by Curt Anderson and Brendan Farrington
One of the so-called "Cuban Five," convicted of spying in the U.S. for the communist Castro government, walked out of federal prison Friday, the first of the group to complete sentences imposed a decade ago.
Rene Gonzalez, 55, served about 13 years of a 15-year sentence, with time off for good behavior and including time behind bars awaiting and during trial. His attorney, Phil Horowitz, told The Associated Press he picked up Gonzalez at the prison around 5:30 a.m. EDT. Now Gonzalez, a Chicago native who has dual American and Cuban citizenship, must serve three years' probation in the U.S., unless his attorney can persuade a Miami federal judge to let him return to Cuba.
Horowitz said for now Gonzalez wants to remain out of the limelight at an undisclosed location "anywhere from Puerto Rico to Hawaii." Horowitz said Gonzalez is declining interview requests and that he has some concern for his safety.
"He's been in prison for 13 years. I think it's time to give him some peace," he said. "I do believe he needs some time to decompress."
Gonzalez and the other four Cubans were convicted in 2001 of being part of a spy ring known as the "Wasp Network" that sought to infiltrate and report back on South Florida U.S. military installations, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to the government of Fidel and Raul Castro.
One of the five was convicted of murder conspiracy for the 1996 shootdown by Cuban fighter jets of planes flown by the "Brothers to the Rescue" operation, which dropped pro-democracy leaflets in Cuba and helped migrants trying to reach the U.S. Gonzalez, a pilot, flew with the group on some earlier missions as part of his intelligence cover as a purported anti-Castro militant, according to court documents.
The Cuban government hails the men as heroes, and they and their supporters have long insisted they were only in the U.S. to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country, mainly by Miami-based exile groups. They also complained that Miami was a patently unfair location for the trial, which took place following the controversial decision by the U.S. to send Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba. The young Cuban boy had been found on an inner tube off Fort Lauderdale, one of three survivors of a boat that sank as those onboard tried to defect to the U.S. His mother was among those who drowned. He is not related to Rene Gonzalez.
At his December 2001 sentencing, Rene Gonzalez was unapologetic, saying the men "were convicted for having committed the crime of being men of honor."
"I have no reason to be remorseful," he said.
Jose Basulto, who heads Brothers to the Rescue, called Gonzalez a "traitor" who should renounce his U.S. citizenship and go back to Cuba.
"If anything were to happen to him, I know we will immediately be blamed," Basulto said. "Let him go to Cuba, and if anything happens to him, let it be there."
The three-year probation term began the moment Gonzalez left the federal prison in Marianna, in Florida's Panhandle. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard in Miami preliminarily refused to modify probation to allow him to return to Cuba, but said he could request the change again. Horowitz said he will do so in the near future.
Gonzalez has a wife and two daughters in Cuba; his wife was also implicated in the spy network and was deported after the men's arrests. She cannot legally return to the U.S. and the couple has not seen each other for over a decade.
On Friday, the U.S.-based group that has lobbied in favor of Gonzalez and the other Cuban Five members slammed the U.S. for not allowing Gonzalez to return to Cuba.
"He has been a model prisoner, even while suffering the indignity of being inhumanely deprived visits from his wife for more than 11 years," the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five wrote. "However, the U.S. government insists on punishing him and his family even more by requiring him to remain in Florida for the three years of his" probation.
The committee has created an online petition to urge President Barack Obama to allow Gonzalez to return to Cuba.
The case's chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller, said the U.S. opposes allowing Gonzalez to return to Cuba because he might resume his spy career using his U.S. citizenship and because it would "effectively put him beyond any supervision by the court."
"He poses a particular, long-term threat to this country," Miller said in court papers.
Among the conditions of Gonzalez's probation is one barring him from "associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence (and) organized crime figures are known to be or frequent."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. should not keep Gonzalez in this country.
"Rene Gonzalez, like the regime he serves, is an enemy of America," said Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American. "He has American blood on his hands and dedicated his life to harming our country on behalf of a regime that is a state sponsor of terrorism."
Anderson reported from Miami. AP Hispanic Affairs Writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this story.
by Michael Peltier
(Reuters) - A Cuban spy convicted of infiltrating a Cuban exile organization in Florida was released from a U.S. jail early on Friday after serving 13 years of his 15-year-sentence, his lawyer said.
Rene Gonzalez, the first to be freed of the so-called "Cuban Five" jailed espionage agents arrested in 1998, left the Marianna prison in Florida's northwest Panhandle at around 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT) and was reunited with his two daughters, father and brother, attorney Philip Horowitz told Reuters.
