Spies in the Magic City

The Supreme Court will decide whether to reconsider conviction of the Cuban Five.

Miami is on trial this month. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide June 15 whether we are scum-sucking Cuba haters.

Five men — Gerardo Hernández, René González, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Fernando González — were convicted in 1998 of spying for Fidel Castro. As appeals have sputtered, they have spent 17 months in solitary confinement and more than a decade behind bars. Wives have been booted from the country. Their children have grown up alone.

Olga Salanueva (left), wife of René González, and Adriana Pérez (far right), wife of Gerardo Hernández
Newscom
Olga Salanueva (left), wife of René González, and Adriana Pérez (far right), wife of Gerardo Hernández

Funny thing, though. None of Los Cinco Héroes, as they're called in Cuba, ever handed over a secret. Nor did they sabotage anything or mess with the government. They're no terrorists.

"In Miami, it was impossible to get a fair trial," says Gloria La Riva, coordinator of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five in San Francisco. "There had been bad feelings brewing in your city for years."

This was Cold War espionage, complete with gadgets, code names, and sneering across the Florida Straits. Ever since the revolution, Miami Cubans have sabotaged and attacked the country that exiled and affronted them. There was the Bay of Pigs, the 1997 Havana hotel bombings, the 1973 shoot-down of a Cubana airliner, and other quotidian butchery.

In response, the Cuban CIA — the Dirección de Intelligencia — formed something called the Wasp Network to keep an eye on el exilio. Beginning in about 1990, lackeys were recruited to fan out across South Florida and gather information. Their most important task was to keep an eye on local freedom fighters: Alpha 66, the Cuban American National Foundation, and F4 Commandos, among them.

The Cuban Five were part of the 14-member-strong Wasp Network. They fooled a lot of exiles and heard ungodly amounts of talk about liberación de la patria. Their Waterloo was the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down. Back then, local Cuban-American flyer José Basulto led a group of pilots that rescued Cuban rafters and dropped pamphlets advocating freedom for the island. Two Wasp spies infiltrated the Brothers: René González and Juan Pablo Roque, a former MiG pilot.

"René was the James Bond of [the group]...," recalls Len Weinglass, a New York lawyer representing the five. "He was reporting to Cuba what they were doing... dropping pipe bombs in a field outside of Miami."

In February 1996, Hernández told González and Roque to skip the flight to Cuba. Later, two military jets from the island shot down two Brothers aircraft. Four Miami exiles perished.

The FBI shifted into gear and in September 1998 began rounding them up. Four took off. Five pleaded guilty and got off with light sentences. The Cuban Five were charged with everything from false identification to conspiracy to commit murder. Roque famously ended up on Havana television, laughing about all the exiles he had snookered.

Olga Salanueva, René González's wife, was sent back to Cuba with their kids. From the island, she recalls the last time she saw her husband. The trim blonde came home late the night before the arrest to find their baby daughter, Ivette, sprawled on her husband's chest. Both were sound asleep. "People armed to the teeth entered our home," she told Canadian television in a show aired last week. "They slammed me up against a wall and took him."

The five spent almost a year and a half in solitary confinement as lawyers prepared for trial. Though attorneys asked to move the proceedings to Fort Lauderdale, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard refused. In testimony, the Cubans acknowledged working for Castro's government but said they were simply trying to defend their homeland.

If you lived in Miami back then, you remember what happened: Armed soldiers burst into a Little Havana house and seized Elián González in June 2000. Riots rocked the town, and ethnic rifts became chasms. Cuban-Americans felt their country had forsaken them.

The verdict came down June 8, 2001. Three of the five got life. René González was sentenced to 15 years, and Fernando González 19 years. Hernández, the ringleader, is the only one who deserved the sentence. Though he denies it, he probably knew the planes would be shot down.

It wasn't over, though. In August 2005, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed the verdicts, saying the five didn't get a fair trial. Miami's exile-fueled anger and "inflamed passions" were to blame, the justices ruled.

Reasonable, right? Wrong. The convictions were reinstated a year later by the court. And in 2008, that finding was largely confirmed, though judges questioned a couple of the life sentences. Meanwhile, Hernández's spouse, Adriana, tried to visit but was sent packing.

The court acknowledged René González and the others never tried to sabotage the government. They were watching out for their country's security, believing the U.S. government wouldn't stop the extremists.

Since then, the five have been canonized in Cuba. This past March, a huge mural showing them as martyrs was dedicated in Santa Clara. The next month, Raúl Castro even offered to free dozens of political prisoners and their families in exchange for the five. No deal was struck.

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