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The Real Story of the Cuban 5

What Lies Across the Water

by STEPHEN KIMBER

I am a late-comer to the case of the Cuban Five. I stumbled on the story a few years ago while researching a novel—a love story—set partly in Cuba.

During a trip to Havana in the spring of 2009, I struck up a friendship with a guide who was showing me the city I wouldn’t see as a tourist. Partly to make conversation and partly because I was curious, I asked him what he thought of the prospects for improved relations between Havana and Washington now that Barak Obama was in the White House.

He didn’t hesitate. “Forget Obama,” he said. “Nothing will change until the case of the Five is resolved.”

The Cuban Five? I’d barely heard of them.

So he gave me a history lesson—about how a group of Cuban intelligence agents had uncovered a plot to be blow up an airplane; about how author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had carried a secret message from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton with details of the plot; about how a delegation from the FBI had gone to Havana to meet with their counterparts in Cuban State Security to discuss it; and how, less than three months later, the FBI had arrested not the Miami-based terrorists who were planning to blow up the plane but the Cuban intelligence agents who were trying to stop them.

You can look it up, he said.

I did. I found a Fidel Castro speech on the Internet that outlined the Cuban version of events. Castro even read into the record the entire 4,000-word text of a previously secret report Garcia Marquez had written to Castro following his meeting with White House officials in Washington.

I was hooked. I put the novel on hold and began researching the nonfiction story of the Cuban Five.

***

I came at it as a “story” rather than a “cause,” and I think that’s important. Too often there is a sense of rote in our rhetoric about the Five. They are the “five heroes” who were “unjustly accused,” “unfairly tried and convicted” and then “punitively punished” simply for being “anti-terrorist fighters.”

It’s all true, of course, but it doesn’t help convince those who aren’t already convinced. Many Americans, I don’t have to tell you, are prepared to believe the worst about Cuba, and especially about Cuban government agents.

My goal was to tell the story—and it is a fascinating story—as a nonfiction narrative.

It begins in 1990 when a civilian Cuban pilot named René González “stole” a plane in Havana and flew it to Key West where he “defected.” González, in fact, was the first of the five Cuban intelligence agents sent to set up shop in Florida.

He arrived soon after a debate about the fate of Orlando Bosch had raged in the Miami media. Bosch—a well known anti-Cuban terrorist considered one of the masterminds behind a 1976 explosion aboard a Cubana Airlines plane that killed 73 people—had applied for residency in the U.S.. The justice department (though not necessarily the White House) opposed his application; Miami’s exile community supported Bosch. Guess who won?

I wanted to incorporate into the unfolding narrative details about what the various Miami exile groups were actually plotting (a lot), what the U.S. government was doing to stop them (precious little) and what the Cuban intelligence agents were learning about what the exiles were really up to (plenty).

As part of my research, I read the 20,000-plus pages of transcript from the trial of the Five, examined the binders-full of even more thousands of pages of decoded documents and correspondence between the Cuban agents and their bosses back in Havana.

I began a still-ongoing, still un-won battle with the FBI for documents relating to what I believe is a critically important meeting between the FBI and Cuban State Security in Havana in June 1998. After two years of appeals, I have only finally gotten the FBI to admit there are documents. But I’m still waiting to see them.

I also, of course, interviewed key figures in Havana, Miami and Washington—none of them more intriguing than Percy Alvarado.

Though not one of the Five, Alvarado too was a Cuban intelligence agent who operated in Miami around the same time as the Five. He claims he infiltrated the powerful Cuban American National Foundation. Key members of the Foundation recruited him to plant bombs in Cuba, he says. And Luis Posada himself—an acknowledged anti-Castro terrorist—trained him how to assemble the bombs he was supposed to sneak into Cuba.

Now let’s be clear. Everyone in this business lies. It is the nature of the clandestine world, and you should never take it on faith that anyone—American or Cuban—is telling the whole truth. That said, I was struck by the fact that what Alvarado publicly alleged in 1999 was later corroborated—inadvertently—by a senior official of CANF who just happened to be suing his former comrades in arms.

I also interviewed, by mail and email, members of the Five. I found them to be impressive, courageous figures.

***

I want to talk today about some of what I learned in that process. It wasn’t always what I expected. Or what I’d been told to expect.

