Chicago-born spy remains hero in Cuba
As Rene Gonzalez and four others appeal their 2001 U.S. convictions this week, kin and countrymen rally behind 'terrorism fighters'
by Michael Martinez
August 19, 2007
Reprinted from The Chicago Tribune
One of Cuba's most celebrated spies was born in a flat along Chicago's bustling Ashland Avenue in 1956.
Back then, Rene Gonzalez, now in a Florida prison cell, was just like any other kid on the North Side, enjoying outings at the lake, Lincoln Park Zoo and the bygone Riverview amusement park, his mother recalled in an interview last week in Havana.
But after his parents returned home to Cuba in 1961 to join Fidel Castro's young communist nation, Gonzalez grew up to become a Cuban agent. He eventually worked in an intelligence ring called the Wasp Network, which U.S. authorities accused of entering the U.S. and spying on an American naval base in Key West and militant anti-Castro groups in Miami -- with deadly results.
On Monday, Gonzalez and four imprisoned comrades will challenge their 2001 spying convictions in a federal appeals court in Atlanta. They will argue that a prosecutor's arguments to the jury constituted misconduct, that their convictions were based on insufficient evidence and that their sentences exceeded federal guidelines.
In Cuba, the incarceration of the "Cuban 5" or "Los Cinco" -- Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez (no relation to Rene) -- is the focus of an enormous campaign to portray the agents as national heroes suffering injustice on U.S. soil. They are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
In the state-controlled Cuban media, they are called "terrorism fighters," not spies.
"They will return," say billboards adorned with photos of each one, including Rene Gonzalez, looking like a casual professor with a salt-and-pepper goatee.
"They were fighting for the [Cuban] revolution," contended Irma Schwerert, Gonzalez's 69-year-old mother. "Undoubtedly, they are political prisoners."
The five agents are lionized here for infiltrating Cuban-American groups in South Florida that Cuban officials say were intent on terrorizing the island in the 1990s, when tourism was reintroduced to replace lost subsidies from the collapsed Soviet Union. Several Cuban tourism centers were bombed during that decade. The Cuban government lodged a protest with the U.S. over what it said were exiles financing the bombings.
"The crowd in Miami saw an opportunity to destroy the tourism industry and bring Cuba to its knees," said Leonard Weinglass, a New York attorney representing one of the five agents. "These five came in the early-to-the-mid-'90s from Cuba when the United States didn't respond to the [Cuban] protest."
One of the five agents held a civilian job at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West, but the defendants contended they did not gather secret U.S. defense information, only public data, Weinglass said. Prosecutors dispute that claim.
All five were convicted of conspiring as unregistered Cuban agents to spy on the U.S., and three were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. The spy group had included five more members, but they pleaded guilty in exchange for cooperation and were given reduced sentences.
Prosecutors accused Rene Gonzalez of faking defection back to the U.S. in 1990, reclaiming his U.S. citizenship, and then working as a pilot for two exile groups, including one called Brothers to the Rescue. He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Marianna, Fla., prison.
Another of the agents, Hernandez, was convicted of murder conspiracy relating to the deaths of four members of Brothers to the Rescue after two of the group's U.S.-registered civilian planes were shot down by the Cuban military in 1996.
The spy case highlights the enmity between Castro and Cuban-Americans in Miami, as well as the hostility between Havana and Washington that extends back to the unsuccessful U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion using Cuban exiles in 1961.
Cuban officials charge that the prosecution and sentencing of the five men in a federal court in Miami was influenced by that community's antipathy against Castro. Cuban officials also have condemned the United States for what they deem as hypocrisy in fighting terrorism.
"These were persons who were in the United States monitoring Cuban terrorist groups in Florida," Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, said in an interview last week.
Alarcon described the sentences as "excessive" when compared with those of other convicted spies in the U.S. He cited a Chicago-area case in which an alleged spy for Saddam Hussein, Khaled Abdel-Latif Dumeisi of Oak Lawn, was sentenced to 46 months in 2004 for failing to register as a foreign agent and committing conspiracy and perjury.
In court documents, U.S. prosecutors said the convictions against the Cuban agents should stand.
"What the United States proved, overwhelmingly, is that the appellants agreed and sought to communicate, deliver and transmit non-public national defense information to Cuba, with reason to believe it would be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of Cuba," R. Alexander Acosta, the Miami-based U.S. attorney for South Florida, wrote last December.
Back in Havana, Schwerert and other relatives of the agents often are feted at state functions. In interviews, they have denounced the sentences as unjust and politically motivated.
Schwerert, a retired union official, said her family used to live on the 1300 block of North Ashland Avenue, then a Polish neighborhood, and eventually moved to northwest Indiana for better-paying jobs.
She still has a sister and a half-dozen other relatives in Chicago; her mother, with whom she initially lived on the same Ashland block, now lives in Sarasota, Fla. Schwerert and her husband were among a small number of immigrants who returned to Cuba after Castro's 1959 takeover, she said.
Schwerert, who recalled sending money from Chicago to support the Castro-led revolution, now proudly notes that her son was born on the same date as the Cuban leader, Aug. 13. Gonzalez, who attended kindergarten in Indiana, was 5 years old when the family left that area for Cuba, but his mother said he still can remember Chicago's parks and cold winters.
"He was very friendly as a boy," said Schwerert, who has two other sons besides her imprisoned eldest. "He learned the language very quickly."