[Ppnews] A Historical Roadmap for Liberating the Cuban Five

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 27 11:13:31 EDT 2009


March 27-29, 2009

A Historical Roadmap for Liberating the Cuban Five

Gesture For Gesture


Recent declarations by President Raúl Castro 
reveal a willingness to engage the United States 
in negotiations that, if successful, could mean 
the return of the Cuban Five. Responding to 
reporters´ questions last December, Raúl revealed 
a willingness to free some prisoners currently 
held in Cuba in response to a gesture from the 
United States to free the Cuban Five.  Gesto a 
gesto, he called it: gesture for gesture.1

Gibbon said that the only way to judge the future 
is by the past.  And history gives us the lantern 
that illuminates a possible political solution to 
one of the thorniest issues that still mars 
relations between the United States and Cuba:  prisoners.


There is historical precedent for a mutual 
release of prisoners on the basis of unilateral, 
but reciprocated, gestures.   It is little known, 
but thanks to US government-declassified 
documents, we can now learn about the delicate 
negotiations that led to a mutual release of 
important prisoners thirty years ago.

In September of 1979, the United States 
unilaterally released four Puerto Rican 
nationalists, and ten days later Cuba 
reciprocated by releasing four United States 
citizens who were in prison in Cuba.2

It is curious to note that the phrase 
gesto-a-gesto that Raúl is now using to urge the 
release of the Cuban Five is the same one that 
his brother, Fidel, used in 1978, when he told US 
diplomats Robert Pastor and Peter Tarnoff,

I do not understand why you are so tough on the 
Puerto Ricans.  The U.S. could make a gesture and 
release them, and then we would make another 
gesture­without any linkage­just a unilateral humanitarian gesture.3

US government documents confirm that discussions 
between the U.S. and Cuban governments occurred 
during 1978 and 1979 regarding an exchange of 
prisoners. National Security Advisor Zbigniew 
Brzezinski said in a letter in 1979 to the Justice Department:

Castro and his representatives have said publicly 
and told us privately that, if we release the 
four Puerto Ricans, they will, after an 
appropriate interval, release the four United 
States citizens imprisoned in Cuba.  . . . . 
while we should not accept nor even consider an 
exchange, the fact that a positive decision by 
the U.S. is likely to lead to a positive decision 
by Cuba to release U.S. citizens is a welcome prospect. 4


At the time of their release in 1979, the Puerto 
Ricans, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, 
Irving Flores Rodríguez, and Oscar Collazo, had 
been in prison in the United States for over 24 
years.  The Americans who Cuba released ten days 
later, Lawrence Lunt, Juan Tur, Everett Jackson, 
and Claudio Rodriguez­had spent more than 10 years in Cuban prisons.


One of the most interesting of the declassified 
documents is a memorandum written by National 
Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in early 
1979 to John R. Standish, Department of Justice 
Pardon Attorney.  In the memo, Brzezinski 
recommends that the US government commute the 
sentences of the four Puerto Ricans.

The Obama Administration could well learn from 
the Brzezinski memo the benefits of a 
gesture-for-gesture negotiation that, if used 
now, could reap diplomatic benefits for both 
countries.  In his memo to the Department of 
Justice, Brzenzinski pointed out that the 
continued imprisonment of the Puerto Ricans lends 
fuel to critics of US policy, and that commuting 
their sentences would be welcomed as a 
compassionate and humanitarian gesture. Brezenzinski goes on to argue that:

the release of these prisoners will remove from 
the agenda of the United nations, the Non-Aligned 
Movement, and other international fora, a 
propaganda issue which is used each year to 
criticize the U.S., and is increasingly used as 
an example of the inconsistency of our human rights policy.5

Robert Pastor makes a similar point in a 
memorandum dated September 26, 1978.  After 
conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the situation, Pastor concludes:

I have come to believe that the risks of 
releasing (the Puerto Rican nationalists) 
unconditionally are minimal, while the benefits, 
as a humanitarian, compassionate gesture, are 
considerable.  I also believe that the President 
would obtain considerable political benefit in 
Puerto Rico as there is widespread support for such a move there.6


Critics of US policy today point to the case of 
the Cuban Five as an example of American 
double-standards:  the terrorists are allowed to 
roam free in Miami and those who went to Miami to 
protect Cuba against the terrorists are thrown in 
jail.  The Cuban Five are part of a team of 
agents that Cuba sent to Miami to gather evidence 
against those guilty of orchestrating a campaign 
of terror against civilian targets in the island: 
a campaign of terror that has claimed over 3,000 
lives.  The team infiltrated Cuban-American 
terrorist groups in Miami, and using the evidence 
that the Five gathered Cuba provided the Federal 
Bureau of Investigations (FBI) with the names and 
whereabouts of the terrorists.  Rather than 
arrest and prosecute the terrorists, the FBI 
learned that Cuba had penetrated the Miami-based 
terrorist network and arrested the Cuban Five in 
1998.  On June 8, 2001, they were convicted and 
sentenced to four life sentences and 75 years collectively.

The United States Supreme Court is expected to 
rule sometime this year whether the Court in 
Miami that convicted and sentenced them erred by 
forcing their trial in a Miami consumed with 
hostility and prejudice against Cuba.  Ten Nobel 
Prize winners have submitted amicus curiae 
(“friend of the court”) briefs asking the Supreme 
Court to review the case.  The Nobel laureates 
are joined by hundreds of parliamentarians around 
the world, including two former Presidents and 
three current Vice Presidents of the European 
Parliament, as well as numerous US and foreign 
bar associations and human rights organizations.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission noted 
that a climate of bias and prejudice in Miami 
surrounded their trial, and the Commission’s 
Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions concluded 
that the trial did not take place in the climate 
of objectivity and impartiality that is required 
to conform to the standards of a fair trial.7

However, even if the Cuban Five were to win their 
case before the United States Supreme Court, 
their case would be far from over.  Instead, it 
would mean the beginning of a new trial in a 
jurisdiction other than Miami.  A far more 
elegant and swifter solution to their continued 
imprisonment would be a Presidential Order of 
Executive Clemency that would permit their immediate return to Cuba.


One important point of diplomatic disagreement 
between the two countries is that to Cuba they 
are political prisoners, whereas to the United 
States the Five are common criminals.

Innocent of the conspiracy charges against them, 
Cuban officials maintain the Five were convicted 
in a biased and hostile environment in violation 
of their constitutional rights.

The issue of classifying the Five as political 
prisoners is particularly thorny, since President 
Obama will certainly reject the implication that 
the US is holding political prisoners.  Yet, 
President Barack Obama has consistently called 
for Cuba to release its political prisoners, 
before any normalization of relations.

Cuba, in turn, claims that its own prisoners are 
serving sentences on the island for violations of 
the law and that they are not political prisoners.

A direct prisoner exchange runs the risk of the 
public equating the crimes, but a unilateral 
gesture that is followed by a gesture from the 
other side softens the criticisms.

Again, history illuminates our way out of 
political gridlock.  Prior to the mutual exchange 
of prisoners in 1979, both Cuban and American 
negotiators initially tripped over the use of the 
adjective political to describe the 
prisoners.  That is why they shied away from a 
direct prisoner exchange that would have been 
seen as a tacit acceptance of the notion that 
each country was holding political prisoners.

In a letter to Congressman Benjamin Gillman in 
1979, Brzezinski said “we want to avoid making 
any connection between the two cases, and 
certainly the appearance of equating their 
crime.8  And in a memorandum immediately after 
release of the Puerto Rican nationalists, Brzezinski said:

we rejected the possibility of a prisoner 
exchange since we did not consider the Puerto 
Ricans political prisoners . . . Now that 
President Carter has decided to commute the 
sentences of the Puerto Ricans, it occurs to us 
that it is Castro’s turn to fulfill his promise.9

The key to a mutual release of prisoners is 
therefore to avoid a linked prisoner exchange and 
instead engage in gesture-for-gesture negotiations.