Holding dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, he is still required under his sentence to spend three years of supervised probation in the United States and was taken to an unknown destination Horowitz declined to reveal for security reasons.
"He was in great spirits, very happy to see his family," Horowitz said, adding he would renew an appeal against the requirement Gonzalez spend his probation in the United States.
Cuba's communist government and Gonzalez' family and supporters are demanding he be allowed to immediately return to Cuba. They say his safety in the United States might be at risk from possible reprisals by the Cuban exiles he was spying on.
Cuba hails the five convicted spies as heroes and has waged an international campaign for their release. Havana argues Gonzalez and his fellow agents -- the remaining four are still serving their sentences -- were working undercover in Florida to stop "terrorist" attacks on Cuba by hard-line anti-communist Cuban exiles.
The case of the five has been an irritant to already poisoned U.S.-Cuba ties, which have deteriorated further since the jailing in Cuba of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross.
Accused by Havana of illegally distributing Internet and satellite communications equipment on the island, Gross was sentenced by a Cuban court in March to 15 years in prison, dimming prospects for any thawing in relations between the two ideologically-opposed neighbors.
During the Miami trial leading to Gonzalez' 2001 conviction, U.S. prosecutors said that as a member of the so-called Cuban espionage "Wasp Network" he infiltrated a Cuban exile flying group, Brothers to the Rescue, two of whose planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets off Cuba in 1996. Four men in the planes were killed.
Gonzalez, a pilot who had previously served with Cuba's armed forces in Angola, flew to the United States from Cuba in 1990 in a crop-dusting plane in an apparent defection before it later emerged in 1998 he was a member of Cuban intelligence.
(Additional reporting and writing by Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Editing by Philip Barbara)
by Mariano Castillo and Melanie Whitley, CNN
Rene Gonzalez, a Cuban convicted of spying in the United States, was released Friday after serving most of a 15-year sentence, a prison spokesman told CNN.
Gonzalez was one of five convicted spies known as the "Cuban Five" who were arrested in 1998.
A Miami jury in 2001 convicted members of what was called the Wasp Network on charges they had spied on prominent Cuban-American exile leaders and U.S. military bases.
The five were Gonzalez; Ruben Campa, also known as Fernando Gonzalez; Gerardo Hernandez; Luis Medina (also known as Ramon Labanino); and Antonio Guerrero.
Hernandez, the group's leader, also was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for engineering the shoot-down of two planes flown by the group Brothers to the Rescue in 1996.
Gonzalez is the first of the five to be released from prison. He was behind bars for 13 years and 26 days, said his attorney, Phillip Horowitz.
But he still has three years of probation to serve, said Neil Robinson, spokesman for the Marianna federal prison in Florida.
Gonzalez was freed about 4 a.m., Horowitz said.
"I cannot discuss or disclose what he is doing and where he is going in order to protect his personal safety," he said. "Mr. Gonzalez is glad to be out but it is a bittersweet day because his four friends are still in prison. He wishes he could return to his family in Cuba as quickly as the judge permits."
Gonzalez will appeal the conditions of his probation so that he may serve it in Cuba instead of the United States, Horowitz said.
Gonzalez has a 25-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old daughter who was only 4 months old when he was arrested.
During the trial, the defendants claimed they had spied as a way to defend Cuba from hard-line anti-Castro groups in Miami they feared would attack the island.
The case has been widely followed in Cuba, where the men were regarded as heroes and whose former leader, Fidel Castro, regularly advocated their release.
by Damien Cave
MEXICO CITY — When five Cuban intelligence officers were charged with spying against the United States in 1998, the Cuban government immediately hailed them as heroes, with billboards, books and movies, and argued that their convictions and sentences — handed down in a Miami court — proved that the United States was an enemy, beholden to radical Cuban exiles.
Now one of the so-called Cuban Five has been released on probation; René González, 55, left a Florida jail on Friday after serving 13 years in prison. But Cuban officials, who have maintained chilly relations with Washington while embarking on a program of dramatic economic change, say they are far from satisfied.
“This is the hour of truth for the Obama administration,” said Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, at a solidarity rally in Mexico City on Friday. Referring to militant Cuban exile groups that are now mostly dormant, he added, “Will the Obama administration stay complicit with the worst assassins in the hemisphere, or truly, finally, do something different?”
Mr. Alarcón’s demands were familiar: release the other four men, and let Mr. González, who has dual Cuban and American citizenship, serve his three-year probation in Cuba. The administration has said before that these demands would not be met.
“The so-called Cuban Five were tried and convicted in U.S. Federal Court and are not political prisoners,” said William Ostick, a State Department spokesman.
