Longform

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.

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.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen