[Pnews] The Cuban Five were fighting terrorism. Why did we put them in jail?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 4 15:34:28 EDT 2013

  The Cuban Five were fighting terrorism. Why did we put them in jail?

      By Stephen Kimber, Friday, October 4, 8:12 AM


/Stephen Kimber teaches journalism at the University of King's College 
in Halifax, Canada, and is the author of "What Lies Across the Water: 
The Real Story of the Cuban Five." 

Consider for a moment what would happen if American intelligence agents 
on the ground in a foreign country uncovered a major terrorist plot, 
with enough time to prevent it. And then consider how Americans would 
react if authorities in that country, rather than cooperate with us, 
arrest and imprison the U.S. agents for operating on their soil.

Those agents would be American heroes today. The U.S. government would 
move heaven and Earth to get them back.

This sort of scenario has occurred, except that, in the real-life 
version, which unfolded 15 years ago last month, the Americans play the 
role of the foreign government, and Cuba --- yes, Fidel Castro's Cuba 
--- plays the role of the aggrieved United States.

In the early 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union made the 
collapse of Cuba's communist government seem inevitable, Miami's 
militant Cuban exile groups ratcheted up their efforts to overthrow 
Castro by any means possible, including terrorist attacks. In 1994, for 
example, Rodolfo Frometa, the leader of an exile group, was nabbed in an 
FBI sting trying to buy a Stinger missile, a grenade launcher and 
anti-tank rockets that he said he planned to use to attack Cuba. In 
1995, Cuban police arrested two Cuban Americans after they tried to 
plant a bomb at a resort in Varadero.

Those actions clearly violated U.S. neutrality laws, but America's 
justice system mostly looked the other way. Although Frometa was 
charged, convicted and sentenced to almost four years in jail, law 
enforcement agencies rarely investigated allegations involving exile 
militants, and if they did, prosecutors rarely pursued charges. Too 
often, Florida's politicians served as apologists for the exile 
community's hard-line elements.

But the Cubans had their own agents on the ground in Florida. An 
intelligence network known as La Red Avispa was dispatched in the early 
1990s to infiltrate militant exile groups. It had some successes. Agents 
thwarted a 1994 plan to set off bombs at the iconic Tropicana nightclub, 
a tourist hot spot in Havana. And they short-circuited a 1998 scheme to 
send a boat filled with explosives from the Miami River to the Dominican 
Republic to be used in an assassination attempt against Castro.

In the spring of 1998, Cuban agents uncovered a plot to blow up an 
airplane filled with beach-bound tourists from Europe or Latin America. 
(The plot resonated: Before 2001, the most deadly act of air terrorism 
in the Americas had been the 1976 midair bombing of Cubana Airlines 
Flight 455, which killed all 73 passengers and crew members.)

Castro enlisted his friend 
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to carry a secret 
message about the plot to President Bill Clinton. The White House took 
the threat seriously enough that the Federal Aviation Administration 
warned airlines.

In June of that year, FBI agents flew to Havana to meet with their Cuban 
counterparts. During three days in a safe house, the Cubans provided the 
FBI with evidence their agents had gathered on various plots, including 
the planned airplane attack and an ongoing campaign of bombings at 
Havana hotels that had taken the life of an Italian Canadian businessman.

But the FBI never arrested anyone in connection with the airplane plot 
or the hotel attacks --- even after exile militant Luis Posada Carriles 
bragged about his role 
in the Havana bombings to the New York Times in July 1998. Instead, on 
Sept. 12, 1998, a heavily armed FBI SWAT team arrested the members of 
the Cuban intelligence network in Miami.

The five agents were tried in that hostile-to-anything-Cuban city, 
convicted on low-bar charges of "conspiracy to commit" everything from 
espionage to murder and sentenced to impossibly long prison terms, 
including one double life sentence plus 15 years.

Fifteen years later, four of the Cubans still languish in American prisons.

Now you begin to understand why the Cuban Five --- as they have become 
known --- are national heroes in their homeland, why pictures of their 
younger selves loom on highway billboards all over the island, why every 
Cuban school child knows them by their first names: Gerardo, René, 
Ramon, Fernando and Antonio.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has stated 
<http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2012/11/201168.htm> that the Cuban 
Five "were all convicted in U.S. courts of committing crimes against the 
United States, including spying, treason."

It is true that three of the five men --- Antonio Guerrero, Ramon 
Labañino and Fernando Gonzalez --- did have, in part, military missions 
beyond simply infiltrating and reporting back on the activities of 
Miami's exile groups. But their purpose was not to steal America's 
military secrets or compromise U.S. security.

During the 1990s, Cuban authorities believed theirs might be the next 
Caribbean country to face an American military invasion. It wasn't a 
stretch when you consider Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Haiti 
(1994). Then, too, there was the growing influence of militantly 
anti-Castro lobbying groups such as the Cuban American National 
Foundation, which were pushing Washington to overthrow Castro and his 

Based on its assessments of those earlier invasions, Cuban intelligence 
had developed a checklist of signals that an invasion might be imminent: 
a sudden influx of combat and reconnaissance aircraft to a southern 
military base, for example, or unexpected, unexplained visits by 
military brass to Southern Command headquarters in Miami.

