Cuban Missive Crisis
They came, they spied, they typed on their computers. But they never intended to make the contents of their floppy disks public. Indeed the idea of that happening was perhaps their worst nightmare, one that came true on September 12, 1998, as they slept in their various apartments in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. FBI agents arrived very early that morning to swat down ten members of a group that called itself the Wasp Network. The FBI rattled them from slumber, charged them with spying for the Cuban government, and seized many of their possessions, including hundreds of computer diskettes. Even before the arrests, FBI agents had been stealthily reading and copying the files during surreptitious visits to the defendants' homes. As specialists decoded the documents, they began to piece together a detailed narrative revealing the group's surveillance of Cuban exile groups and U.S. military installations.
Antonio Guerrero typed mostly about the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West, while Ramon Labañino and Fernando Gonzalez concentrated on ways to infiltrate the U.S. Southern Command in west Miami-Dade. Rene Gonzalez wrote about several Cuban exile groups he had easily joined. Gerardo Hernandez reviewed their notes, critiqued them, expounded on them, and sent them along to the Directorate of Intelligence in Havana. Five other members also composed but not with the same dedication.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers soon drafted something else: a lengthy indictment charging the ten arrested members of the Wasp Network with various crimes related to espionage and, in the case of the 34-year-old Hernandez, conspiracy to murder four men killed when Cuban MiGs destroyed two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. The five less-devoted scribes pleaded guilty and received sentences from three and a half to seven years.
When the five who pleaded innocent finally went on trial this past December 6, federal prosecutors had organized 1400 pages of the secret messages into a three-volume set of thick three-ring binders. Jurors in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard now peruse the clandestine files five days a week. When an attorney puts a page on the overhead projector, it appears simultaneously on two big monitors oriented toward the jury and five smaller ones stationed in front of each defendant. Everyone, including relatives of the four dead pilots, reads them together: the instructions from Havana, the detailed stories for their false identities, the counts of F-14s and A-10s at the Boca Chica base, the lack of jobs at the U.S. Southern Command, the rants about anti-Castro exile groups and their "pigheaded" and "senile" leaders. Messages in uppercase and lower, in first person and third, in varying tones of candor, sarcasm, bravado, and viciousness, but always in the proper socialist register required of the loyal revolutionary: "Greetings and a hug, brother," Labañino begins a memo to Guerrero. "Our regards and best wishes for this new year of battles and victories right in the enemy's bosom in this year of historic deeds, 1998. This year that is just beginning places greater goals and missions in our hands and in our future. We know you would give each one that special seal of quality and total dedication that you always give each task that the revolution assigns you." And there are many more missives where that one came from. The FBI estimates there are about 15,000 additional pages that prosecutors are not using to make their case.
Florida Panthers v Vancouver Canucks
TicketsSat., Dec. 10, 7:00pm
UberTAILGATE: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins vs. Cardinals
TicketsSun., Dec. 11, 12:00pm
LUXURY SEATING: Miami Dolphins v Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Dec. 11, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Dec. 11, 1:00pm
To three voracious readers -- assistant U.S. attorneys David Buckner, Caroline Heck Miller, and John Kastrenakes -- the messages they are using tell this story: Labañino, Guerrero, Hernandez, and Fernando Gonzalez conspired to gather U.S. defense information and pass it to a foreign government, in this case Cuba. In addition, they conclude, Hernandez conspired to murder the four Brothers to the Rescue pilots. Rene Gonzalez, age 44 (no relation to Fernando), is accused of illegally gathering intelligence for a foreign government after infiltrating various Cuban exile groups, such as Brothers to the Rescue and the Democracy Movement (Movimiento Democracia).
The five defendants, however, are hoping their recently published writings will find sympathetic readers in the jury. Sure they assumed fake identities with fraudulent birth certificates, social security cards, driver licenses, and passports. But each, through his court-appointed lawyer, has admitted to spying for a good reason: to protect the lives of people in Cuba from extremist elements of the exile movement. From people who might be crazy enough to bomb hotels in Havana, assassinate Fidel Castro, or even invade the island -- it has been known to happen. In fact three of the men about which the Wasp Network was worried -- Luis Posada Carriles, Guillermo Novo Sampoll, and Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo-- currently are under arrest in Panama for a plot to kill Castro during last November's Ibero-American Summit.
