Think of the Cuban Five as victims of George W. Bush’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. Facts: Five Cubans came to the United States undercover in the 1990s to infiltrate anti-Castro terrorist groups. They now occupy U.S. prison cells. Cuban officials admit sending the agents because the FBI had failed to control violent activities aimed at Cuba. Instead of using information of terrorist plots provided by these agents, Justice Department prosecutors tried and convicted them on June 8, 2001 of espionage and complicity to murder.
Three years ago, at a Latin American Studies meeting, an anti-Castro Cuban scholar confided that, “the trial of Cuban spies in Florida could mean murder charges against the dictator.” He gloated at the fantasy of bringing Fidel Castro before a U.S. court.
“Grass will grow on my palm before that happens,” I thought to myself. But Justice Department officials did actually begin to strategize about using the Cuban Five case to move against Castro. Guy Lewis, South Florida’s U.S. Attorney, even hinted that he might name Fidel as the master collaborator who supervised Gerardo Hernandez, the alleged “spymaster.” Hernandez was convicted of accessory to murder for the four members of Brothers to the Rescue, an extreme anti-Castro group. Cuban MIGs shot down their two civilian planes on February 24, 1996 because, according to Lewis, the government proved “beyond any doubt there was a conspiracy to commit murder that had been approved of and ordered by the highest levels of the Cuban government.”
In the Miami area, the U.S. Attorney tends to follow the bidding of a variety of ultra right wing Cuban groups that comprise the anti-Castro lobby. Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) President Francisco Hernandez elaborated on the U.S. Attorney’s remark. The “responsibility for the premeditated murder of four young men in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down does not stop with the conviction of Gerardo Hernandez. The next step,” said Hernandez, “is to indict those further up the chain of command who initiated this crime, including Fidel and Raul Castro. We call upon the Attorney General to take the necessary steps to bring all the guilty parties to justice.”
The anti-Castro lobby’s pressure to use the Cuban Five to get Castro worked. President Bush owes this small group of fanatic Castro haters not only for contributing heavily to his 2000 campaign, but for turning out voters early and often, whether or not they were U.S. citizens, and then helping intimidate the Florida vote counters. They also helped re-elect his brother, Jeb, as Florida Governor in 2002.
Bush began re-paying his debt even before 9/11. In his heart, Bush knew good terrorists from bad ones. And, in his decisive style, he issued orders, much like a spoiled child who knows what he wants and doesn’t give a hoot about consequences: so, he wanted regime changes all over the world. His “get Castro” orders flowed from his inconsequential mouth as easily as his commands to make war with Afghanistan and Iraq. He lumped these policies together in the “fighting terrorism” and “advancing freedom” categories.
Granted that his decisiveness does not coincide with a large vocabulary, one should note the fervor and frequency of Bush’s use of the words “terrorism” and “freedom.” In Bush’s April 13, 2004 press conference on Iraq he used “free” and “freedom” 50 times; “terror,” “terrorists” and “terrorism” 30 times.
But recurrently as he has used the “f” and “t” words, Bush has never defined them. As a biblical aficionado – he likes to listen to other people read the Bible to him – Bush may well conceive of freedom to mean humanity’s salvation (Armageddon and The Rapture that will follow) lies in the Middle East, an area he roughly understands as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine – Saudi Arabia of course enjoys special status thanks to the Bush family’s business ties. Muslim terrorists (an extreme form of pagan) have become the enemy of freedom, while anti-Castro terrorists are freedom fighters.
So, when Bush exhorts the nation to fight terrorists, he means bad terrorists, not good ones. For example, the Bush White House spends eight times more to track Americans traveling to Cuba and to enforce a travel ban on that nation than for tracing Al-Qaeda financing. The FBI, which has allowed the fiendish anthrax case of 2001 to virtually drop into its cold case file, spent untold hours tracing the Cuban Five, who were themselves tracking terrorists.
