Our good friend Keith Bolender has been analysing the release of Rene Gonzales for the Council for Hemisphere Affairs. His opinion: it’s a surprisingly sensible decision.
The recent ruling allowing René González to finish out his probation in Cuba is the first sign of sensible and decent behavior on the part of the United States criminal justice system in this controversial case of five Cuban intelligence officers unjustly sentenced to long jail terms for trying to protect their homeland against terrorist attacks and sabotage.
González, along with four others known as the Cuban Five, was arrested in the late 1990s for his efforts to infiltrate anti-revolutionary Cuban-American terrorist organizations in Florida. The 56-year-old González is now a free man thanks to an unexpected court ruling by a federal district judge notorious for her rabid anti-Havana rulings, permitting him to remain in Cuba to serve out the rest of his parole. He was given authorization in a surprise move by United States District Judge Joan Lenard, allowing the dual US-Cuban citizen to stay in Cuba where he was attending a memorial service for his father, Cándido González. Judge Lenard, who had previously allowed González to attend the service, ruled he did not have to return to the United States provided he give up his United States citizenship – something González had agreed to prior to his release from prison in 2011 after serving 13 years. The key to the ruling came when federal prosecutors reversed their position demanding that González serve out his parole in Florida, where he had been living in virtual seclusion due to fears for his safety from violent anti-Castro groups.[i]
The Cuban agents were sent to Florida to penetrate anti-Castro organizations including Alpha 66, Comandos 4F, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue. Many of these exile groups were known to have a history of terrorist activities against their former homeland.[ii] Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, more than 600 incidents of terrorism have been documented, costing the lives of 3,400 civilians with thousands more injured. The vast majority of the attacks have come from anti-revolutionary Cuban-Americans based in Florida, often with the direct knowledge or support from the United States authorities. Incidents included the bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455 in October 1976, killing all 73 on board. The two recognized masterminds of the bombing, Cuban-American Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, have never been held accountable for their actions by the US government. Bosch passed away a few years ago in his home in Florida. Posada, a former FBI agent, continues to live unmolested in Miami.[iii] Posada acknowledged his role in a series of bombings in 1997 against tourist facilities in Havana and Varadero, resulting in the death of Italian-Canadian businessman Fabio Di Celmo. On one occasion Posada bragged to the New York Times that his intent was to dissuade tourists from visiting Cuba following the Castro government’s decision to open up the tourist industry after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.[iv] The Cuban Five were in Florida to try to prevent additional terrorist attacks on the homeland.
Trial condemned by United Nations Human Rights commission
González, along with Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Fernando González were part of La Red Avispa (Wasp Network). They were uncovered in 1998 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, being unregistered foreign agents, and in the case of Hernández, conspiracy to commit murder. Throughout the ensuing trials and appeals the case has developed into one of the most egregious abuses of the United States criminal justice system, widely denounced both stateside and internationally, and in the process becoming the only judicial proceeding in United States history condemned by the United Nations Human Rights commission.[v] The Five have consistently maintained they were in Florida simply to help prevent further acts of terrorism. Evidence suggests their work produced chilling results; in one incident they were able to tip off the FBI to a boat in a marina along the Miami River, apparently laden with bombs and guns. The vessel was suspected to be part of a plan to conduct terrorist activities against Cuba. Another tip helped prevent the attempted assassination against Fidel Castro in the Dominican Republic.[vi]
In an endeavour to establish the agents were in fact spies in the more traditional sense, and not just patriots trying to prevent acts of terrorism, federal prosecutors pointed to Antonio Guerrero’s work as a laborer at the Key West Naval Air station, accusing him of attempting to obtain military secrets. Despite the trials and appeals, marred by a politically-driven agenda aimed at ensuring a conviction, no evidence was presented to verify that any of the Five had in their possession classified documents that would compromise US security. The strongest assertion government attorneys were able to come up with only showed the agents counting planes on Florida military bases – from the vantage point of public highways. The lack of hard evidence led to the government side settling on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage, a charge that requires a much lower threshold of evidence to support. The situation of the Cuban Five eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the appeal.