The chief prosecutor in the case said the United States government opposed Mr. González’s return to Cuba because of concerns that he would resume his spying career outside American supervision. The other four still face lengthy prison terms.
Mr. Alarcón, however, said a pardon for the men would prove to the world that Mr. Obama represented a clean break from the policies of the first and second President Bush. Mr. Alarcón referred to the latter as “Little Bush.”
Mr. Alarcón insisted that the Cuban men were not the dangerous threat described by prosecutors. Acknowledging that they were intelligence officers, he said they had gone to Miami to detect and prevent attacks from exile groups that the Cuban government saw as a threat.
One of these groups was Brothers to the Rescue, which dropped pro-democracy leaflets on the island and helped Cuban migrants at sea. In 1996, two of the group’s planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force, killing all four men aboard.
One member of the Cuban Five had gathered information on the group, leading to a conviction on murder conspiracy charges for what prosecutors described as his contribution to the downing of the planes. Court records say that Mr. González, a pilot, had also infiltrated the group and flown with them, while all five Cubans were also convicted of spying on American military installations.
At his sentencing in 2001, Mr. González said he was not remorseful. He described his group as “men of honor.”
Now some Cuban-Americans in Florida say they want him to leave. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a South Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the United States should not hold on to someone who “has American blood on his hands.”
Others have said they fear that if something happens to Mr. González, Cuban exiles will be blamed, rightly or wrongly. But regardless of whether Mr. González leaves, Cuban officials are unlikely to end their campaign to release what are now the Cuban Four. For the foreseeable future, experts and Cuban officials say, they will stand near the top of Cuba’s long-running tally of American offenses.
“They are a symbol,” Mr. Alarcón said, “of the essence of Cuban resistance.”
por Jay Weaver
Un espía cubano condenado hace una década como parte de la Red Avispa se convirtió este viernes en el primero del grupo en ser liberado de la prisión, pero no se le permitirá salir de Estados Unidos hacia Cuba en un plazo cercano.
René González, que cumplió 13 años de prisión, se reunió con sus dos hijas y su padre, que recibieron visas de Estados Unidos para estar presentes cuando saliera de la prisión Marianna, en el Panhandle de la Florida.
Pero todavía tiene que cumplir tres años de libertad condicional en Estados Unidos, a menos que un juez apruebe su petición de regresar a Cuba, donde los cinco agentes de la Red Avispa son vistos como héroes.
“Increíblemente, [los fiscales] quieren que René permanezca en Estados Unidos para cumplir los tres años de libertad supervisada”, afirmó el abogado Philip Horowitz, que representó a González en el juicio de la Red Avispa en Miami, en el entre el 2000 y el 2001.
“Nuestro argumento es que son tres años de castigo adicional, lejos de su familia”, dijo Horowitz en una reciente conferencia de prensa telefónica patrocinada por un grupo basado en San Francisco que procura la libertad de los espías.
Horowitz no quiso revelar dónde planea vivir su cliente, alegando razones de seguridad.
Los cinco agentes cubanos fueron juzgados como parte de la Red Avispa, un anillo de más de 40 agentes de inteligencia del régimen cubano y colaboradores que operaban en el sur de la Florida. Otras cinco personas llegaron a arreglos extrajudiciales a cambio de cooperar y otros escaparon de vuelta a Cuba.
Los vínculos de la red con el derribo de dos avionetas de la organización Hermanos al Rescate en 1996 en aguas internacionales sobre el Estrecho de la Florida hizo que el caso resultara extremadamente controvesial. En el ataque contra esas aeronaves civiles perecieron los cuatro miembros del grupo de exiliados.
González, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino y Fernando González mantuvieron una defensa simple: colaboraban en una misión justa para frustrar las conspiraciones de exiliados de Miami contra Fidel Castro y su gobierno.
Fueron declarados culpables de conspirar para infiltrarse en los grupos de exiliados cubanos y en instalaciones militares de Estados Unidos. Hernández también fue condenado por conspiración en el derribo de las avionetas de Hermanos al Rescate.
González, nacido en Chicago pero quien creció en Cuba, fue condenado a 15 años. En su audiencia de sentencia, atacó a los fiscales como “hipócritas” por perseguir a los agentes cubanos, pero no a los militantes exiliados.
En documentos judiciales presentados recientemente, la fiscal federal adjunta Caroline Heck Miller citó sus palabras para reforzar el argumento de que se le debe obligar a cumplir su período de libertad condicional en Estados Unidos, para que pueda ser realmente “supervisado” después de su salida de prisión.
González y los otros cuatro cubanos condenados son considerados héroes en Cuba. Los hombres también son objeto de amplias campañas de apoyo internacional.