The leaders of the anti-Castro cabal in South Florida, the beneficiaries of Bush’s “get Castro” policy, have also used the Cuba obsession to compulsively accumulate fortunes and political power. Before he died in 1997, Jorge Mas Canosa, founder and leader of CANF, had become one of the richest and most powerful figures in Florida. He attended White House functions regularly, had the ear of high officials and carte blanche to scores of congressional offices.
Bush’s largesse extended to lesser fish as well. On May 20, 2002, the Secret Service allowed Sixto Reynaldo Aquit Manrique (<a.k.a>. El Chino Aquit) to sit a few rows behind the President on the platform as he spoke in Miami. The President’s security detail knew that, on November 2, 1994, the FBI anti-terrorism squad nailed Aquit after he and two colleagues had “pulled up to a Southwest Dade warehouse…armed with 10 gallons of gas, fuses, and a loaded semiautomatic handgun.” The November 4, 1994 Miami Herald story cited police saying, “The men smashed a window and tried to get inside before officers moved in.”
A Florida court sentenced Aquit to five years in prison. Then, without explanation, the government accepted Aquit’s guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge, which allowed him to skip prison and spend less than two years under house supervision. The government went soft on a man with a clear record of terrorism. You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to find the reason. Aquit’s terrorism was “patriotic zeal.” He was a “good terrorist” who belonged to The Secret Armed Army, an anti-Castro group that advocates violence as the way to effect regime change in Cuba.
A year before his 1994 felony in Miami, Aquit allegedly fired a 50 caliber machine gun at a Cypriot tanker in Cuban waters. So, a good terrorist can sit close to the president without contradicting Bush’s new security rules. Recall his September 20, 2001 address to Congress: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Trying to sink a cargo ship and burn down a warehouse does not constitute terrorism if done with anti-Castro intentions. Imagine an Abu Reinaldo Bin Aquit trying to sit near the President! The Secret Service would have shot him. But Bush directs his anti-terrorism compulsion at people with Islamic roots, not zealous, patriotic anti-Castro Cubans whose passion compels them to use violence – even in the United States.
Bush (43) also disregarded strong opinions from the FBI and INS when he ordered the freeing from INS deportation custody of Virgilio Paz and Jose Dionisio Suarez, both confessed conspirators in the 1976 car-bombing murders of former Chilean Chancellor Orlando Letelier and his U.S. companion Ronni Moffitt in Washington DC.
President Bush and his brother Jeb continue to accept money and other campaign support from anti-Castro Cubans, some who have assassinated and bombed at will and yet seem virtually immune to prosecution in the United States. Since the 1970s, the FBI has possessed information linking many of these leaders to assassination, sabotage and other forms of terrorism directed at Cuba, but whose actual targets were located in Jamaica, Barbados, Mexico, Panama and the United States itself.
On November 17, 2000, Panamanian authorities arrested four Cubans with records of extreme violence and close ties to some of CANF’s most prominent leaders. Ranging in age from their mid fifties to early 70s, Luis Posada Carriles, Ignacio Novo Sampol, Pedro Remon and Gaspar Jimenez could have belonged to the old geezer wing assassins from Miami. Panamanian police found explosives in their rental car – with their fingerprints on the dangerous material. Cuban officials had tipped the Panamanians that these founding members of the “Kill Fidel” club had come to Panama to assassinate the Cuban President, who was attending a regional summit meeting there at the time.
Posada, the ring leader, had fled Cuba in 1959. He had served dictator Fulgencio Batista as a police agent. Most of his subsequent life he dedicated to attempting to assassinate Castro – working for the CIA and, in his own words, Jorge Mas Canosa.
In October 1976, Posada had colluded with fellow terrorist Orlando Bosch in bombing a Cuban passenger plan over Barbados. Like Posada, Bosch had boasted of his role in that act of terrorism, in which 73 people died.