If the Obama Administration extended a gesture to 
Cuba and unilaterally released the Cuban Five, 
what reciprocal gesture could Cuba offer?  What 
prisoners could it free and send to the United States?

Miami’s El Nuevo Herald recently cited the cases 
of several prisoners in Cuba that may be of 
particular interest to the United States, 
including some of those who were arrested in 
March of 2003 and convicted in Cuba for working 
under the direction and control of the U.S. 
Interests Section in Havana, as well as other 
Cuban citizens imprisoned for espionage in Cuba.10

Through diplomatic channels, the United States 
can signal which of Cuba’s prisoners are a priority. That is not a problem.


The power to commute a sentence is the 
President’s alone.  It is not a pardon.  It 
simply reduces the period of incarceration.  The 
President need not comment on the convictions, or 
on the alleged crimes.  He need not condition the 
commutation of sentences on another country’s 
actions.  He simply orders that the prisoners’ sentences be reduced.


First as a candidate and now as President, Barack 
Obama has let it be known that he is interested 
in improving relations with Cuba through direct 
diplomacy.  The case of the Cuban Five is a major 
stumbling block to any rapprochement between the two countries.

If President Obama extends executive clemency to 
the Cuban Five and commutes their long prison 
sentences, thus facilitating their return to Cuba 
and to their families, it would be quite a 
significant gesture and, after reciprocal 
gestures from Cuba, could eventually lead to the 
normalization of relations between the two countries.

José Pertierra is an attorney.  He represents the 
government of Venezuela in the extradition case 
involving Luis Posada Carriles.  His office is in Washington, DC.


1 Raúl Castro marca su lógica a Washington, por 
Patricia Grogg, IPS, 20 de diciembre de 2008.

2 See TIME Magazine, Monday October 1, 1979.  “A 
diplomatic issue involving Cuba was resolved last 
week when Havana released four Americans from its 
prisons.  For four years, Fidel Castro had said 
that they would be freed if the US released four 
Puerto Rican nationalists who were in prison for 
trying to assassinate President Truman and House 
leaders in the 1950s.  Carter granted them 
clemency two weeks ago. . . . On arrival in 
Miami, one of the former prisoners in Cuba, 
Lawrence Lunt . . . readily admitted that he had been spying for the CIA.”

3 That Infernal Little Cuban Republic:  the 
United States and the Cuban Revolution, by Lars 
Schoultz, the University of North Carolina Press, 
Chapel Hill, 2009 at page 324.

4 Undated letter from Zbigniew Brzezinski to John 
R. Standish, Pardon Attorney, for the Department 
of Justice.  Found on pages 267 and 268 of volume 
2 of Futuros Alternos (Documentos Secretos) 
Edited by Jaime Rodríguez Cancel and Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, EMS, 2007.

5 Ibid.

6 Memorandum from Robert Pastor of the National 
Security Council to Zbigniew Brzezinski and David 
Aaron regarding Lolita Lebron, dated September 
26, 1978.  Futuros Alternos, Ibid, at pages 228 and 229.

7 Grupo de Trabajo sobre la detención arbitraria 
(Naciones Unidas), Opinión No. 19-2005.  Opinión 
adoptada el 27 de mayo de 2005.

8 Letter to Congressman Benjamín Gillman, US 
House of Representatives, from Zgigniew 
Brzezinski.  See Futuros Alternos at page 213.

9 Memorandum from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Frank 
Moore regarding US Prisoners in Cuba, See Futuros Alternos at page 214.

10 Abogados de espías cubanos no descartan 
“negociación política”, por Wilfredo Cancio Isla, 
El Nuevo Herald, 25 de enero de 2009.

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522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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