Cuba seeks return of 5 spies from U.S.
by Anita Snow
Mar. 21, 2007
Reprinted from Associated Press
Photo by Javier Galeano
Adelaida Martinez works in a public office next to a billboard demanding the freedom of five intelligence agents imprisoned in U.S. popularly known as the 'Cuban Five' in Havana, Friday,March 9 ,2007 Convicted of failing to register as foreign agents, the men Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez, were sent to South Florida by Fidel Castro's government to gather information about anti-communist exile groups using encryption software, high-frequency radio transmissions and coded electronic phone messages.
HAVANA -- Their faces smile down from billboards along major highways, their poetry and humor are bound into books, and minor developments in their lives are meticulously recorded by Cuba's state media.
Five Cuban spies imprisoned in the U.S. for being unregistered foreign agents are vilified in Miami as dangerous conspirators. But here they're considered "Heroic Prisoners of the Empire" who only sought to protect Cuba from anti-communist terrorists. During Cuba's annual May 1 workers parade, hundreds of thousands of people will focus on their plight.
And Fidel Castro is closely watching their federal appeals.
Castro's government sent Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez to South Florida to gather information about anti-communist exile groups and send it back to the island using encrypted software, high-frequency radio transmissions and coded electronic phone messages.
While the so-called "Wasp Network" spy ring obtained no U.S. secrets, federal prosecutors argued for stiff sentences.
Defense lawyers said they were merely trying to gather information that might prevent exile groups from waging more attacks such as the bombings at Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist in 1997.
All five were convicted in 2001 of being unregistered foreign agents, and three also were found guilty of espionage conspiracy for failed efforts to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command headquarters. Hernandez also was convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots whose small, private planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba's northern coast.
Now serving terms ranging from 10 years to life, the men hope the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will grant their request for a new trial outside Miami, where they say it was impossible to get a fair trial in the months after the politically charged custody battle over young Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez.
A three-judge panel of the appellate court threw out their convictions, agreeing that pretrial publicity and pervasive anti-Castro feeling in Miami didn't allow for a fair trial. But the U.S. government asked the full court to reconsider.
Elian was 5 when he was found clinging to an inner tube off Florida's coast in November 1999. His mother had died when their boat carrying would-be migrants capsized. After a court battle waged by his anti-Castro relatives in Miami, the Clinton administration handed Elian over to his father in 2000 and they returned to Cuba, where they too are celebrated as heroes.
"They are grasping at straws," said Camila Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, a historically militant anti-Castro group that was one of the spy ring's targets. "There was not a single Cuban-American on the jury. Cuban-Americans make up a big part of the community in Miami, but they aren't the whole community."
Both the exiles in Florida and Cubans on the island believe Americans would take their side if they learned more about the case, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks brought home the horrors of terrorism. And as with the Elian Gonzalez affair, the agents' case has become a proxy battle for American public opinion toward Cuba.
Communist officials garnered considerable sympathy in the United States with their successful battle to reunite the boy with his father. And after 9/11, they hoped Americans would see the agents as anti-terrorist patriots, working peacefully to protect their island nation.
National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who said he and his government feel a strong responsibility for the men, expressed frustration the case hasn't made bigger news inside the United States.
"After 9/11, there is much more awareness of terrorism and terrorists in the United States," the parliament speaker told The Associated Press last month. "In that context, I would hope they would understand."
But Ruiz says the five men are anything but heroes - and that it's precisely because of 9/11 that Americans should condemn their actions.
"This is an issue for all Americans and our common concerns about foreign threats to our country," said Ruiz, who rejects the terrorist label for her organization, which she says supports non-violent change in Cuba.
On the island, the case is considered so important that the 80-year-old Castro has carefully followed it while recovering from intestinal surgery, said Alarcon. Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul Castro in late July after announcing his illness.
"I can assure you, that he is very well aware of the case of the Cuban Five," said Alarcon.
Along with the appellate case, the agents' lawyers also have been consumed with battles over visitation rights. The United States has repeatedly declined to grant visas to the wives of Gerardo Hernandez and Rene Gonzalez to visit their husbands behind bars.
"We have been trying to visit them all this time," said Hernandez's wife, Adriana Perez, who hopes to visit her husband at the federal penitentiary in Victorville, Calif.
Perez said U.S. authorities have expressed concerns she would try to overstay her visa, or would present "a danger to the United States." The State Department doesn't comment publicly on such decisions, citing confidentiality concerns.
Rene Gonzalez's two daughters, 8-year-old Ivette and 22-year-old Irma, were allowed to visit their father at the federal penitentiary in Mariana, Fla., in December and January. But their mother, Olga Salanueva, who was deported after her husband was arrested, has been denied a U.S. visa.
"She thinks it's great to see her dad on the billboards, but she'd rather see her dad at home," Salanueva said. "That's the logical place for her dad to be."