Cubans jailed in U.S. as spies are hailed at home as heroes

HAVANA—European tourists here send home postcards with stamps bearing the images of five faces, known simply as los muchachos (the young men) or los cinco (the five). The faces, usually surrounded by billowing Cuban flags, stare out, larger than life, from factory walls, apartment buildings, billboards.

The five are heroes in Cuba, but villains to exiles in the United States, where they are serving long prison terms for espionage-related convictions in 2001.

Their case, once cheekily cast in the Miami news media as a “spy-vs.-spy,” Cold War-era throwback, illuminates the resilience of the complicated, decades-long standoff entangling Cuba, the U.S. government and Cuban exile groups based in Florida. It is now also raising nettlesome questions about the nuances of terrorism and international espionage.

American officials tend to paint Cuban agents as infiltrators bent on undermining U.S. national security. But the Cuban government asserts they are men of courage, sent to the United States to ferret out terrorism plots by Cuban exile groups waging war against President Fidel Castro.

Since the Cuban Five were convicted, the reach of Havana’s information-gathering machine—described by a former CIA Cuba analyst, Brian Latell, as “among the four or five best anywhere in the world”—has become even more apparent. In 2002, Ana Belen Montes, a senior analyst on Cuban affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Cubans; the year before, a high-ranking U.S. immigration official in Miami was convicted of disclosing classified information to Cuba. In January, a longtime professor at Florida International University and his wife, a mental health counselor at the college, pleaded not guilty to charges that they acted as spies for Castro.

But none of those cases has generated as much debate as that of the Cuban Five. There has been a groundswell of support for the five acknowledged agents among some American liberal groups and celebrities, including Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” actor Danny Glover and author Noam Chomsky. A San Francisco group maintains a Web site called “National Committee to Free the Cuban Five.” The Detroit City Council even passed a resolution in March calling for their release, saying the agents were attempting to prevent terrorism against Cuba.

The calls for their release gained momentum last August when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial, because of a “perfect storm” of bias in the Cuban exile bastion of Miami. The decision is now being reviewed by the full court.

In a recent interview, Ricardo Alarcon—president of Cuba’s National Assembly and the third-most-powerful political figure on the island after Castro and his brother, Raul—described the work of secret agents as the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself. He called Cuba an object of terrorism, a nation under threat of violence.

Alarcon said hundreds of Cuban citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks since Castro came to power in 1959 and recalled banners saying “Iraq now, Cuba later” at demonstrations in Miami before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Asked whether Cuba would continue to send agents to the United States, Alarcon shifted from Spanish to English and said emphatically: “Yes, with a capital Y.”

The Wasp Network

José Basulto, founder of an anti-Castro group in Miami, remembers a young man named Ruben Campa hanging around the airport where Basulto kept his planes in the mid-1990s. The planes were being used to save Cuban refugees stranded in the ocean between Florida and Cuba, and to drop anti-Castro leaflets in Havana, a tactic that infuriated the Cuban government.

Campa was quick to make friends and “eager to jump on the bandwagon,” Basulto recalled, and soon he was flying missions for the group, Brothers to the Rescue.

After the spies were arrested in September 1998, Basulto said he learned that Ruben Campa was an alias borrowed from a dead Texas boy and that his recruit’s real name was Rene Gonzalez. Gonzalez and nine others were arrested and accused of running “La Red Avispa”—the Wasp Network—which prosecutors said was spying on U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups.

Indictments were eventually handed up against four others, bringing the total to 14 and making the prosecution one of the largest multiple-defendant spying cases in U.S. history. Also, three months after the initial arrests, three Cuban diplomats at the United Nations were expelled for alleged involvement with the Miami spy network.

Five of those accused pleaded guilty. Four others have remained fugitives, but Gonzalez and the others in the Cuban Five—Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino and Fernando Gonzalez (no relation to Rene Gonzalez) -- have fought the charges.

The years before the arrests had been particularly tense.