The versions I’d read from some Cuban Five supporters, for instance, made it appear as if the FBI had learned the identities of the Five because of the information Cuban State Security turned over to them at those meetings in June 1998.

That’s not true. The FBI had been following the Cubans since at least 1996.

Which raises an intriguing question. Why did the FBI arrest them when they did?

I’ll come back to that.

The Cubans have also been at pains to argue that their agents were only in Florida to monitor the activities of exile terrorists groups.

Again, not entirely true.

One of the agents, Antonio Guerrero had an almost exclusively military mission. That inconvenient truth—rarely acknowledged by Cuban authorities—has provided anti-Castro mainstream journalists and commentators the opportunity to make it appear as if the Cubans’ primary mission was to “infiltrate” American military bases or steal U.S. secrets.

It wasn’t. The military aspect of their duties was minor—and there is an important context to it. Guerrero’s primary function was to serve as the canary in the coal mine, an early warning system of a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba.

The U.S. has satellites to keep an eye on its enemies—a variation on spying we accept as legitimate. The Cubans can’t afford satellites. They have human observers instead. Like Tony Guerrero.

His job was to pay attention to the comings and goings of military aircraft at the Boca Chica Naval Station. Was there a sudden build up of planes on the runways? What kinds? An unusual number of brass-hat visitors to the base?

The Cubans had legitimate reasons to fear an invasion—and not just because that’s what the influential Miami exile leadership prayed for each night. The Cubans knew what had already happened in Haiti, in Panama.

***

What did the Cuban agents actually do in Florida?

Most of the time they kept a close watch on exile groups they believed were plotting attacks on their homeland. They knew that those militant exile groups were rarely arrested, even more rarely tried and almost never convicted.

To keep the exiles from succeeding, the agents had to be inventive.

Consider just one example from July of 1998, two months before they were arrested.

Gerardo Hernandez, the controller of the Miami agents, received an urgent coded message from Havana that there was a vaguely identified “boat bomb” filled with weapons and explosives docked in the Miami River. The vessel was destined to be used as a weapon against Cuba.

Hernandez and his team of agents soon tracked down the vessel at a marina near a populated area.

What to do about it?

They certainly didn’t want to allow the vessel to sail, of course, but Hernandez realized the options Havana had suggested—blowing up the vessel, or sinking it—were all too risky, and might endanger innocent civilians.

Instead, Hernandez messaged his bosses, cleverly suggesting someone call the FBI anonymously and tip them off about the boat’s cargo.

A week later, a story appeared in the Miami Herald. The headline: ANTI TERRORISM RAID COMES UP EMPTY. The story detailed how members of Miami’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, acting on an anonymous tip, had raided vessels in a Miami River marina. They were looking for explosives and guns destined for a “third country.” But the raid was a “bust,” according to an FBI spokesman. They didn’t find anything.

How hard were they looking? The FBI agent in charge was a guy named George Kisynzki. Two weeks earlier, in the pages of the New York Times, Luis Posada himself had described the agent as a “very good friend.”

What was going on? “Law enforcement veterans saw the search as an FBI hint… to cancel any conspiracies,” the Miami Herald reported. “That’s a common practice in South Florida… known as ‘admonishing’ or ‘demobilizing’ an operation.”

We later learned more about this particular incident. The boat’s owner was a man named Enrique Bassas. Bassas, a wealthy Miami businessman, had been one of the co-founders of a sixties-era terrorist umbrella group called CORU, which had been responsible for blowing up that Cuban plane in 1976. More recently, Cuban intelligence had identified Bassas as one of the financiers of a new mercenary, anti-Castro army being organized in Miami.

Perhaps most significantly, the month before the raid, Bassas had been in Guatemala City meeting with Luis Posada. They were, according to a later report, trying to figure out how to sneak weapons and explosives into the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic? That just happened to be where Fidel Castro was scheduled to speak the following month.

The Miami Herald later reported on this botched assassination plot and came up with its own—close to the money—explanation for what had gone wrong. Cuban intelligence agents, explained the Herald, “presumed by most law enforcement and exile experts to have penetrated many exile organizations, tipped the FBI to protect Castro’s life during the visit to the Dominican Republic.”