Of the Five, González is the only one with a United States birthright. Born in Chicago in 1956, he moved to Cuba with his parents and two brothers five years later. From 1977 to 1979, González served in Angola, after studying aviation and graduating as a pilot and flight instructor. Working for Cuban intelligence, it was arranged for González to defect back to the United States in 1990 where he soon after integrated himself within the counter-revolutionary community, including flying for the Brothers to the Rescue.[vii] Last year he was given permission to return to Cuba for two weeks to visit his ill brother Roberto, who died shortly after the visit. González is married to Olga Salanueva Arango, with two daughters, 29-year-old Irma, and 15-year-old Ivette. Olga was expelled from the United States at the time of the arrests and had been refused visas to visit her husband while in prison. The wives of the Five have travelled extensively to garner support for their husbands, speaking on how difficult it has been for the families to endure. Adriana Perez, wife of Hernández, has not seen her husband in 10 years, her visa requests also denied by US authorities. The couple had hoped for children, but Perez realizes the chance of that happening now is extremely thin.[viii]
Shortly after his return, González defended his actions. “Nobody made me do it. They told me the risks, and I said `Yes.’ I did it as a Cuban patriot and I don’t have any regrets … I’ve never doubted myself for a second.” He asserted the only intent of the Cuban Five was to protect Cuba from acts of terrorism.[ix]
Ruling brings new energy to free the others
The González ruling has brought new energy to the fight to free the others, according to Gloria LaRiva, co-ordinator of the San Francisco based National Committee to Free the Cuba Five. LaRiva, who has been actively involved in the case since its beginning, said the González decision came “as a surprise”, and that “it’s hard to say why the judge [Joan Lenard] ruled that way. Up to now she has taken a real hard line. She’s been the judge since the start, and has shown little compassion for the Five.”[x]
LaRiva, along with a variety of Nobel Prize winners, current and former heads of states, and international personalities have criticized the long sentences and harsh conditions the Five have faced, including extensive stays in solidarity confinement. Numerous irregularities have marked the case, starting with the denial of a request to move the initial trial from the hotbed of anti-revolutionary sentiment in Miami. “There was no chance the Five would get a fair trial, the result was a foregone conclusion. Keeping it in Miami ensured that,” LaRiva stated.
What came as a shock was the length of sentencing, unheard of in cases similar to this, when unregistered foreign agents usually receive no more than five years, if they aren’t simply expelled as soon as uncovered. Instead, René González received 15 years, Fernando González (no relation) 19 years, life for Guerrero and Labañino, and most outrageous the two life sentences plus 15 years for Gerardo Hernández. The harshest sentence came down on Hernández after he was found guilty for conspiring to commit homicide, allegedly for his role in the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue’s planes by Cuban combat aircraft in 1996, in which four people were killed. The provocative aerial operations, led by rabid anti-revolutionary Jose Basulto, had repeatedly conducted illegal incursions into Havana airspace. After receiving no assistance in stopping the planes from the Federal Aviation Authority, Fidel Castro warned the next intrusion would result in action. Despite the threat, the four planes again entered over Havana and two were shot down; to this day there is still a dispute over whether the planes were downed in Cuban airspace or over international waters. Basulto, long suspected for a variety of violent actions against Cuba was able to escape by flying under the Cuban radar. It was purported that Hernández had advance knowledge of the shootdown and relayed that information about this particular Brothers to the Rescue operation to the Cuban side. Defense lawyers stated at the trial that there was no evidence presented in the thousands of pages of material to indicate Hernández had pre-knowledge of the event or any role in deciding to go ahead with the attack.[xi] They also argued that the lower requirements needed to establish the charge of conspiracy to commit murder underlined the specious nature of the allegation. Hernández faces the toughest road to freedom. The others can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel — next in line is Fernando González expected to be released February 2014, Guerrero in 2017 and Labañino in 2024. Once released they are expected to be deported back to Cuba.
Cuban Five case continues to evoke controversy
The case continues to evoke considerable controversy years after the actual trials ended. One enduring dispute revolves around the revelation that a variety of Miami based journalists were paid by the US government to write inflammatory articles on the Five before the trial began,[xii] ensuring their convictions and prejudicing public opinion.
“There is proof these journalists were paid thousands, which is against American law, to write and influence the local community. We are continuing to pursue this matter and filed a motion, in the hope it will show how unfair and illegal the trial was and to have the convictions overturned,” LaRiva said. There is, however, no indication when Judge Lenard will rule on the matter. “It could be next month, it could be years from now.” Not that much was needed to convince most members of the Cuban-American community of the Five’s guilt. “Miami is the center of anti-revolutionary sentiment, so there was no way the Five would get a fair trial,” LaRiva commented.