In 1997, there was a series of terrorist bombings in Havana hotels. One Italian tourist was killed. The Cuban government suspected Miami exile groups of being involved in the attacks in an attempt to undermine Cuba’s burgeoning tourist industry. At the time, the Cuban government saw Basulto, a CIA-trained operative, as a threat. In 1961, he had fired a cannon from a boat off Havana and hit a hotel.

Alarcon said that in the summer of 1998, Cuban intelligence officials delivered a packet of documents outlining their concerns to FBI agents at a meeting in Havana. Not long afterward, the Wasp Network arrests were announced in Miami. Alarcon was apoplectic.

“They shot the messenger,” Alarcon recalled thinking at the time, arguing that the U.S. had double-crossed Cuba.

Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney who oversaw the Cuban Five prosecution, said in an interview that one of the agents worked as a mechanic at Naval Air Station Key West and another counted planes from his apartment near MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where overseas military operations were coordinated.

“It’s clear,” Lewis said, “that Cuba’s intelligence service maintains a contingency of very well-trained, organized and financed agents.”

Trial in Miami

While the Cuban Five awaited trial, Miami’s exiles were in an uproar about Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old boy found off Florida’s coast after the boat that carried him from Cuba capsized, killing his mother and 10 other refugees.

Seven months after Gonzalez was returned to his father in Cuba, jury selection began in Miami for the Cuban Five trial over the objections of defense attorneys who argued that a fair trial would be impossible so soon after the Gonzalez case had inflamed a city full of anti-Castro exiles.

Jurors listened to testimony for six months about encrypted messages sent to Cuba and code names. The defense argued that the accused should be freed because they collected no classified data and did not get into off-limits areas of military bases. Prosecutors countered that it was their failure to register as foreign agents and their intent to collect sensitive information that warranted convictions.

The jury—which included no Cuban Americans—convicted all five. Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison on a murder conspiracy charge for tipping off Rene Gonzalez and another Cuban spy not to fly with Brothers to the Rescue on the day the Cuban military shot down two of the group’s planes in 1996, killing four of its members.

The state-run daily in Havana, Granma, responded with a front-page editorial headlined: “A Heroic Behavior in the Entrails of the Monster.”

’Hypocrites’

One recent afternoon, in a neighborhood behind the chipped and faded Jose Marti sports complex in central Havana, Antonio Lagé stepped over children playing beneath an apartment bulletin board that, like so many in Havana, carries a photo of the Cuban Five. “Hypocrites, that’s what Bush and the Americans are—hypocrites,” he said. “They talk about fighting terrorism, but they keep these heroes in prison for trying to stop the terrorists in Miami.”

Leonard Weinglass, a renowned U.S. defense lawyer, has taken up Hernandez’s appeal after a career that includes representing members of the Chicago Seven antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968, and former Black Panther and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Weinglass persuaded the appeals court panel that the accused spies could not get a fair trial in Miami. Now his strategy is to concede that there was a technical violation of the law but argue that the actions of his client were necessary to protect lives.

“If they are under attack, does a country have the right to send agents to another country to get information?” Weinglass said, while sipping a mojito on the patio of the storied Hotel Nacional de Cuba. “That is a major intelligence question.”

Weinglass and the wives and mothers of several imprisoned agents picked up more allies during a speech to a California legal group in Havana, among them 16-year Democratic congressman Esteban E. Torres.

“It’s a real miscarriage of justice,” Torres said. “It tells us something about our government and the judiciary and the intelligence service: Anything that they can do to get Fidel, they’ll do.”

Though Castro has never been connected to the case, U.S. intelligence experts say they believe the Cuban leader personally oversees high-priority spying missions.

“And he’s good,” said Latell, author of the book “After Fidel.” “He’s really, really good.”

Alarcon said more agents would be sent to the United States, even though Cuba experts contend the threat from exiles—whether perceived or real—is diminishing.

Alarcon points out that John D. Negroponte, President Bush’s director of national intelligence, recently said the United States had more than 100,000 intelligence personnel.

Cuba does not have that many intelligence personnel, Alarcon said, but it has more agents than the five celebrated officers now in prison. The real number, he said, “is somewhere in between.”





Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post Foreign Service, June 3, 2006

Reprinted from page 1 of the Washington Post on www.freethefive.org