La prensa escrita y los medios de radio y televisión de Cuba exigen continuamente su liberación. El ex gobernante cubano Fidel Castro intervino esta semana, calificando la reciente decisión de la jueza federal de distrito Joan Lenard de bloquear el regreso de González a Cuba, de “brutal, torpe y esperada”.
“Así es como el imperio responde a la creciente demanda en todo el mundo por su libertad”, escribió Castro. “Si no fuera así, el imperio dejaría de ser un imperio y [el presidente] Obama dejaría de ser estúpido”.
De acuerdo con una transcripción de la sentencia hecha por la corte, González dijo: “La forma en que he actuado se ajusta perfectamente a la conducta descrita en los estatutos según los que fui acusado. ... Por lo tanto, ni siquiera tengo derecho a pedir clemencia para mí. ... Me gustaría creer que ustedes entienden por qué no tengo ninguna razón para sentir remordimientos. ... [Mis compañeros acusados] fueron condenados por haber cometido el delito de ser hombres de honor”.
Pero la jueza condenó su discurso, diciendo que sus “creencias personales no justifican su conducta criminal”. También indicó que “los actos terroristas de otros no pueden ser excusa para los actos ilícitos o ilegales de este acusado o de cualquier otro”.
Lenard también censuró a González por el uso de su ciudadanía estadounidense como un medio para volver a entrar y vivir en Estados Unidos con el fin de servir a un régimen comunista.
“Pero su reclamación del estatus [de ciudadano] no fue para buscar la libertad ni el derecho inalienable de buscar la felicidad”, subrayó. “Su propósito al afirmar su ciudadanía de Estados Unidos para volver a entrar y vivir en Estados Unidos, fue para servir a un amo diferente”.
Lenard sentenció a González a la pena máxima de cinco años por la condena de conspiración, y a la máxima de 10 años por actuar como agente cubano no inscrito en Estados Unidos. Se le permitió cumplir 13 de esos años, principalmente, en una prisión federal de mediana seguridad en Marianna, donde ganó créditos por buen comportamiento y otros razones.
González reclamó su ciudadanía después de una “deserción” falsa en la que pilotó un avión fumigador de Cuba en 1990. En Miami, se hizo pasar por un ardiente activista anticastrista, y se unió a dos grupos de exiliados que volaban aviones, Hermanos al Rescate y el Movimiento Democracia, mientras que enviaba informes a La Habana sobre ambas organizaciones y trabajaba para causar divisiones internas.
De acuerdo con las evidencias presentadas en el juicio, Hernández, jefe de la red, recibió mensajes radiales cifrados de sus jefes de La Habana ordenándole que advirtiera a René González y otro agente, Juan Pablo Roque, que no volaran en ninguna misión de Hermanos al Rescate entre el 24 y el 27 de febrero de 1996.
Roque regresó a Cuba un día antes del derribo del 24 de febrero y posteriormente se reveló que era un doble agente. Hernández fue el único miembro de los Cinco de Cuba condenados por el cargo de conspirar para cometer asesinato.
El fundador de Hermanos al Rescate, José Basulto, que estaba volando en otro avión en el día del derribo de las avionetas, era un cercano amigo de González. En el momento de su sentencia, Basulto aseguró que el discurso de González en la corte le reveló todo lo que necesitaba saber sobre el hombre en el que una vez había confiado.
“Quería ver lo que había dentro de él y él nos ofreció una radiografía de sus sentimientos: odio y resentimiento”, aseguró Basulto en el 2001.
La semana pasada, Basulto declaró que González era el de mayor motivación ideológica entre los cinco espías y que su desprecio por este país probablemente lo ayudó a pasar sus años en la prisión.
“No creo que el hombre haya cambiado en absoluto”, dijo Basulto. “Es la misma persona resentida que siempre ha sido”.
En cuanto a su suerte, Basulto dijo que “lo mejor” para González sería que el juez le permitiera regresar a Cuba. “El no tiene cabida aquí”, dijo. “No creo que en este lado del Estrecho de la Florida tengamos ningún uso para una persona como él”.
El Comité Nacional por la Libertad de los Cinco, un grupo de defensa con sede en San Francisco, ha publicado en su página de internet una petición dirigida al presidente Barack Obama para que a González regresar a Cuba.
“A la esposa de González, Olga Salanueva, se le han denegado repetidamente las visas para entrar en Estados Unidos y visitarlo en la cárcel, y como resultado de esto, ellos no han podido verse desde agosto del 2000: más de 11 años”, asegura la petición.
“El gobierno de Estados Unidos quiere ahora añadir tres años más a su castigo, algo que seguramente es cruel e inusual, por no hablar de una violación de todas las normas de los derechos humanos”.