployment to the Soviet Union, Lorenzo and his family
finally returned to Cuba and he was assigned to Santa Clara Air Base,
about 165 miles east of Havana.
What he found was a country littered with propaganda and so oppressed by
the government that his family knew there was only one thing for him to do
try to escape.
On March 20, 1991, Lorenzo said goodbye to his wife, Victoria, promising
to return for her and their two sons. She had to pretend that she knew
nothing of Lorenzo's escape plan.
She prayed that her husband would make it to the U.S. and to freedom.
During a training mission that day, Lorenzo flew the MiG-23 from Cuba to
Key West. When he finally landed, speaking in Spanish, he told the pilot
who met him on the ground that he was seeking political asylum.
Lorenzo said once the pilot understood, they shook hands and the pilot
said, "Welcome to the United States."
It was an unforgettable moment, Lorenzo said.
He said he was immediately flown to Washington, D.C., for a briefing and
to receive paperwork. Once he was granted political asylum he started
campaigning to get his family out of Cuba.
His wife and two sons were issued U.S. visas, but the Cuban government
wouldn't let them leave.
Lorenzo said the government put surveillance on them. A car sat outside
the house where his wife lived with her parents in Havana and followed
them when they left the house, he said.
His family lived under constant watch for 21 months, while Lorenzo
campaigned across the U.S. to try to gain their freedom, he said.
People donated money, airplane tickets, food and shelter to help Lorenzo.
Then-President George H. W. Bush directed a speech to the Cuban
government, asking Fidel Castro to let Lorenzo's family go.
But Castro refused, Lorenzo said, so he had to think of a better plan.
He thought of helicopters and speedboats, but said he knew they were too
expensive. The only way to rescue them would be to fly back in an
Through the Valladares Foundation, a human rights organization founded by
a Cuban political prisoner, Lorenzo learned that a 1961 Cessna 310 was for
sale. With help from a donation, Lorenzo said, the foundation agreed to
pay the $30,000 to purchase it for his rescue attempt.
He took flying lessons and received his pilot license in Virginia, but had
very little experience flying the Cessna. Before his rescue attempt,
Lorenzo had only landed the small plane once, with a co-pilot.
He said he was nervous and emotional. Everything ahead of him was unknown.
At exactly 5:07 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1992, Lorenzo left from the Florida Keys,
flying low across the ocean. His wife was given a note to meet him at a
location about 165 miles from her home in Havana.
Lorenzo didn't know whether she would be there with the boys, or if he
would make it to the spot before the Cuban government saw him, but he had
to try, he said.
Flying less than 100 feet above the ocean, Lorenzo came over cliffs on the
Cuban coastline and saw his wife and sons wearing bright orange T-shirts,
just as he had asked them to do.
Lorenzo said he landed the Cessna about 10 yards from a pickup truck,
turned the plane around, hurried his family inside and flew away.
He said he was exhausted and full of emotion, but when he landed in
Marathon less than two hours later, he felt a sense of relief.
"Once we landed, this peace came and I was exhausted," he said.
Lorenzo is one of only a handful of Cuban military pilots to defect to the
U.S. during the Cold War.
Rick Garcia, a board member for Sun n Fun, introduced Lorenzo to the room
of more than 45 people. Garcia said it was an honor that Lorenzo wanted to
speak at the air museum.
"He's a hero for what he did," Garcia said. "The risk he took, he could've
lost his life."
Lorenzo and his family are all American citizens. They live in Orlando and
own the concrete business, Castle Constructors Co.
The MiG-23 was returned to Cuba shortly after Lorenzo gained political
asylum and the Cessna was destroyed about 10 years ago in a hurricane, he
He said he came to the U.S. in pursuit of a dream to let his sons be
raised in freedom, and he will never let them take it for granted.
"Things have never been perfect, and they'll never be, but overcoming the
obstacles on the way to make things better is a fundamental part of our
happiness," Lorenzo said. "We work hard, we dream, and then we work harder
to fulfill our dreams. It is a simple formula that works only in freedom."
[ Stephanie Allen can be reached at email@example.com or
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