Political influence exerted by anti-Castro groups may have led to the initial arrests, recently revealed information suggests. All of the Five’s activities were apparently well known to the FBI more than two years prior to being exposed. The agency was keeping tabs on their movements, in part to gain information on the exile organizations. There was no indication that the FBI considered the Cuban intelligence officers a threat to national security.[xiii] In 1997 FBI officials were invited to Havana to examine documents outlining future plans for terrorist attacks by the counter-revolutionary groups infiltrated by the Cuban agents. What happened next is the accepted storyline – that the FBI took the documents from the Cuban government, returned to the United States, then promptly uncovered and arrested the Cuban Five, while doing nothing against the anti-revolutionary groups. There may have been, however, another impetus for the timing of the arrests, this coming from the newly appointed head of the FBI field office in Miami, Hector Pesquera. The Puerto Rican Pesquera was the first Hispanic in that position, and was soon to become closely associated with the exile leadership, including a few suspected of being involved in acts of terrorism against Cuba. Pesquera, now retired from the FBI, apparently bragged that he was responsible for forcing the arrests of the Five, over the objections of many of his own agents who wanted to continue gaining information from monitoring the Cuban agents. Arresting them would end that opportunity. Pesquera told a Miami radio station he changed the FBI focus on the Cuban Five from their surveillance to their arrests.[xiv] He also claimed the case came to trial in part because of his entreaties to FBI Director Louis Freeh to move ahead with the prosecution of the Five.[xv]
The ruling allowing González to stay in Cuba is an encouraging sign in the continuing struggle to free the others, LaRiva enthused. “It is giving us a lot of energy to worker harder for the four still in jail. It has been too many years these men have been punished unjustly. Some have never been able to see their wives, others have had to stay in jail when family members have died. I don’t know what impact René’s ruling will have on the others, but it helps bring attention and it is great to have him free.”
The Cuban Five and Alan Gross
Since the ruling was announced, speculation has risen regarding the possibility of trading the other members of the Cuban Five with jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years for bringing illegal communication equipment into Cuba with the intent of setting up internet connections that would be undetected by the government. While the Cuban government continues to indicate its willingness to discuss a swap with Gross and the other Cuban Five, Phil Horowitz, the lawyer for González, commented that the ruling has nothing to do with Gross and that he does not expect any movement towards the possibility of an exchange.[xvi] Gross was working for United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a government institution that has publicly acknowledged its support for regime change in Cuba. USAID has run into difficulties with other countries in Latin America, with Bolivian president Evo Morales expelling the organization in early May on charges of allegedly interfering and conspiring against the government.[xvii]
Not surprisingly, disapproval of the González ruling came from the staunch anti-Castro collection of Cuban-American congressmen. Leading the objection was Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who is consistent in her opposition to anything the Cuban government supports. “I respect our judicial system and I respect the judge’s decision. However, I disagree with it because the case of this convicted spy proves that you can inflict harm on your country of birth, spy in favor of an enemy state, serve only part of your sentence and, be released, even under restricted sentence … and then later retire to a quiet and prosperous life under the total protection of the Cuban regime.”[xviii] Ros-Lehtinen also felt the ruling was unfair while Gross remained jailed in Cuba.
The case of the Five has remained a source of post-Cold War antagonism between the two countries, where the agents are hailed as heroes in Havana and vilified as spies in Miami. As far as LaRiva is concerned, the decision to allow González to stay in Cuba couldn’t have come at a better time, as she and others will be out in full force in Washington May 30 to June 4 for a series of events to bring attention to the continuing plight of the Cuban Five. “This will energize everyone there; it shows the importance of continuing the struggle. We have one free and four more to go.”
Keith Bolender, Research Fellow at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs and author of Cuba Under Siege (Palgrave 2012).
Council of Hemispheric Affairs http://www.coha.org/about-us/
[ii] ‘Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba’ Keith Bolender (Pluto Press 2010)
[iv]‘Key Cuban Foe Claims Exile’s Backing,’ Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rohter, NY Times, July 12, 1998
[vi] Both incidents can be found in ‘What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five,’ Stephen Kimber (Fernwood 2013) pending publication later this year.
[viii] ‘US gives cold shoulder over prisoners and their suffering families’, Oakland Ross, Toronto Star, April 28, 2013
[ix] ‘Cuban spy unrepentant, but hopes for better ties’ Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press, May 6
[x] Interview with author, May 5, 2013
[xi] Stephen Kimber in his book (see note 6) read all 20,000 pages of trial transcripts, and could not come up with any evidence
[xiii]‘What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five,’ Stephen Kimber (Fernwood 2013)
[xiv] This information is covered extensively in Stephen Kimber’s upcoming book
[xvii] ‘Bolivian President Evo Morales orders expulsion of USAID’, Mariano Castillo, CNN, May 1
[xviii] Cite this