‘A gross miscarriage of justice'?
by Tracey Eaton
Sept. 12, 2008
Reprinted from San Antonio News
Activists trying to free five Cuban spies from American prisons take their case to Washington today, 10 years after the FBI arrested the agents.
Eight Nobel Prize winners, poets, students, lawmakers and thousands of others from 78 countries have rallied around the spies, although their case remains largely unknown in the United States.
Protests are also planned in San Antonio and dozens of other cities.
The former top U.S. diplomat in Havana plans to join the activists across the street from the White House today as they unveil 100,000 signatures demanding the release of the so-called Cuban Five.
Supporters say the five spies were gathering information on anti-Cuban exile groups, which they were sharing with their government as well as U.S. authorities.
“I've followed this case from beginning to end,” said Wayne Smith, who was posted in Cuba during the Carter administration. “It's a gross miscarriage of justice.”
Others insist the agents serve their full jail terms, calling Cuban espionage a threat.
Jorge Farragut, a Cuban leader who settled in Houston in 1980, said releasing the agents would be a mistake.
“They're enemies of this country,” said Farragut, who believes Cuban spies are likely active not only in Florida and Washington, but possibly Houston.
“It's a strategic port,” he explained.
Supporters of the Cuban agents bristle at such talk and say the agents were only trying to prevent Cuban exile attacks on Cuba.
“It's ironic. The day after 9-11 is the 10th anniversary of their imprisonment,” said John Stanford, 83, an activist who plans to join the San Antonio protest today outside the Federal Building at 727 E. Durango. The protest will be held from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
Relatives of the Cuban Five say they are the victims of Cold War politics.
“This is a political case,” said Adriana Pérez, wife of Gerardo Hernández, the agent who received the harshest jail term — two life sentences plus 15 years. “It has been a very wearing and difficult process to endure.”
The FBI arrested Hernández, 43, in 1998 and accused him of leading a Cuban spy ring called the Wasp Network.
Pérez, 38, said U.S. officials have not allowed her to visit him since his jailing.
In 2002, she said she tried to see Hernández at Lompoc prison in California. But she only made it as far as Houston's George Bush International Airport, where she was stopped, detained for 11 hours, and returned to Cuba.
On eight other occasions, she said, U.S. authorities rejected her visa application.
“Psychological torture” is how she described her ordeal during an interview in Santiago de Cuba, her country's second-largest city.
Olga Salanueva, 48, wife of René González, 52, another one of the jailed agents, said she also has been denied entry to the U.S.
“I wish René were here. We would be a normal couple ... walking through the streets completely unnoticed,” said Salanueva, her eyes glistening with tears.
U.S. officials contend Salanueva was rejected because she was a member of the Florida-based Wasp Network, had been “deported for engaging in activity related to espionage, and is ineligible to return to the United States.”
Pérez was turned down because she was “a candidate for training” as a U.S.-based spy when the FBI arrested the spies, according to a document posted on the State Department's Web site.
“Consistent with the right of the United States to protect itself from covert spies, the U.S. government has not granted visas to the wives of two prisoners,” the document said.
Pérez said it is “ridiculous” to think that she or Salanueva threaten U.S. national security.
“Neither I nor Olga ... are a danger to American security,” she said.
Some Cuban American leaders dispute that, saying Cuban spies have been known to target U.S. military installations.
“They were spying on the U.S. Southern Command,” said Ninoska Pérez, a prominent Cuban American leader in Miami. “Spying is a serious problem.”
Prosecutors said the Wasp Network had been instructed to penetrate U.S. military institutions and government agencies, including the FBI.
Cuban spies should not be underestimated, said James Cason, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002 to 2005.
“They have one of the better services in the world, and we're the only enemy from their perspective,” he said.
Cuban agents “are very good,” said Cason, the former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and a career diplomat with more than 30 years' experience in Latin America.
“My guess is that there are lots and lots of them all over the place,” he said. “Who knows? We'd love to know where they all are.”
The agents' supporters point out that they were convicted of conspiracy, not espionage.
“Don't call them spies,” said Walter Lippmann, director of CubaNews, an 8-year-old online news service that collects, archives and shares information about Cuba.
“They were not arrested nor charged with espionage, but with a more nebulous thing, ‘conspiracy,' that is, they were talking to one another about doing something,” he said.
The three agents besides Gerardo Hernández and René González are Antonio Guerrero, 49, Ramón Labañino, 45, and Fernando González, 45.
U.S. officials say they have issued more than 100 visas to family members visiting the agents from Cuba.
Yvette, now 10, visited her father René when she was 1 and saw him handcuffed to a chair. Thinking he looked like a dog, her first words were, ‘Bow-wow,'” said Roberto González, brother of René González.
The Five Heroes
By now, every child in Cuba knows the story of the agents, known simply as Los Cinco Héroes — the Five Heroes. They have become household names in Cuba, and their pictures are splashed across huge highway billboards and posters.
Cuban artist José Fuster built a towering tile-encrusted sculpture dedicated to the agents.
“Our five brothers have done 10 years of unjust prison time,” he said.
The agents' seven-month trial in 2001 went virtually unnoticed outside Miami even though it was the longest trial in the U.S. at the time.
The agents were convicted on 26 counts and given jail terms ranging from 15 years to life.
Fidel Castro has said he sent the agents to Florida to infiltrate anti-Cuba exile organizations. Exiles led the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and other attacks that Cuban officials blame for more than 3,000 deaths since 1959.
Castro, who fell ill in July 2006 and hasn't appeared in public since then, has said the U.S. government tolerated and in some cases supported such actions. He wasn't confident that American authorities would fully investigate any new anti-Cuba plots, so the agents were necessary, he has said.
The agents' lawyers say they did not get a fair trial in Miami.
A three-judge appellate panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed and ordered a new trial in 2005.
But then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzáles asked the full 12-judge court to re-examine the case, and it upheld the agents' convictions in November 2005.
Lawyers plan to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith said the Cuban Five meant no harm to the United States. They were only trying to defend their country from attacks, he said.
“They infiltrated exile terrorist groups,” Smith said. “They passed information to their own government, and the Cuban government passed that information to the U.S. government.”
“The whole idea was to get some facts, pass it to the Americans, and they would take some action to stop these terrorist acts,” he said.
Instead, the FBI turned around and arrested the Cuban spies.
“It's an injustice,” Smith said. “It casts a terrible stain on the American judicial system.”
Tracey Eaton, a former editor at the Houston Chronicle, was based in Cuba from 2000 to early 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at http://alongthemalecon.blogspot.com/.