To emphasize their clients' position, the defense team has cited exchanges like this one, dated July 28, 1997, which Fernando Gonzalez, using the code name Oscar, wrote to Guerrero, whose code name was Lorient. Gonzalez had recently assumed responsibility for supervising Guerrero. "Brother: When you read this file, we will have already met each other in person, which makes me proud because of the political, operational, and human quality of the comrades who, like yourself, are carrying out missions in enemy territory so that our families and our people in general can rest easy."
The full story of the Wasp Network cannot yet be told. Judge Lenard's gag order on defendants, lawyers, and witnesses precludes that. Moreover the messages the FBI has released are riddled with omissions. But enough missives have emerged to add an absurd little chapter to cold war history.
It would take just one pilot determined to fly southward from Opa-locka, open a window over Havana, and drop some kind of secret weapon on an oil refinery to spark a very messy international incident. But really, what are the odds of that? Cuban officials were not about to take any chances. They made that clear when Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to Rescue planes on February 24, 1996, killing four exile pilots.
While the jury is out on whether Hernandez should bear responsibility for those deaths, the Wasp Network's writings clearly indicate the spies planned to sting Brothers to the Rescue and its leader, José Basulto. After all, Basulto was one of numerous Cubans who returned to Cuba legally in 1961 to prepare for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the deadly debacle that ensued, he escaped to Guantánamo. But he would not quit. A year later he and six other exiles traveled from Marathon Key to the coast of Havana in a heavily armed boat and fired a small cannon at an oceanside hotel. For years he advocated the assassination of Castro but eventually backed away from the violent struggle, publicly at least, and became a luxury-home builder. In 1991, as an alarming number of Cubans began fleeing their homeland in rafts, he cofounded Brothers to the Rescue. The group flew hundreds of missions to pull rafters out of the dangerous seas.
In 1995 Basulto shifted gears; he began flying over Cuba and dropping anti-Castro leaflets, to the annoyance of some Cuban government officials. That earned him a top slot on the Wasp Network's list of targets.
The Wasp Network's penetration of Brothers to the Rescue was one of its notable successes. Two of its operatives were well inside. One was Rene Gonzalez, whose code names were Castor and Iselin. The other was Juan Pablo Roque, whose code names were Venecia and German (pronounced hare-mahn). They lived in the Miami area and reported to Capt. Gerardo Hernandez, who had an apartment in North Miami Beach.
A message from Havana to Hernandez in November 1995 outlines Operation Picada (Spanish for "bite" or "sting"), which was aimed at sabotaging Brothers to the Rescue and discrediting Basulto. Among the "actions to be developed" for the operation was "the possibility of burning down the warehouse of this counterrevolutionary organization and affect[ing] its planes, making it seem like an accident, negligence, or self-damage, keeping in mind that this place may be secured, and that in cases like these, investigations are performed. Rumors will leak that Basulto and his people caused the damage themselves to collect the insurance and get more money from their contributors." Because he is expected to testify, Basulto is barred from speaking to the press about the case. But he has previously told reporters of incidents in which he discovered that steering cables of Brothers to the Rescue planes were severed. Another possible sting would be "to disable their equipment and transmission antennae on land, the ones they use to communicate with during their missions, making it seem like negligence."
One of special agent Rene Gonzalez's assignments was to inform Hernandez "when the Brothers to the Rescue planes will be taking off, who is in them, and if they are going to land at a specific place." He would type up an encoded report, save it on a disk, and pass it to Hernandez.
At the time Gonzalez was on a roll. It had been five years since the Cuban Air Force veteran flew a crop-dusting plane from Cuba to the Boca Chica air base near Key West in 1990 and announced his defection. Now he was not only one of the Brothers' esteemed pilots but an assistant director of the Democracy Movement's air command as well. He also belonged to PUND (the Democratic National Unity Party), several of whose commandos promptly were captured while making two raids on Cuban soil in 1994 and in 1996.
Roque, though, might have been losing his edge. He was eager to return to Cuba. One report to Havana suggests such eagerness may have started to taint his ability to reason about certain things. The message was apparently written by Albert Manuel Ruiz, one of the alleged spies who escaped. It states that the two met at 9:00 a.m. on November 27, 1995, at the McDonald's restaurant at 3200 S. Dixie Hwy. in Coconut Grove to exchange information on Brothers to the Rescue. Roque informed Ruiz about an idea Basulto had to seek permission from the Cuban government to make flights to Havana to deliver humanitarian aid to political prisoners. In his report Ruiz refers to himself in the third person as A-4, one of his code names. "German [Roque] seemed to think these flights might be authorized by Cuba. He even described with enthusiasm how good it would be if they would take place, and he would go with Basulto, land in Cuba, and say, That's it for me,' and what he referred to is how much of an impact it would have for one of the pilots of Brothers to the Rescue to stay. In regards to this, A-4 [Ruiz] hinted that the idea was a bit of a fantasy because it was quite obvious that the Cuban government would not accept that."
Roque also was becoming paranoid. He thought Basulto was growing suspicious of him, as Ruiz reported a few days later after another secret meeting with his comrade at the Pollo Tropical on Le Jeune Road and NW 36th Street.
On the other hand, Roque had gathered an intelligence gem regarding Basulto. In a message dated November 27, 1995, Ruiz informs Havana about it: "German stated that he had many and very good things. He said that Basulto had told him about plans he has with a secret weapon' that was very effective during the Second World War and has not been manufactured anymore even though it is not very costly. He said that weapon could be introduced in Cuba to be used by counterrevolutionary groups and to promote actions against the government. A-4 insisted that he give more details about that weapon,' but he said that he didn't know anything else. He said it was an anti-personnel weapon but has not been able to find out anything else."
About three months later, on February 22, 1996, Gonzalez found out about an upcoming Brothers to the Rescue mission that Basulto was keeping secret. As part of his cover, the Cuban agent had been plotting to get his wife and daughter out of Cuba. He met that day with Basulto to discuss how to send a letter to the State Department via two Cuban-American U.S. representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "As we were talking," Gonzalez typed to Hernandez, "he received a call from Carlos Costa, apparently inquiring about an operation that was going to take place in the future. Basulto told him that the entire fleet would be used, although he did not give any more details." But Gonzalez had a hunch: The Brothers to the Rescue leader was planning a flight that was to take place two days later to coincide with a conference of a dissident group. "He is evidently being very discreet," Gonzalez observed.
It will never be known what Basulto would have done had he flown over Havana two days later, because he didn't. As his plane buzzed toward Cuba that morning, two MiGs shot down two Cessnas that had departed from Opa-locka Airport and were flying near him. Indeed the most chilling verbiage of the trial has come not from the defendants' writings but from prosecutor David Buckner's opening statement: "On February 24, 1996, Operation Scorpion was brought to its deadly conclusion ... leaving only wreckage on the water." Four Brothers to the Rescue pilots were killed: Pablo Morales, Armando Alejandre, Mario de la Pena, and Carlos Costa, the pilot who had called Basulto while Gonzalez was in his office.
In reading other messages, assistant U.S. attorneys Buckner, Kastrenakes, and Miller saw evidence that Cuba was plotting to lure Basulto's planes in for a shootdown. One shortwave message from Havana to its Miami operatives on January 29 said that "superior headquarters" had approved Operation Scorpion "in order to perfect the confrontation" with Brothers to the Rescue. In a message dated February 13, 1996 -- eleven days before the downing -- Hernandez instructed Gonzalez to "pinpoint in more detail everything related to new incursions by Brothers to the Rescue to be carried out in our country." Among the details he asked for were:
"Whether the activity is to drop leaflets or to violate the air space.
"Whether you are flying or not."
His message ends with this warning: "If they ask you to fly at the last minute without being scheduled, find an excuse and do not do it. If you cannot avoid it, transmit over the airplane's radio the slogan for the July 13 Martyrs and Viva Cuba.' If you are not able to call, say over the radio: Long live Brothers to the Rescue and Democracia.'"
