JOHN RICE | Associated Press
HAVANA - In Cuba, everybody knows “the five.”
Their cause is mentioned in nearly every newspaper, every Web site and every conference sponsored by Cuba’s communist government. Hundreds of thousands have marched for them.
For Cuba’s communist government, the five Cuban agents convicted in Miami of spying against the United States represent the country’s right to defend itself against “terrorists” in the post-Sept. 11 world. Except these terrorists, it says, are anti-Castro exiles in the United States and elsewhere.
“These five comrades were in the United States defending the Cuban people from acts of terrorist aggression by organizations based in the city of Miami,” said Jose Luis Toledo, head of the constitutional affairs committee in Cuba’s parliament, who recently toured Mexico to seek support for the men.
The government has tried to imbue their case with as much passion as it did when it demanded the return of young Elian Gonzalez, from the United States. But, unlike the Elian case, which raised widespread U.S. sympathy, the crusade to free “the five heroes imprisoned in the empire” hasn’t attracted nearly as much outrage.
The five were convicted in a Miami court on charges of trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in South Florida. They are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
One, Gerardo Hernandez, was found guilty of contributing to the deaths of four American anti-Castro activists whose planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, off the Cuban coast.
Cuban officials and the men’s lawyers argue that the five should be freed or have their sentences reduced.
“My client is serving the same time as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the two top-level (U.S.) operatives who gave thousands of top-secret documents to the Russians,” said Leonard Weinglass, attorney for Antonio Guerrero. “In the case of Hanssen, he compromised the lives of some American agents.”
Weinglass and others say trial testimony showed the men never harmed U.S. national security and say their surveillance of exile groups was justified by U.S. sluggishness in pursuing what Havana says are terrorists who have blown up a Cuban airliner, hijacked planes and boats, as well as attacking ships and tourist hotels.
“You have to look at this case ... in an international context of cross-border warfare ... (as) a response of a neighboring country to four decades of attacks,” Weinglass said.
Among the targets, they say, was a “terrorist” who was pardoned by the first President Bush and who has ties to current Bush administration figures. Orlando Bosch was convicted in 1972 of a bazooka attack on a Polish freighter. Cuba blames him for the 1976 bombing of a civilian airliner in which 73 people died, though a Venezuelan court acquitted him.
Cuba has long linked acts like hijackings to its standoff with the United States, saying American laws that give special treatment to Cuban migrants once they reach U.S. shores encourages people to flee.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded a 36-foot Cuban boat and took 15 people into custody, a day after the government-owned vessel was taken from the island and was chased by Cuban authorities. U.S. officials said it appeared the boat had not been forcibly hijacked.
That incident and a failed hijacking of a boat Monday were the first significant boat or plane seizures in Cuba since the April 11 execution of three men convicted of seizing a ferryboat in Havana Bay - a case that helped chill Cuba’s relations with Europe.
Cuban officials have tried to counter international outrage over its treatment of accused hijackers, as well as the trial and conviction in April of 75 dissidents to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years. Cuban officials accused them of acting as foreign agents.
Cuban news media say that nearly 200 local committees, many in the United States, have been created to back the five. A U.S. group, Free The Five, has collected about 55,000 signatures seeking the men’s release, according to one of its volunteer leaders, Alicia Jrapko.
While the dissidents were convicted in hasty trials and the U.S. trial lasted six months, Toledo said it was unfair to compare them: “They are two totally different systems of law.”
As in the Elian case, the campaign has been long and intensive. It began with their trial in late 2001 and shows few signs of flagging.
Still, internet searches reveal few recent stories about the case outside Cuba, even in leftist publications that are often sympathetic to Cuba.
“One of our great tasks is to break that barrier of silence that exists,” Toledo said, complaining of “a complicit silence in all the mass media of communications.”
Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said the campaign seemed to have little effect so far in the United States.
Perez said that during a recent visit to Cuba, “I could see that campaign going on and it kind of surprised me that they have put so much publicity into it…. Usually when they do these things, it’s because they have a pretty good idea they can win.”
Asked why, Toledo replied, “Cuba never abandons its sons.”