Spies in Miami, Commandos in Cuba

If you disagree with what they do, why defend their right to do it?

On June 20 a Cuban Interior Ministry official revealed some startling news on Cuba's state-run television show Mesa Redonda. Three Miami-Dade residents had been under arrest on the island since April, he reported, for boating to the island from points unknown and going ashore with AK-47 assault rifles, an M-3 carbine rifle fitted with a silencer, and three semiautomatic Makarov pistols. The incursion by Ihosvani Suris, Santiago Padron, and Maximo Padrera gave Fidel Castro, who participated in the television program, yet another opportunity to portray the Cuban-exile community as a morally corrupt hive of right-wing terrorism.

The situation also presented Miami exile groups with an opportunity to dispel a nasty stereotype: that Cuban exiles accept, condone, and promote violent acts aimed at destabilizing the Castro regime. This unsavory image percolated for six months at the federal trial of five Cuban spies. Jurors redeemed the exile community in June when they convicted the spies on an array of espionage charges. Defense lawyers argued that their clients' undercover work was justified in order to protect their homeland. They cast some exile groups as provocateurs and others as saboteurs, assassins, and terrorists. A variety of Cuban-exile organizations and radio talk-show hosts expressed outrage at that depiction.

Even acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, an Anglo from Tennessee, shared the indignation. "As you know, one of the tactics that was used during this case was to put the Cuban-American community itself on trial," Lewis pronounced at a news conference after the verdicts. "José Basulto was tried. Brothers to the Rescue was tried. The Cuban American National Foundation was put on trial. The Democracy Movement organization was put on trial. Let me say here and now that I believe the jury, by their verdict, has strongly and vehemently rejected this tactic. It was nothing more than a diversion that was unfair, inappropriate, and in my measured judgment simply unconscionable."

With the exile groups thus vindicated, it would now be perfectly fair, appropriate, and conscionable for them to reject anti-Castro terrorism the next time it occurred. It would also make good political sense. By establishing their nonviolent credentials, exile leaders could trump the Castro regime on moral grounds. The credible claim that Cuban Americans delivered Florida and thus the presidency to George W. Bush last November helped their chances of persuading his administration to indict Castro for the 1996 shootdown and death of four Brothers to the Rescue members. Here was a chance to fortify their position by demonstrating they could also add moral consistency to the equation.

But exile leaders reacted to news of the April incursion with silence or ambiguity. Then the issue seemed destined to disappear amid a flurry of news about Castro's June 23 fainting spell and the campaign to indict him. In an effort to facilitate clarity, New Timesput the following questions to the three groups Lewis said had been maligned at the trial -- the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the Democracy Movement, and Brothers to the Rescue:

1. Does your organization condone incursions into Cuba by armed individuals? If so, why? If not, why not?

2. Does your organization condemn such actions? If so, why? If not, why not?

3. Would your organization condemn the actions of a group of three Miami-Dade residents reported to have sailed to the Cuban coast this past April armed with AK-47 assault rifles, one M-3 rifle with silencer, and three Makarov pistols, were these actions to be verified?

4. Will your organization publicly condemn such actions, should individuals opposed to the Castro regime carry them out in the future?

Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez said that although his organization does not condone armed incursions, it does not condemn them either.

1. "Although we respect the right that everyone has to choose their own strategy and method to struggle against a dictatorship that destroyed their country, their family, and their lives, we certainly do not favor in any way armed incursions into Cuba or any type of violent activities to end a dictatorship over there."

2. "We do not condemn a person who attempts to end conditions that oppress his people, his family, and himself. What we do is try to persuade them that there are other ways that are a lot more humane, productive, and effective to change those conditions. But I cannot condemn somebody who is willing to risk his or her life for the well-being of other people, even if I disagree with the method they are employing."

3. "I don't have enough information about them to give you an opinion regarding that specific case. I don't recognize any of their names. Their names and their faces are totally new to me. I don't even know what they did, so I cannot form an opinion on that."

4. "There are violent activities that I do definitely condemn with all my strength, even if they are done to obtain the high goal of freedom for people. For example, to take a boat to Cuba and shoot from the beach at a hotel -- I consider that an act of cowardice. A conventional encounter with the army is a different issue. If somebody landed in Cuba with weapons to try to overthrow Fidel Castro, although I would not do that and would try to discourage such people, I cannot condemn them."

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