Prosecutors also have referred to another shortwave message the Directorate of Intelligence broadcast to its Miami operatives on February 18. The lawyers say it contains instructions regarding how Rene Gonzalez was to respond to Roque's relocation to Cuba. "When Venecia's [Roque's] return is made public, Castor's [Gonzalez's] first response should be incredulity and then condemnation." Roque sneaked off to Cuba the day before the shootdown and afterward denounced the group on Cuban government television, to the shock of many Miami exiles, including his unwitting Cuban-American wife. Roque was indicted in absentia, along with the others who escaped: Ricardo Villareal, Remijio Luna, and Albert Manuel Ruiz.
If there is a smoking message in the decrypted documents, it is this text from shortwave radio the Directorate of Intelligence sent its Miami operatives a week after the shootdown: "Our profound recognition for Operation German. Everything turned out well....We have dealt the Miami right a hard blow, in which your role has been decisive."
The Wasp Network soon was contemplating other incredible, and not-so-credible, counterrevolutionary developments and how to counteract them. Would the most powerful Cuban exile group organize a mercenary force to invade Cuba? Would it finance urban terrorists bent on planting bombs in Havana hotels? Would its leader fake a terminal illness to shore up his sagging political capital?
Several months after the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, the chief of the Directorate of Intelligence, Edgardo Delgado Rodriguez, sent a long message to Hernandez. He warned that "violent actions against Cuba should increase in the short term," adding facetiously, "as a result of the extreme euphoria prevailing in Miami after the 24th of February." He instructed the Wasp Network to watch for various groups and individuals who had pulled off armed attacks inside Cuba. Many were the usual suspects -- old-timers such as Luis Posada Carriles, Orlando Bosch, and Ramon Orozco Crespo -- whom Havana has long tried to link to the Cuban American National Foundation. But he also relayed to Hernandez an astounding new tip: CANF was organizing a new paramilitary group. According to Delgado the report originated from a comrade who said a U.S. National Guardmember named Andres Alvariño was working "to form a group of 40 men with professional military experience, persons on active duty in the military ... or ex-military personnel, for the execution of paramilitary missions against Cuba. It would be a force of mercenaries without ties to any counterrevolutionary Cuban groups, which they consider have been penetrated and are vulnerable. They would be paid per mission, and they would have life insurance policies of $100,000 for their families. [CANF board member] Roberto Martin Perez will be in charge of this project.... One of the financial promoters will be Enrique Casas, a Cuban millionaire and ex-U.S. Army officer who has a boat company and arms deposits in Honduras that belonged to the Nicaraguan contras." The message added that the CIA also was participating "indirectly" and that Alvariño and a sergeant in the National Guard already had begun recruiting the men. The recruits would be subjected to a "rigorous investigation" and operate in cells of four.
Delgado also included CANF's board of directors, "who rely on renowned terrorists, including the brothers [Guillermo and Ignacio] Novo Sampoll, Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo, Felix Rodriguez, Ramon Orozco Crespo, and Luis Posada Carriles." Delgado reported that in late November 1995, Jimenez Escobedo "suggested" to CANF's board of directors the "convenience" with which explosives of the kind Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing could be used against Castro. "Although we do not know how the proposal was received," Delgado continued, "a reliable source gave information that in subsequent weeks Jimenez Escobedo himself, Orozco Crespo, and Posada, independently, will try to acquire through different avenues type C-4 explosives [for use] against our country. This information has not yet been corroborated."
A year later Posada told two New York Times reporters, who interviewed him in an undisclosed location in the Caribbean, that he coordinated six Havana hotel bombings from August to September 1997 in which eleven people were injured and one man was killed. The type of explosive he used: C-4. He is awaiting a sentence of death by firing squad. Posada, who received military training alongside the late CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1963, also told the reporters the foundation had financed the bombing operation but later retracted the statement.
