The ‘Cuban Five’ and an American named Gross

By Kevin Lizarazo

Kevin Lizarazo/JWW

HAVANA –  Since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, relations with the United States have gone from bad to worse, and back to bad again.

Points of contention have included: a U.S. embargo against Cuba, Cuban support for left-wing governments in Latin America, and U.S. efforts to assassinate Castro and overthrow his government.

But today, with Fidel having relinquished power to his more moderate brother Raul, another issue is at the forefront: the “Cuban Five.”

The Five are a group of former Cuban intelligence officers who were operating in the United States and were arrested by FBI agents in 1998. They are: Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez. They operated within a group called “La Red Avispa” -– or the Wasp Network, which was an espionage cell that sought to infiltrate radical Cuban-American groups suspected of committing acts of terrorism against Cuba.

Their operation ended in 1998 after Cuban authorities sent information regarding a Cuban exile named Luis Posada Carriles, who had a role in the bombings of hotels and nightspots in Havana in 1997, to American officials. American officials used that information to go after the Wasp cell, a total of ten arrests. The so-called Cuban Five are serving terms from 15 years to life.

These days Cubans rally for the Five’s release, considering them to be national heroes and fighters against terrorism who sacrificed their liberty for the safety of Cubans. Many Cubans have worried over the years about Cuban-American groups such as Alpha 66, who have vowed to overthrow the Cuban government. (The threats were significantly more serious a decade or two ago than recently.)

Yamil Martinez, an official at the Havana-based Cuban Institute for Friendship Between Peoples, or ICAP, is among the Cubans who are still very concerned.

At a presentation to U.S. student-journalists in Havana, Martinez recounted the Cuban side of the story about the Cuban Five – such as their mission within the United States and the events leading up to their arrest – and he expressed strong feelings that incarcerations are unjust.

“Even high-ranking Americans were called to testify for the defense,” Martinez said, referring to former White House advisor Richard Nuccio and retired Admiral Eugene Carroll.

Some experts say that the Cuban Five should be a diplomatic door to exchanges between Cuba and the U.S., with the former making concessions and the latter doing so also.

“The problem is the U.S. government is not prepared to release the Cuban Five,” said William LeoGrande, the Dean of the School of Public Affairs in American University, who is an expert on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.

Martinez would agree. “We understand very clearly that it is a problem with the U.S. government,” he said.

If there were to be a diplomatic tradeoff involving the Cuban Five, it would likely include a former U.S. contractor named Alan Gross, who was arrested in Havana in 2009.

Gross was working with the United States Agency for International Development, known as USAID, which sponsors foreign organizations that seek to propagate American ideals and interests abroad.

Cuban government officials have said that Gross could be released on humanitarian grounds if the U.S. reciprocated by returning the Five.

Gross, currently two years into his 15-year long sentence in Cuba, was convicted of committing “Acts against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State” after attempting to set up intranet and Internet connections for the Cuban-Jewish community of Havana. The Cubans say he was smuggling a satellite phone that would allow the community to independently connect to the Internet.

The U.S. denies that Gross was contracted by American intelligence services to bring satellite communication equipment into Havana, which is illegal in Cuba.

The combination of the Gross and Cuban Five cases are lately causing tensions that involve the U.S. media.

An editorial in the Washington Post dated December 31, 2011 called for the immediate release of Gross. The editorial characterized Gross’ case as having no equivalence to that of the five Cuban intelligence agents – and that any notion of a prisoner swap should not be entertained.

“The U.S. government should keep trying to bring [Gross] home – without yielding to Cuban extortion,” the editorial concluded. The editorial was met with a response from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C.

A letter, written by Deputy Chief of Mission Juan Lamigueiro Leon, was addressed to the Washington Post. In the letter, the Cuban diplomat insisted that Gross was imprisoned for breaking the law, declaring that Gross was not jailed for “humanitarian work associated with helping the Cuban Jewish community connect to the Internet.”

“Mr. Gross violated Cuban laws and was engaged in covert activities to destabilize Cuba,” the Cuban official wrote.

“The U.S. government had hired Mr. Gross to implement federal programs that made attempts against Cuba’s constitutional order. This is considered illegal in Cuba as in many countries, including the United States.”

He wrote of the Cuban Five, in contrast: “They were monitoring the terrorist activity of extremist Cuban groups in New Jersey and Florida.” Lamigueiro Leon further asserted that the mission of the Five was to pre-empt terrorist activity against Cuba by infiltrating cells operating on U.S. soil.

“Cuba was able to share with the FBI [with the knowledge and approval of then President Bill Clinton] dozens of tapes, videos, and extensive details on the campaign of terror,” he wrote. “That evidence, though, was not used to arrest the terrorists, but instead was employed against the Five Cubans, in a legal process corrupted by political motivations.”

The letter also alleges that the U.S. government secretly paid Miami-based journalists to write biased and slanted articles in the media during the 17-month long trial – undermining the Five’s right to due process.

American officials, as revealed in leaked diplomatic cables, have a different view of the Cuban Five.

In a U.S. diplomatic cable dated December 14, 2009, titled “Why All the Fuss About the Cuban Five,” which was leaked by Wikileaks, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana wrote about their investigation into how the Cuban Five are being viewed in the Cuban capital.

“Most Cubans don’t really know or even care about their fate,” it reads, after mentioning that U.S. Interests Section officers randomly approached Cubans and asked about the Five. It also stated that “domestically at least, it has not returned the huge investment that the government has staked in the case.”

The U.S. Interests Section, in the Wikileaks dispatch, concluded that “the main value of the spies to the Government of Cuba is as a propaganda tool for Cubans on the island.”

LeoGrande, the American University scholar, said that while the two cases may not be the same, they should both be treated now as “humanitarian cases” that merit diplomatic discussions.

“Whatever we think of the crimes that they were convicted of – whether they were fair or not fair – set all that aside,” he said in a phone interview.

“You’ve got humanitarian cases and it’s worth it on humanitarian grounds alone. It’s worth a trade.”

When asked if U.S. politics could factor into the decision to release the Five, LeoGrande responded: “I think the politics of the issue are really a problem, even if the Obama administration wanted to do something in this regard.”

“Now with the presidential election coming up and the importance of Cubans that can vote in Florida, I don’t think they’re prepared to do anything until after the election.”

Martinez expressed hope at the notion of Cuba and the United States coming together at the diplomatic table: “Cuba is willing to sit and talk with the United States,” he said.

“The only condition: we sit and talk as equals. That’s it.”