Venezuelan authorities arrested both men, but Posada prevailed on his pals in Miami to shell out $50,000 to bribe prison authorities. After busting Posada out of the Venezuelan prison, they got him a job with Lt. Col. Oliver North, who hired the fugitive to work on the Contra campaign in Central America, an activity over which Vice President Bush exercised more than casual control. Unknown gunmen shot Posada in the face in Guatemala in February 1990. When he recovered, he began his terrorism against tourism campaign in Cuba. Indeed, he boasted to a New York Times (July 12) reporter in 1998 that Mas had helped to finance him while he was involved in his campaign to bomb tourist spots in Cuba in the mid 1990s to discourage tourism. One bombing led to the death of an Italian tourist.
That same New York Times reports that “with a rueful chuckle, Posada described the Italian tourist’s death as a freak accident, but he declared that he had a clear conscience, saying, ‘I sleep like a baby.’ ‘It is sad that someone is dead, but we can’t stop,’ he added. ‘That Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.'”
On April 20, 2004, a Panamanian court found Posada and the other defendants guilty of threatening public security and falsifying documents – not attempted assassination of Castro. Posada got 8-years in prison. Novo and Remon received 7-year sentences and Jimenez received 8.
Even though Havana criticized the leniency of the sentences, these convictions mark a rare turn of events. Anti-Castro terrorists had received a near carte blanche from the White House, thanks to the political power of the Cuba lobby.
Indeed, the U.S. government’s coddling of terrorists bent on doing damage to Cuba motivated Cuban intelligence to send infiltrators to Miami. At their trial, the court-appointed attorneys for the Cuban agents argued that in light of decades of terrorist actions carried out against Cuba from U.S. soil and the FBI’s less than enthusiastic persecution of the anti-Castro terrorists, Havana had sent in the spies to infiltrate extremist exile groups out of self defense, to stop future violent actions in Cuba.
The defense chose a 12-member non-Cuban jury with no close Cuban relatives or friends to remove social pressure from the verdict in the largest Cuban community off the communist island. But the intimidation factor worked nonetheless. One would have to be either ignorant or deaf, dumb and blind not to know about the reputation in that area of violent Cuban exiles; not exactly the kind of people who make for a fair trial climate. South Florida juries have become notorious for their consistency in deciding against the Castro government.
After six months of trial, the jury deliberated for four days before declaring the five Cuban agents guilty of violating U.S. espionage laws and Hernandez of collaborating in the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes.
Cuba argued that the MIGs fired over Cuban airspace after Cuba’s air control had ordered the pilots not to enter its air space. Washington countered that the planes were in international air space when the missiles hit their targets. At the trial, the spies’ lawyers presented testimony to show that the Cuban government had warned U.S. authorities over a period of almost two years during which the Brothers had continually over-flown Cuba, including missions when they dropped leaflets.
The Cuban spies acknowledged they had infiltrated the Brothers and that the Havana spymaster had warned the infiltrator not to fly in the period when the fatal shoot down occurred. The prosecution argued that such advice meant aiding and abetting a cold-blooded murder. But, the jury also learned, high U.S. officials had foreknowledge of the impending flights and even warned Havana about them.
The defense offered abundant evidence to show the logic of Cuba’s fear of the extremist groups in South Florida. Few feigned surprise, however, when the jury found all five defendants guilty of operating as foreign agents without notifying the U.S. government and conspiring to do so. Three were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and for efforts to penetrate U.S. military bases. Hernandez received a life sentence on the conspiracy count.
Among a small sector of Miami, anti-Castro fixation overwhelms other events and stands out as a glaring exception to Bush’s war on terrorism. “Nuclear war could break out and Miami would plot to make it seem as if Fidel was responsible,” quipped a Cuban diplomat. Fidel exported these crackpots to the United States and Bush has agreed to share their Castro obsession. Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, who declared his intention to get tough on Castro if he wins, shows that he, too, will bow to the idiocy of the small group of ultra right wing Cuban exiles who have clutched <U.S.-Cuba> policy in their intimidating fists.
Meanwhile, five brave Cubans sit in U.S. prisons. Will it require that medical science perfect the spinal transplant to get a president to take back Cuba policy from the rabid exiles?
SAUL LANDAU directs the Digital Media Arts program at Cal Poly Pomona University. His new book is The Business of America.