Agents such as Antonio Guerrero --- who worked as a janitor at the Boca 
Chica Naval Air Station in Key West from 1993 until his arrest in 1998 
and is serving 22 years in prison --- were Cuba's low-tech equivalents 
of U.S. spy satellites, counting planes on runways and reporting back to 

Of course, Cuban authorities were eager to vacuum up every tidbit of 
gossip their agents could find, and Havana occasionally pressured 
Guerrero to up his game; he responded mostly by sending clippings from 
base newspapers. No wonder. Guerrero spoke little English and had no 
security clearance; military secrets were well above his pay grade. And 
U.S. military secrets were never Cuba's real priority --- it just wanted 
to know if the Yankees were about to invade.

Seven months after the FBI charged the five with relatively 
insignificant counts --- failing to register as foreign agents, using 
false identities and, more seriously but less specifically, conspiracy 
to commit espionage --- prosecutors tacked on the charge that would 
galvanize Cuba's exile community.

They charged Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the network, with 
conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shootdown three years 
earlier of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft.

Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro group that had been rescuing 
rafters in the Straits of Florida but had lost its raison d'etre after a 
1994 immigration deal between Washington and Havana, had been illegally 
violating Cuban airspace for more than a year, occasionally raining down 
anti-government leaflets on Havana. The Cubans protested the flights. 
The U.S. government did its best to prevent further incursions, but the 
wheels of the FAA bureaucracy ground slowly.

In early 1996, the Cubans sent messages to Washington through various 
intermediaries, warning that if the United States didn't stop further 
Brothers flights, the Cubans would.

Washington didn't.

So the Cubans did. On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban fighter jets 
blew two small, unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft out of the sky, 
killing all four men aboard.

The Cubans claim that the planes were inside their territory. The U.S. 
government claims --- and the International Civil Aviation Organization 
agreed --- that the planes were in international airspace when they were 

But did Hernandez really know in advance that the Cuban government 
planned to shoot down those planes? Was he involved in the planning?

My answer is no. During my research for a book on the Cuban Five, I 
reviewed all 20,000-plus pages of the trial transcript and sifted 
through thousands of pages of decrypted communications between Havana 
and its agents. I found no evidence that Hernandez had any knowledge of, 
or influence on, the events that day.

The evidence instead paints a picture of a Cuban intelligence 
bureaucracy obsessed with compartmentalizing and controlling 
information. Hernandez, a field-level illegal intelligence officer, had 
no need to know what Cuba's military planned. The messages and 
instructions from Havana were ambiguous, hardly slam-dunk evidence, 
particularly for a charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

In one message, for example, Hernandez's bosses refer to a plan to 
"perfect the confrontation" with Brothers to the Rescue, which 
prosecutors insisted meant shooting down the planes.

But as Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch pointed out --- in her 2008 dissent 
from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th 
Circuitupholding the murder charge against Hernandez --- "There are many 
ways a country could 'confront' foreign aircraft. Forced landings, 
warning shots, and forced escorted journeys out of a country's 
territorial airspace are among them --- as are shoot downs." She said 
that prosecutors "presented no evidence" to link Hernandez to the 
shootdown. "I cannot say that a reasonable jury --- given all the 
evidence --- could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernandez 
agreed to a shoot down," Kravitch wrote.

A "reasonable jury." There's the rub.

By the late 1990s, Miami juries had become so notorious in cases 
involving Cuban exiles that federal prosecutors in a different case 
opposed a defense motion for a change of venue from Puerto Rico to Miami 
for some Cuban exiles accused of plotting to assassinate Castro.

Miami "is a very difficult venue for securing a conviction for so-called 
freedom fighters," former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey explained to the 
Miami Herald at the time. "I had some convictions, but some acquittals 
that defied all reason."

Anti-Cuban militants, in fact, were considered heroes. In 2008, more 
than 500 Miami exile movers and shakers gathered to honor Posada's 
contributions to la causa --- as the effort to overthrow Castro is known 
in the community --- at a gala dinner.

His contributions? Besides the Havana hotel attacks ("I sleep like a 
baby," he told the New York Times, commenting on the tourist who was 
killed), Posada is the alleged mastermind of the bombing of Cubana 
Flight 455. Cuba and Venezuela have asked for his extradition. The 
United States has refused.

In 2000, Posada was arrested in Panama in connection with a plot to 
assassinate Castro; he was convicted and served four yearsbefore 
receiving a still-controversial pardon. That pardon was revoked in 2008.

The closest the U.S. government has come to prosecuting Posada was in 
2009, when the Obama administration charged him --- not for his role in 
the Havana bombings but for lying about his role on an immigration form. 
He was acquitted.

Today, Posada, 85, walks the streets of Miami, a living contradiction in 
America's war on terrorism. How to square his freedom with President 
George W. Bush's post-Sept. 11 declaration that "any nation that 
continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United 
States as a hostile regime?" How to square Posada's freedom with the 
continued imprisonment of the Cuban Five, whose primary goal was to 
prevent terrorist attacks?

It is a contradiction Americans should consider.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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