AMG BACKGROUNDER: THE CUBAN FIVE[tw-divider][/tw-divider]
[tw-column width=”one-half”]The story behind the “Cuban Five” and why their imprisonment was a thorn in the side of US-Cuban diplomatic relations.[/tw-column]
Ostensibly as part of its efforts to begin normalizing relations with the Cuban government, the United States recently exchanged three imprisoned Cuban intelligence officers for CIA asset Rolando Sarraff Trujillo and USAID contractor Alan Gross, who each had been been jailed in Cuba for several years on charges of espionage.
Though the Cuban government in Havana insists that Gross’s release was purely humanitarian in nature and totally unrelated to the U.S. government’s parallel release of the three Cuban intelligence officers, the decision by Washington to free Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino likely prompted Gross’s liberation to some degree.
Hernández, Guerrero and Labañino are, along with Fernando and René González, members of the internationally renowned Cuban Five. Held by the U.S. government in various degrees of imprisonment since September of 1998, the Five had, prior to their arrest, been conducting counter-terrorism surveillance of several Miami-based right-wing Cuban exile groups – including Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue – with the initial consent of the American government, specifically the FBI.
The birth of the Cuban Five: US state-sponsored terrorism
In 1996, a plane registered to Brothers to the Rescue, an organisation that helped to ferry Cuban refugees to America and which regularly dropped anti-Castro leaflets in Cuba, was shot down by the Cuban Air Force for violating Cuban airspace, prompting the FBI to launch an investigation of the Cuban Five.
By 1998, the Five were arrested on a variety of espionage-related charges. And in 2001, after a highly-publicized show trial, Gerardo Hernández was charged with conspiracy to commit murder for providing information to the Cuban government that led to the downing of the aircraft. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
The other members of the Five were sentenced to similarly-long prison sentences, and a new painful chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations was opened.
Six hundred ways to kill Fidel Castro
The anti-Cuban terrorism that the Cuban Five were combating in Miami was nothing to scoff at. Before Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S. government had – in addition to conducting economic warfare – been sponsoring and orchestrating attacks by exiled Miami Cubans into Cuba, in an attempt topple the Castro government.
Bombings and machine-gun attacks on civilian and government targets by CIA-trained veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion killed several Cubans in the decades after Castro’s revolution.
All the while, CIA attempts to assassinate President Fidel Castro continued. Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuba’s counter-intelligence service, estimated the number of failed assassination attempts to be well over six hundred.
After a spike in American-directed attacks on Cuba in the 1970s, which paralleled the CIA’s Operation Condor that sought to repress and destroy leftist movements throughout South America, Anti-Castro terrorism directly managed by the U.S. government seemingly died down. Still, independent attacks by right-wing groups among Miami’s Cuban exile population persisted well into the 1990s and the American government did little to curtail them. On the contrary, the U.S. government often harboured, and continues to harbour, the perpetrators of such crimes.
Terrorists against Cuba; safe in the United States
Two particularly notorious terrorists, both of whom successfully sought protection from the U.S. government during and after their operations, are Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch.
Posada is a former high-level member of the pre-Chavez Venezuelan intelligence services and a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Throughout his long career, he carried out countless attacks on Cuba with funding from the CIA, the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) and various drug-trafficking operations. His last operation was a 1997 bombing of a Havana hotel that killed one Italian tourist – an attack which he readily admitted to having directed. The 86-year-old lives as a minor celebrity in Miami, free from prosecution in a Cuban or international court.
Another CIA operative, Bosch was the mastermind of the 1976 bombing of Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica that killed 73 innocent people, including women and children -an attack in which Posada also participated.
After an impressive record of no less than 30 terrorist attacks against Cuba, Bosch received a pardon from U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1989 (after intense lobbying from prospective 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush and South Florida Cuban-American leaders) and retired to Miami where he died 2011.
The anti-Cuban climate in America during the late 1990s made the Five a perfect political scapegoat for officials in the U.S. government. The 1998 arrest and subsequent trial of the Five – which took place during the pivotal 2000 presidential election that Florida and the Cuban exile vote were so pivotal to – was widely criticized outside of America and Israel by groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Citing national security concerns, the U.S. Justice Department withheld evidence during the trial, kept the Five in pre-trial solitary confinement for 17 months and strictly limited their access to legal counsel. The 2001 guilty verdict was almost a forgone conclusion.
A subsequent appeal by the Five’s late lawyer, Lenny Weinglass, in 2005 won a complete reversal of the guilty verdict by a unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court ruled that the intense and biased pretrial publicity surrounding the Five’s earlier Miami trial had deprived them of a fair judicial process.
A year later, the same court reversed its decision thanks to the efforts of Judge William Pryor, a Federalist Society member and Tea Party adherent, and the Cuban Five’s sentences were reinstated.
The release of the Cuban Five
Though René González was granted parole in 2011 and Fernando González was released in February 2014 and allowed to return to Cuba, the sudden and recent release of the remaining three political prisoners came a welcome surprise to human rights groups everywhere.
Embarrassed by repeated chastisement by foreign governments like the U.K., and domestic demands from groups like Free the Five, the American government finally heeded popular opinion and made what should have been an easy decision to release the remaining captives.
Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino, long regarded as political martyrs and counter-terrorism heroes in Cuba, have since returned home and reunited with with their families. It would have been all but impossible for the process of diplomatic normalization between the American and Cuban governments to begin had the U.S. government refused to release the Cuban Five.
Their liberation, more than any televised pronouncement by American President Obama, is indicative of a serious change in U.S.-Cuba relations; one that bodes well for the forward-thinking populations of both countries.
Cover image: Reuters