There are a lot of episodes like that in the trial records. It’s also clear from those records the Cuban agents weren’t interested in using violence to achieve their objective of preventing exile attacks on their homeland.

Which is more than can be said for the exiles.

***

But what then are we to make of the most damaging charge—conspiracy to commit murder—against Gerardo Hernandez?

That charge relates to the February 1996 shootdown of two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in the Straits of Florida that killed four civilians.

There’s no doubt that charge—filed seven months after the arrests—affected the cases of all five defendants and unduly influenced the harsh sentences they all received. Including, of course, Hernandez himself, who is currently serving two life sentences plus 15 years in prison for his supposed role in the shootdown.

And the allegation continues to resonate today. Whenever the question of pardoning the Five, or swapping them for the American Alan Gross is raised, the inevitable answer is that the U.S. could never consider such a deal because the Five were responsible for the deaths of four innocent men.

I spent a lot of time focusing on that allegation. I read the transcript. I studied the court documents. I read the International Civil Aviation report on the incident.

The reality is that there is not a shred of compelling evidence to suggest Gerardo Hernandez knew about the plan to shoot down the planes, or that he had any control over, or role in what happened.

Indeed the evidence paints a very different picture of what Hernandez really knew.

Cuban State Security is famed for its compartmentalization. I tell another story in the book about two agents who’d infiltrated the same exile group and the efforts Havana undertook to make sure neither man knew the other was actually working for the same side.

The back-and-forth memos between Havana and its field officers in the lead-up to the shootdown make it clear everything was on a need-to-know basis—and Gerardo Hernandez didn’t need to know what the Cuban military was considering.

There are, of course, plenty of other unresolved issues about the shootdown.

Were the Brothers’ planes in international waters as the Americans claim, or in Cuban airspace as Havana argues? The best answer to that question could come from U.S. satellite images taken by any one of more than a half-dozen satellites the American government and its agencies had tracking events that day, but Washington so far refuses to release them.

More importantly, was shooting down the planes a reasonable response to the Brothers’ provocation?

Those provocations had been going on for seven intense months prior to the shootdown. The Cubans had complained. Washington had tried—and failed—to prevent the continuing overflights. And the Cubans had sent several clear messages to Washington that it would take action if there were any more illegal incursions into their territory.

To make matters worse, the Cubans knew—thanks to their agents—that Brothers to the Rescue were test firing air-to-ground weapons they could conceivably decide to use against Cuba. They were more than a nuisance; they were a threat.

That said, I don’t believe the shootdown was the most reasonable response. There were alternatives, including forcing the planes down and putting the pilots on trial.

But my view doesn’t change the only important reality: Gerardo Hernandez was not involved in shooting down the planes and he should never have been charged.

***

Which leads to yet another question: should the Five themselves have ever been charged with anything?

Well, they did commit crimes. They failed to register as foreign agents, and three of them carried false identity documents. Those are minor, commonplace crimes in the world of intelligence; American agents operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Moscow and elsewhere commit them everyday.

But there is no evidence the Cuban agents stole military secrets or threatened American security. That’s why they were never charged with actual espionage—just “conspiracy to commit espionage.” A thought crime versus an actual crime.

***

The other point that’s worth making is that the FBI knew exactly who the Cuban agents were and what they were doing in Florida. They’d been following them for at least two years. They’d broken into their apartments, stolen their computer disks, decoded them. They knew what they did each day, even about their love lives.

Let me give you just one example of how closely the FBI followed the Cuban agents. In April 1998, one of the Five traveled to New York to meet—supposedly secretly—with an intelligence officer from the Cuban Mission there. The FBI knew about the rendezvous—at a Wendy’s on the Hempstead Turnpike—far enough in advance that they were not able to have seven video cameras and countless still cameras recording the meeting but they were also able to plant of their own 35 agents at the fast food restaurant that day. It must have been a surprisingly good day for the operators of that Wendy’s!

So let’s consider the situation from the point of view of the FBI. You have complete access to a Cuban intelligence network and, better, the Cubans don’t know you do. You know that they’re not doing anything to threaten U.S. security; in fact, much of what they’re doing—monitoring compliance with the U.S. Neutrality Act—is your job.

So why arrest them?

