Five Cubans

John Perry

René González spent his 55th birthday on 13 August in a Florida prison. He and four colleagues, known in the UK as the ‘Miami Five’ and in the US as the ‘Cuban Five’, have been in prison since 1998. René is the least unlucky of the five, because his sentence of 15 years was the lightest. However, when I met his mother recently, she was worried that the Miami courts had a further punishment in mind: to send him out on ‘probation’ to one of the areas on the City’s west side where Cuban exiles are concentrated, and where he might very well be shot.

That the Five should be in prison at all is the product of a bizarre sequence of events in which justice has been turned on its head. While the anti-Castro politics of many Miami Cubans are well known, there is less knowledge of the terrorist acts they have attempted, the worst and most ‘successful’ of which was the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 78 people. Frustrated at the unwillingness of the American authorities to prevent these crimes, in the 1990s the Castro government recruited five agents to infiltrate the worst of the Miami-based cells such as ‘Brothers to the Rescue’. They succeeded, and the Cuban government held meetings with the FBI in Havana in June 1998 to present the evidence of planned attacks that the agents had collected.

Instead of acting on the evidence, however, in September 1998 the FBI arrested the Five for conspiring to commit espionage and ‘related offences’ against the US. After being held for 17 months in solitary confinement, their seven-month trial was held (against their petitions) in the hostile atmosphere of Miami itself. They were sentenced to lengthy periods in prison including – in the case of Gerardo Hernandez – two life sentences.

The Five have exhausted the appeals process, which in 2005 briefly resulted in the verdicts against them being overturned by a panel of three judges, before that decision was itself reversed following a government appeal. Some of the sentences were reduced, but Gerardo’s was confirmed. His life sentences result from the accusation, never properly proved, that he was engaged in helping the Cuban air force shoot down aircraft in international waters. This relates to an incident in 1996, when two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down, having ignored warnings from the Cubans and from the Federal Aviation Administration. Whether they were in international waters or in Cuban airspace is still disputed, but the history of prior attacks by members of Brothers to the Rescue is not. In the 1960s, their leader José Basulto, who escaped in the third plane, had begun his terrorist career by firing a 20mm cannon at a beachside hotel in the Cuban resort of Miramar, from a vessel offshore.

Instead of contesting the evidence that he was linked to these incidents, Gerardo’s court-appointed attorney at the original trial attempted to justify the retaliation by the Cuban air force, which of course was a line of argument highly unlikely to be treated with any sympathy by a Miami jury. Gerardo is now trying to obtain an annulment of the verdict through a writ of habeas corpus. Reading his case gives further insight into how perverted the seven-month trial was.

In contrast to the treatment of the Cuban Five, one of the most notorious of the Cuban exiles, Luis Posada Carriles, who escaped from prison in Venezuela where he had been sentenced for his role in the 1976 Cuban airliner bombing, and has since admitted his involvement in a series of attacks against Cuba, has been living freely in the United States. Now 83, this year he not only evaded prison for immigration offences but in June, as a ‘true patriot’, was granted the freedom of the City of Hialeah in Florida. This presumably recognises his 37-year career, much of it in the pay of the CIA, during which he organised supply flights to the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s and the bombing of Havana hotels in 1997.

For much of the time the Cuban Five do not even have the freedom to receive prison visits from family members. René’s wife, Olga, has been refused a visa to visit the US. The hope is that Gerardo’s application, which is also based on the discovery in 2006 that reporters covering the trial were in the pay of the US government, will result in his conviction being overturned and a new review of the other cases.

Of course, as everyone on either side of the case is aware, it is only because the Five are Cuban agents that they have been imprisoned at all. After all, when eleven ‘deep cover’ Russian agents were arrested in New York last year, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, they were simply sent back to Russia.