This past November Panamanian police arrested Posada, now age 70, for planning to detonate C-4 explosives in an attempt to kill Castro while he was in Panama for the Ibero-American Summit. The Cuban government wants to try him for various crimes, including the bombing of a Cuban jet that crashed shortly after takeoff from Barbados on October 6, 1976, killing 73 people. The CANF has always denied any connection to Posada's activities. The group has publicly dismissed Wasp Network intelligence as "fantasy."
But "CANF terrorists" are an elusive bunch and besides the Wasp Network had many other duties concerning the Mas Canosa organization. Among them: monitoring his political and material fortunes, plotting a few measures to discredit this enemy, and drafting scads of messages to Havana.
For example in a May 24, 1996, message Hernandez writes: "The old rivalry between Mas Canosa and [former Miami Herald publisher] David Lawrence has been re-ignited. Mas Canosa spoke on the radio to defend himself and has insulted Lawrence. It would be a good idea to make a threatening call to Lawrence and the Herald."
In the spring of 1997, the Wasp Network gathered some unexpected intelligence on CANF. It came from a reliable source: Ramon Saul Sanchez, the leader of the Democracy Movement. Rene Gonzalez, who had penetrated Democracy, had received the information at a meeting of the group's senior members. Gonzalez met Hernandez at the Piccadilly Restaurant at NW 23rd Avenue and West Flagler Street to pass him the diskette containing his report. Hernandez would then relay it to Havana along with his own conclusions. Dated March 27, 1997, Gonzalez's message read: "A bit of news was given which Saul asked to be kept secret. It is about Mas Canosa, who has terminal cancer, and, according to Saul, they don't think he will make it to the end of the year." Gonzalez added that another Democracy member, Marcelino Garcia, told him that as a result of the illness, there was conflict among Roberto Martin Perez and other senior CANF members over who would take charge.
Gonzalez was ever wary of exile trickery, though. "I took this news with some reservations, besides the goodness it would do to humanity if a guy like Mas Canosa would disappear," he said. Gonzalez suggested that Mas Canosa might be faking the illness as part of a stratagem in which he would undergo a miraculous healing to rally political support. "In doing that they could gain sympathy among the people," he explained, "who would see God's hand and the power of prayer, et cetera, et cetera." Hernandez found his comrade's hypothesis a little far-fetched and told Havana so. He suspected Mas Canosa truly was sick. "Castor [Gonzalez] said that maybe this was pig head's' propagandistic strategy, being tremendously sly. I gave him my opinion that one cannot doubt anything coming from Mas Canosa, but I don't think he's going to get into a story of that kind. And I actually think that if there is smoke, it's because there is fire." But he noted they were in agreement about one thing: "We united our faith' in a brief mental prayer' that the news about the cancer is true, and we hope it cuts him in four pieces as soon as possible. Amen."
When Mas Canosa died eight months later, it was time to target CANF members with one of Havana's own secret weapons: a flyer. It read as follows.
Who are you voting for as Chairman of the CANF?
For Jorge Mas Santos?
He isn't interested in politics.
His mother doesn't want him to assume leadership of the CANF.
He doesn't have his father's charisma.
He's not fluent in Spanish
For Dr. Alberto Hernandez?
His extramarital relations don't allow him any time for politics.
His most valuable distinction is that he was Jorge Mas' doctor.
His health is deteriorating.
For Pepe Hernandez?
He's a loser.
He's under FBI surveillance because he's sloppy.
He's not accepted by members of the CANF. He has no leadership charisma.
Has prostate cancer.
For Diego Suarez?
Conversationalist (even with the enemy)
He has little life left
For Domingo Moreira?
Don Domingo Moreira has prestige but you can't inherit that.
He doesn't have charisma to direct the powerful CANF.