The moment you arrest them, you lose access to this unfolding intelligence gold mine. And, worse, you know these captured agents will simply be replaced by another group of agents—and then you’ll have to discover the new guys and start all over again.

So why arrest the Five when they did?

There are things we don’t know about that. But there are some things we do.

In May 1998, the FBI appointed a new Special Agent in Charge of its Miami Field Office. His name was Hector Pesquera, the first Hispanic to head up that very important, very political FBI field office in the heartland of Cuban America.

We know Pesquera quickly made friends with key leaders in the Miami Cuban exile community, including a convicted felon who’d been a former police officer in Batista’s pre-Castro Cuba—not to forget a number of high-profile exile leaders Cuban intelligence had identified as terrorists.

It was just a month after Pesquera arrived on the scene, of course, that the FBI delegation flew to Havana to meet with their Cuban counterparts. That’s when the Cubans gave the FBI documents fingering some of Pesquera’s new friends as terrorists.

The Cubans would later say they believed the agents who came to Havana treated the information they turned over to them seriously, and genuinely intended to follow up.

And yet, three months later, FBI swat teams swooped in and arrested the Five, ignoring the exile plotters entirely.

We know Pesquera made that decision. We know because he said so. After he’d initially been appointed, Pesquera told a Spanish language radio station following the arrests, “I was updated on everything there was. We then began to concentrate on this investigation. As far as intelligence[-gathering] is concerned, [I decided] it shouldn’t be there anymore; it should change course and become a criminal investigation.”

We know his agents on the ground objected.

We also know—because Pesquera himself bragged about it—that he lobbied all the way to the top of the FBI food chain in Washington for authorization to make the arrests. He later told the Miami Herald the case “never would have made it to court” if he hadn’t lobbied FBI Director Louis Freeh directly. “To this day there are people in my headquarters who are not completely sold.”

No kidding.

I’ve tried to interview Pesquera, who retired from the FBI in 2003—after authorizing the destruction of the FBI’s files on Luis Posada—but he continues to give me the runaround.

Late last month, however, Pesquera popped up in the news again; he’s just been appointed the chief of police in his native Puerto Rico.

The universe continues to unfold…

And the Cuban Five remain stuck in the United States, four still in prison, one in the prison of parole.


***

It will not be easy to right this injustice, not in a country where in the past week the manager of a Miami baseball team was forced to make a groveling apology for offering the mildest of praise for Fidel Castro, and where the owner of a Miami restaurant faced anonymous threats because her restaurant just happened to be located on the ground floor of a building whose roof featured (however briefly) a billboard calling for Freedom for the Five.

Those prejudices and fears will be difficult to overcome. But they must be. And that’s why it’s especially important to make the case based on the facts.

I hope my forthcoming book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, will contribute to that conversation.

***

We hear a lot these days about Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who is currently serving 15 years in a Cuban prison for smuggling illegal communications equipment into Cuba.

His supporters, like those of the Five, are demanding his release.

While the two cases are different in many important ways, the key reality is that the Cuban government is unlikely to consider releasing Alan Gross unless the U.S. government reciprocates by releasing the Cuban Five. And the U.S. government won’t release the Five without considerable public pressure.

That’s why those who are arguing Alan Gross’ case need to know about the Cuban Five.

They need to look beyond the rhetoric, both from supporters of the Five but also—and more importantly—from an American government that disingenuously insists the Five were somehow threatening U.S. security and responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians.

I will close with a quote from Jane Franklin, a widely respected expert on Cuban-American relations. She was responding to a recent column in the Washington Post in which Alan Gross’ wife, Judith, drew heartfelt but false parallels between her husband’s situation and that of the Five.

If she were Judith Gross, Franklin wrote, “I would study the cases of the Cuban Five to find out exactly how they came to be arrested, tried in Miami, convicted, and sent to separate prisons around the United States. Having come to grips with the outrageous injustice of their imprisonment, I would then commit my life to a campaign for releasing the Cuban Five in exchange for my husband Alan Gross.”

This essay is an abridged version of a talk by Stephen Kimber about his forthcoming book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, on April 18, 2012 at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.. 

STEPHEN KIMBER, a Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. He is the author of one novel — Reparations — and seven non-fiction books.