The case of the Cuban Five continues to expose the politicisation of US courts
by Faiza Rady
Sept. 20, 2007
Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo, Egypt)
The New York-based International Committee to Free the Cuban Five (ICFCF) chose 12 September to launch a new worldwide campaign on behalf of five men who, on that day, entered their 10th year in US maximum security jails. Arrested in Miami in September 1998, Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzales and Rene Gonzales were all charged with and convicted of "conspiracy to commit espionage" in 2001 in a legally controversial and highly politicised trial. Their sentences range from 15 years to a double life sentence.
The charge of "conspiracy to commit espionage" is not contingent on evidence of actual spying having occurred in the real world. Although the FBI seized some 800 documents and thousands of other pages from the five, not one page included classified government documents. The five were convicted, but on the nebulous charge of "intent" to engage in espionage at some point in time.
"We call on all Free the Five committees to take part in a global campaign between 12 September and 8 October," reads the ICFCF statement addressed to the "friends of Cuba". To name but a few, these include luminaries of the stature of Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, South African Nobel laureate bishop Desmond Tutu, distinguished writer and MIT professor of linguistics Noam Chomsky, African American writer Alice Walker; African American singer Harry Belafonte, editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Ignacio Ramonet, Pakistani writer Tariq Ali, former US attorney- general and political activist Ramsey Clark, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
In an October 2003 interview with Radio Havana, Chomsky described the case of the five as "amazing". Their saga started when the Cuban government decided to investigate Cuban exile terrorist groups based in Miami following a wave of bombings of Havana restaurants and hotels in the 1990s. In 1997 alone, bombs were placed in no less than 10 Havana hotels.
Cuban government sources estimate that since the Cuban revolution, 3,478 Cubans have been killed and 2,099 wounded in attacks against the island.
In the early 1990s, the five were sent to Miami with the mission of infiltrating terrorist groups and gathering information about them. They found 64 known terrorists residing in the Miami area and provided four hours of film, showing illegal military training in various camps. The Cuban government then approached the FBI and offered to share their information on the assumption that the agency was in the business of combating terrorism.
The US government wasn't interested. Rather than act on the information and arrest their home-grown Miami-based terrorists, the Clinton administration instead arrested the Cuban Five. "Here are Cubans who are infiltrating illegal, terrorist organisations in the US which are violating US law and the infiltrators are arrested, not the terrorists. It's astonishing," said Chomsky.
In the US, the story of the Cuban Five is subject to a tight media blackout. "In the US, the story is not reported; nobody knows about it. You can find material on some Internet sites, but it's a major research project. An ordinary person cannot be expected to do that," Chomsky explained. The US media blackout is evidently political, serving to cover up what the government allows on US territory. "The Bush administration," says Chomsky, "has refused intelligence cooperation with Cuba on terrorism because it would lead directly back to terrorist groups based in the US."
In August 2005, the friends of Cuba addressed an open letter to then US attorney-general Alberto Gonzales demanding "the immediate liberation of the five young men" following the successful appeal of their sentences. On 9 August 2005, a three-judge panel with the Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Atlanta published a 93-page decision declaring their convictions "null and void". The court even named some of the "Cuban exile groups of concern to the Cuban government". These include, among others, Alpha 66 and the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
Founded in 1962 Alpha 66 is considered as one the most disreputable among the listed organisations. Since its establishment it has been part of the autonomous operations of the CIA. Miami police intelligence documents describes Alpha 66 as "one of the most dangerous and active among the Miami-based anti-Castro organisations". Its record includes assassination attempts against Cuban President Fidel Castro, the machine-gunning of a student residence in Tarara on 19 May 1963, and -- more recently -- attacks on fishing boats and the Hotel Guitart-Cayo Coco.
Established with the active support of Ronald Reagan in 1981, CANF partly functions as a lobby aiming to pass anti- Cuba legislation in Congress. To that effect, it specialises in bribing and buying off politicians. But over and above mere politicking, CANF has financed criminal operations, the most infamous of which involved bankrolling terrorists like Cuban exiles Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch.
According to declassified FBI files (Document 9, FBI, 7 October 1976), both Posada and Bosch masterminded the midair bombing of Cubana Flight 455 on 6 October 1976 that killed all 73 people onboard. "There were no innocents on that plane," Bosch was quoted as saying. "All of Castro's planes are warplanes."
Posada, who was convicted for the bombing by a Venezuelan court, bought his way out of a Venezuelan jail in September 1985. He then pursued a career with the US- established "contra" army in El Salvador under the leadership of Colonel Oliver North with the aim of destabilising the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Mission accomplished, he resurfaced to target Cuba's booming tourist industry, the island's main source of hard currency.
On 4 September 1997, a Salvadoran national, on Posada's payroll bombed Havana's Copacabana Hotel killing Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo and wounding six others. The following year, in a front-page interview with The New York Times (12 July and 13 July, 1998), Posada admitted to have planned the bombing. He dismissed the death of di Celmo as "a freak accident", saying that the victim had been "at the wrong place at the wrong time". Not one to be plagued by guilt, his conscience was so clear, he told reporters, that he could "sleep like a baby".
He had a point. With powerful friends like CANF who enjoy political clout at the highest level of government, Posada didn't need to worry about paying for his crimes -- at least not in the US. CANF's late founder and chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, was in fact a close friend of successive US presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
Like Posada, his co-conspirator, Bosch enjoyed protection from the top. In 1987, US Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich pulled the necessary strings and had Bosch cleared of all Venezuelan charges related to the Cubana Flight 455 bombing. Bosch then went to the US, where he was eventually jailed for parole violation, though not for long. Before leaving office in 1990, George Bush Sr granted Bosch a presidential pardon, despite the Defense Department's objection that Bosch was one the most deadly terrorists working within the hemisphere.
The Alpha 66, CANF, Canosa and Reich trail leading to the US executive explains the inordinately harsh sentences given to the Cuban Five. Indeed, their conviction on charges that the prosecution by its own admission failed to prove is precisely for having infiltrated terrorist organisations that are linked to the US political elite.
Besides acknowledging the danger posed by Miami-based terrorist organisations, the Court of Appeals judges ruled that the Cuban Five did not receive a fair trial in Miami because the city is beset by "a perfect storm of prejudice". Prior to this ruling, the Cubans' sentences had already been declared illegal by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention who said that Miami's biased political climate made a fair trial impossible.
Ignoring the US Court of Appeals and the UN's watchdog on illegal detention, the Bush administration refused to set the Cubans free. In a highly unusual move, the Department of Justice told the Atlanta Court of Appeals to cancel its decision declaring the convictions "null and void" and demanded that a new 12-judge panel re- examine the case. Bowing to political pressure, the court denied the five's appeal for a retrial.
On 20 August, the Cuban Five renewed their appeal for a retrial before the Atlanta Court of Appeals. Chilean Justice Juan Guzman, who attended the hearing as an observer with other distinguished international jurists, commented: "if the court really seeks justice, they should recognise the innocence of the Cuban Five."