Ostensibly as part of its efforts to begin normalizing relations with the Cuban government, the American government recently exchanged three imprisoned Cuban intelligence officers for Cuban held 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 and of establishing illegal communication networks that circumvented Cuban internet restrictions respectively). Though the Cuban government in Havana insists that Gross’s release was purely humanitarian in nature and totally unrelated to the U.S.’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 (both of whom were released earlier by the U.S. government), members of the internationally renowned Cuban Five. Held by the U.S. government in various degrees of imprisonment (including solitary confinement initially) since September of 1998, the Cuban Five had, prior to their arrest, been conducting counterterrorism 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. In 1996 however, the shooting down of a Brothers to the Rescue (an organization which helped to ferry Cuban refugees to America and that regularly dropped anti-Castro leaflets in Cuba) plane that had violated Cuban airspace by the Cuban Air Force prompted the FBI to launch an investigation of the Cuban Five. By 1998, the Cuban Five were arrested on a variety of espionage related charges. In 2001, after a highly publicized and criticized subsequent show trial (which coincided with the heated the Elián González controversy), Gerardo Hernández was charged with conspiracy to commit murder for providing information to the Cuban government that seemingly lead to the aforementioned plane downing and 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.
The anti-Cuban terrorism that the Cuban Five, as part of the Cuban Intelligence Service’s “Wasp Network”, were combating in Miami was nothing to scoff at. Since 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. Aerial and amphibious bombings and machine-gun attacks on civilian and government targets (including industrial facilities, hotels and fishing operations) by CIA trained veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion killed numerous Cubans in the decades after Castro’s revolution. In a 1999 lawsuit against the American government, several Cuban social organizations attributed 3,478 Cuban deaths over the course of 40 years to U.S.-sponsored anti-Cuban terrorism. Additionally, the CIA attempted to assassinate Castro himself more than six hundred times during those same years. Throughout the period, the Castro regime refrained from violent counterattacks; instead, they repeatedly pleaded with the United Nations to intervene and take punitive action against the U.S. After a spike in American directed attacks on Cuba in the 1970s that paralleled U.S. President Nixon’s and the CIA’s Operation Condor (which sought to repress and destroy leftist/nationalist 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 (often by individuals trained and paid by the CIA) persisted well into the 1990s and the American government did little to curtail them. On the contrary, the U.S. government often harbored (and continues to harbor) the perpetrators of such crimes.
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 and the Reagan administration’s war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Throughout his long career, he carried out countless attacks on Cuba with funding from the CIA, the Miami-based tax-exempt Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) and various drug-trafficking operations. Totally unabashed with regard to his activities, 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. Currently, 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 which Posada also participated in). 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.
Though the clandestine activities of the Cuban Five in Miami throughout the 1990s were purportedly focused on putting an end to such terrorist attacks rather than spying, 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 pretrial solitary confinement for 17 months and strictly limited the 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 earlier guilty verdict by a unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which found that the intense and biased pretrial publicity surrounding the Five’s earlier Miami trial had deprived them of a fair judicial process). Alas, the 11th Circuit Court reversed their decision a year later thanks to the efforts of one Judge William Pryor (a Federalist Society member and Tea Party adherent) and the Cuban Five’s sentences were reinstated. At that time, it looked as though the Cuban Five would be serving out their full prison sentences, which meant permanent detention for at least one of them.
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 released 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.’s (traditionally one of the U.S.’s strongest allies) and by 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 counterterrorism heroes in Cuba) have since returned home and reunited with with their families. It would have been difficult 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.
Source(s): 1) Bill Blum “The Sad, Outrageous Case of the Cuban Five” TruthDig (January 1, 2014): accessed December 30, 2014 http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_sad_outrageous_case_of_the_cuban_five_20140109
2) Noam Chomsky “Cuba in the Cross-Hairs: A Near Half-Century of Terror” Chomsky.Info: accessed December 30, 2014 http://www.chomsky.info/books/hegemony02.htm
3) Duncan Campbell “638 ways to kill Castro” the Guardian (August 2, 2006): accessed December 30, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/world/20
4) Patricia Grogg “RIGHTS-CUBA: Lawsuit Seeks Damages for 40 Years of US Hostility” Inter Press Service (June 2, 1999): accessed December 30, 2014 http://www.ipsnews.net/1999/06/rights-cuba-lawsuit-seeks-damages-for-40-years-of-us-hostility/