By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
HAVANA – After five Cubans were convicted in the United States on espionage-related charges two years ago, Fidel Castro’s propaganda machine quickly turned them into folk heroes across the island.
Billboards like this one, which says “Free Our Heroes” and shows the five Cubans convicted in the United States of espionage, appear all over the island.
And today, the spies’ plight dominates Cuba’s political landscape. Their photos are splashed across billboards and T-shirts, their drawings and poems are in museums, their life stories fill the newspapers. But the campaign has aroused little interest in the United States, where they are in prison.
Undeterred, Mr. Castro has pressed on with his crusade, quietly building a global network of supporters. Today, 165 volunteer committees seeking the spies’ release operate in 73 nations.
Stirring sympathy for the spies in America hasn’t been easy. Even so, activists in Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and 20 other U.S. cities have collected signatures from more than 35,000 Americans who want the agents freed.
Unimpressed, Mr. Castro’s critics say his campaign is just another stunt aimed at distracting the Cuban people from the failings of the 1959 revolution. They add that Cuban spies are far from benign.
“They are a real threat to national security,” said Ninoska Perez of the Cuban Liberty Council, an anti-Castro exile group in Miami.
Decrypted documents show that the spies talked about sending a mail bomb to a suspected CIA agent and bringing explosives into Florida, The New York Times reported in January. That report infuriated Cuban officials, who deny any violent intentions.
The five jailed agents are Rene González, 46, a flight instructor and aviation specialist; Ramon Labaniño, 40, an economist; Antonio Guerrero, 44, a civil engineer; and Fernando González, 39, and Gerardo Hernández, 38, both international relations specialists.
U.S. authorities indicted them on espionage-related charges in 1998. The FBI said they were part of the so-called Wasp Network, which spied on anti-Castro exile groups and tried to infiltrate South Florida air bases.
The most serious charge contended that Mr. Hernández conspired with the Cuban government to murder four members of Brothers to the Rescue, an exile group that was formed to help rescue Cuban rafters. On Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers’ planes off the Cuban coast, killing four civilians.
Defense lawyers deny there was a conspiracy but admit their clients were agents for Mr. Castro.
The agents’ chief defense was that they spied on Florida’s exile groups to prevent attacks against their homeland. They said they had to spy because the U.S. government has tolerated and sometimes aided violent anti-Castro exiles over the years.
“This club of killers is dangerous, and the Cubans saw no serious effort by the FBI to get them,” said Saul Landau, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who has produced documentaries on Cuba.
He cites the case of Orlando Bosch. The exile was charged with planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He served 11 years in prison in Venezuela before his acquittal in 1988. He then traveled to the United States, where Associate U.S. Attorney General Joe Whitley ordered him deported, saying that Mr. Bosch hadn’t given up “terrorist violence.”
Federal authorities overruled Mr. Whitley and allowed Mr. Bosch to stay.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and longtime Castro foe, met with President George Bush to negotiate Mr. Bosch’s release, The New York Times reported on Aug. 17, 1989. The paper said her campaign manager, Jeb Bush, the president’s son and now governor of Florida, arranged the meeting. Mr. Bosch was pardoned on July 18, 1990.
Mr. Bosch now lives in Miami. He founded the Command of United Revolutionary Organizations, which has claimed responsibility for more than 50 bombings against targets in Latin America. The group was also suspected in the attempted assassinations of Cuban diplomats and other acts.
Eric Luna, a University of Utah law professor who wrote a brief supporting the Cuban spies, said the fact that Mr. Bosch “lives freely in the U.S. is both galling and terrifying to Cuba. One need only imagine how the United States would feel if Osama bin Laden was openly residing in Havana.”
The perception that the United States, and especially Miami, welcomes violent, anti-Castro activists prompted defense lawyers to ask that the trial take place outside Florida. The U.S. District Court in Miami refused.
The men were convicted on all charges in June 2001, and received sentences of from 15 years to life.
“Without any doubt, Miami was the worst place in the United States to hold the trial,” said Leonard Weinglass, a lawyer for Mr. Guerrero. “Belligerent attitudes toward Cuba in Miami” are “pervasive and deeply held.”
Largest ethnic group
There are 650,600 people of Cuban birth or descent in Dade County, where Miami is located. That makes Cubans the largest ethnic group there. And they have tremendous economic and political clout, according to Lisandro Perez, a Cuba expert who testified for the defense.
The chances of selecting an impartial jury in a case against Cuban spies in Miami is “virtually zero,” he said.
Lawyer Victor Díaz, a prominent anti-Castro exile quoted in court documents, put it this way:
“There are 10,000 people in this town who had a relative murdered by Fidel Castro. ... Issues related to Fidel Castro are not a historical footnote; they are living, breathing wounds.”
Citing Miami’s anti-Castro bias and other factors, defense lawyers last month asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to order a new trial. They expect a decision sometime next spring.
Gloria La Riva, a labor activist who heads the National Committee to Free the Five in San Francisco, said she’s convinced the Cuban spies were “railroaded.” But she said rallying support for them hasn’t been easy.
Many Americans simply have no sympathy for Cuban spies who were caught and convicted, she said. So persuading them to sign petitions to try to sway the appeals court has been difficult.
“You can’t just have the petition out there and people will sign it. You have to go one-on-one with people. You have to talk to everybody.”
The message got through to the Berkeley, Calif., City Council, which on June 10 became the first U.S. city to pass a resolution asking for a new trial for the men.
Still, it’s an uphill road, Ms. La Riva said.
Many people have trouble grasping the legal complexities of the case, which has produced a huge court file – 117 volumes of transcripts, nearly 800 documents and exhibits, and more than 1,600 trial motions, sentencing memos and other papers.
But once people understand the case, they often wind up supporting the Cubans’ cause, Ms. La Riva said.
“Prosecutors portray the spies as criminals. But we know that their actions were not criminal,” she said. “They were defending their country against the United States, which has declared Cuba an enemy state.”
Prosecutors disagree and told jurors the spies had come to America “to destroy the United States.”