Who should you vote for? Vote for Finado
[Finado is Spanish for dead person']
The Wasp Network also reflected on ways to thwart Ninoska Perez, the CANF spokeswoman and host of a local AM radio show on which she rails against Castro and takes calls from listeners who rail some more. Hernandez was especially incensed about some right-wing high jinx: She'd phone Havana, sweet-talk a government official for a moment, and then excoriate him or her for supporting a brutal dictator. "On a couple of occasions, I sent my evaluations on how ... one could do harm [to] or neutralize in some way the counterrevolutionary actions that originate here," Hernandez typed to the Directorate of Intelligence. "I am referring specifically to the telephone calls made by the radio stations to talk to the dissidents' from over there and the calls from Ninoska Perez trying to be funny.... She's gotten a lot of publicity here for making fun of many incidents as well as government agencies, including [former foreign minister Roberto] Robaina." Hernandez suggests that when Cuban officials are interviewed by Miami-based media, they note that the Cuban government earns money from phone calls originating in the United States. "We might be able to create a negative state of opinion about this fat son of a bitch [gorda h.p., in the original Spanish]. We might not be able to stop the calls, but we could cause some long-range or medium-range damage." He then writes he was pleased to hear rival Miami radio talk show host Francisco Aruca make the point on his show. "To my satisfaction [he] said that he had listened to two of Ninoska's calls that must have left the government of Cuba with $200, and that if he were Fidel Castro, he would tell all of his officials to talk a whole lot with that woman."
Hernandez's analysis of the counterrevolutionary prankster, though, led him to a radical idea: The guardians of the revolution could stand have more of a sense of humor. He informed his bosses that on this side of the Florida Straits, Cuban officials come across as "serious, schematic, and dogmatic, who are easy to make fun of and don't make fun of anyone. I think a little good humor and spark on the part of some of our comrades at the time of sparring, especially with the media in Miami, would go a long way."
But Gerardo Hernandez didn't find it very funny when he ran into a former CIA agent and "CANF terrorist" one day. Hernandez had been in the process of buying a VCR at the Costco supermarket on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach and was wheeling a shopping cart along when he came face to face with none other than Felix Rodriguez, the man credited with killing Che Guevara.
Like Basulto and Posada, Rodriguez was one of Castro's wiliest foes in the early years of the revolution. After Cuban government troops crushed the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Rodriguez escaped to the Venezuelan embassy. He then joined the CIA and helped Bolivian troops track down Che in 1965 in Bolivia, where the Argentine doctor and Cuban revolutionary hero was killed shortly after his capture. In 1985 Rodriguez fought Castro indirectly on another battlefield, supervising secret supply flights to the Nicaraguan contras, an operation directed by White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver North. One of the men who helped Rodriguez was Luis Posada Carriles.
"Upon crossing each other's path, we looked at each other, and I knew it was him," Hernandez wrote in a message to Delgado, the intelligence chief in Havana. "He was wearing a green jacket, the kind photographers or journalists wear.... Since I was on my way to the cash register at the time when we crossed each other, I didn't want to continue walking around inside the store, because all the references we have about this person is that he is pretty shrewd and furthermore somewhat paranoid. For that reason I paid for what I had bought, and I went to the part of the building where the food court area is located, which is exactly in front of the registers, and one can see everybody when they are coming to pay on their way out." Hernandez noted that six minutes later, Rodriguez appeared in a checkout line.
"It took me a couple of minutes to finish my ice cream, and I left heading toward some telephone booths that are at the entrance to the left. I pretended to be talking on the phone with the beeper in my hand, as if I was answering a page." He observed Rodriguez exit with his shopping cart and push it to a gray Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows. "He placed the things he had bought inside the trunk. And immediately he did something which seems to me was a sign of countersurveillance. Usually people [after emptying their shopping cart] leave it right there, or maybe the more conscientious people take the cart a little bit toward the building. Nevertheless he did the opposite. What he did was to take it further away (about five meters) in the opposite direction of the store with no logical justification at all. He did it in such a way that, on his way back, he had the entire panoramic view in front of him, with complete control of the view of the entrance of the store along with the view of all the people who could have come out behind him. I had to have been in this view since I was at the telephone booths." Hernandez noted the license plate number.
The message continues with Hernandez's analysis of the encounter. "The subject was alone. Nevertheless we must emphasize that because of the characteristics of the jacket he was wearing, it is perfectly possible that he could have been armed." He concludes that Rodriguez didn't suspect him because of the way he drove off. "He could have made a turn, even though it's a little illogical, allowing him to not show the back part of his car (including the license plate) toward the area where I was.... This is all for now. You can imagine what it feels like to have a guy so close who is such an SOB and who owes us such a big debt."
Intelligence on the Democracy Movement and its leader, Ramon Saul Sanchez, required more copious writing than was needed for other exile groups and forced the Wasp Network to stretch the limits of its training. In the past Sanchez had advocated violence against the Castro government; in the early Eighties he led the Organization for the Liberation of Cuba, which supposedly ran missions to the island. But after spending four and a half years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the assassination of a Cuban diplomat in New York, Sanchez adopted a strategy of peaceful protest.
According to the Wasp Network files, Havana was particularly concerned about Sanchez's potential to bring his unique brand of anti-Castro propaganda to Cuban shores. In a message dated February 25, 1997, special agent (and Democracy member) Gonzalez reviewed a flotilla that had taken place a day earlier to Cuban waters to commemorate the victims of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown a year earlier. Fifteen planes accompanied the boats. Basulto, Sanchez, and Gonzalez were among those who had flown. Everything had gone smoothly. "The atmosphere was full of optimism and satisfaction," he reported after a meeting of Democracy leaders at the group's office in a strip mall at SW Eighth Street and 81st Avenue. But he had some vexing new intelligence. A call from someone in Cuba had come into the office. It was Lazaro Cabrera, a member of a group called the Alianza Republicana de Cuba, who had been arrested for activities on the island that coincided with the flotilla. "He painted a very upbeat picture, saying that everything had gone perfectly in Cuba," Gonzalez began. "He said that all the masses took place and that people had gone to the Malecón to throw flowers [into the sea]. He said the people's morale was very high and that everyone knew about what Democracy was doing, that Democracy was the strongest sounding force in Cuba."
It became more unsettling. Cabrera then said that while in detention he was visited by Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage. "He said Lage told him ... that the Cuban government understood that Democracy was a movement of decent people, but that they were wearing down the government at a time when the country was trying to survive. According to Lazaro, Lage practically begged him to understand." Gonzalez said the Democracy leaders concluded that the Cuban government might want to hold a dialogue to discuss the flotillas. He seemed befuddled: "This will be all regarding what Lazaro said. You should know if he's crazy, looking for a visa, or is one of us."
Several months later, however, Gonzalez was reporting intelligence more to his liking. In September Democracy was considering leasing a cruise ship that would steam along the northern shore of Cuba just before Christmas. The cruise would feature a Willy Chirino concert and a laser show sending messages of peace into the sky.
He suggested a novel form of sabotage: "We could begin filling out and sending back forms expressing an interest in going, which in turn would exceed all expectations." Gonzalez suggested to Hernandez the Wasp Network could fax in 200 forms, with each one pledging three bogus participants committed to paying for the cruise. "Perhaps names could be taken from the phone book at random and used to fill out the forms," he continued. Then, as the day of the cruise approached and Democracy leaders attempted to collect money from the participants, they would realize they didn't have enough to fill the ship and would have to cancel. Hernandez rejected his comrade's proposal, saying it would require too much work, and the faxes could be traced. The cruise, as it turned out, never took place.
In a November 1997 report to Hernandez, Gonzalez reported "discord" and "demoralization" in the Democracy Movement. Gonzalez provided details from a meeting led by Sanchez and attended by about twenty people at the Democracy office. The organization also was in financial trouble, he wrote. It had to remove one of its boats from a marina because it couldn't make dockage payments. A woman who had sold the group a boat was threatening to sue because it had not yet paid her. A two-hour dispute over the validity of an election three months earlier of the group's executive board pushed the meeting past midnight.
"This is where the movement currently stands. These people have no goals, without definite objectives, and no concrete plans," agent Gonzalez concluded. "Even though one cannot underestimate Saul's perseverance, the Democracy Movement is wounded and can die if urgent measures are not taken, which I'm not really sure Saul will [provide], given his behavior at the meeting. He appears to be very susceptible to what anyone says. This prevents him from using his leadership at times such as these." Gerardo Hernandez added his analysis, describing Democracy as "largely geriatric and senile," and he sent the intelligence to Havana.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.