Mother Knows Best

The five Cuban spies convicted by a federal jury in Miami this past June have insinuated themselves among the local prison population, according to two of the agents' mothers. Among the operatives' revolutionary work: helping semiliterate inmates write letters to their girlfriends. "The other prisoners seek them out for all kinds of things," reported 74-year-old Irma Sehwerert, whose son Rene Gonzalez is jailed at the federal detention center in downtown Miami. "It's a very beautiful thing. They have a lot of nice friendships."

Sehwerert is happy to be able to speak with her son by telephone weekly. But she is angry about the treatment he and his four compañeros have received during their three-year incarceration. For example after their arrest on September 12, 1998, the suspects were held in the detention center's Special Housing Unit -- tantamount to solitary confinement -- for seventeen months. After the guilty verdicts, prison authorities, citing unspecified security concerns, returned the five agents to the small, windowless cells in the unit, known to inmates as "the hole." Federal public defender Joaquin Mendez filed a motion alleging cruel and unusual punishment, and the inmates were moved to the general prison population two months later. "The security concerns have always been vague and never proven," Mendez chides.

New Times recently met with Sehwerert and 73-year-old Magaly Llort at Llort's small apartment in the La Vibora neighborhood of Havana. Llort's son Fernando Gonzalez faces a prison sentence of up to ten years, as does Rene Gonzalez, for spying on exile groups and attempting to monitor U.S. military installations. (The two men are not related.) Llort also was bitter, not only about her son's isolation in the hole but because he was unable to contact her by phone or mail until two and a half years after his arrest.

The three other jailed compatriots -- Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, and Ramon Labañino -- could receive life sentences for their espionage convictions involving U.S. military installations. (The jury also found Hernandez guilty of murder conspiracy after concluding he was an accomplice in Cuba's 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shootdown that killed four members of the anti-Castro group.) Cuban foreign-ministry officials, who arranged the interviews with the two mothers, could not say why relatives of the other three prisoners were unavailable. Judge Joan Lenard is scheduled to hand down sentences in early December.

Although not a single member of the Miami jury was Cuban American, the two mothers remain skeptical that the panel was able to deliberate freely, without concerns of intimidation from zealous anti-Castro exiles. "[The jurors'] families are there; they work there," observed Llort, a retired economist who put in 35 years at Cuba's National Bank. "And we believe they must have been under a lot of pressure to play their role there. Not everyone, perhaps, has the courage to [overcome] a situation like that."

New Times has been unable to learn what the five convicted spies have to say about their guilty verdicts. Over the past several months, their lawyers have denied repeated requests for interviews. But the two mothers are unrepentant. They insist their sons would never have done anything to hurt the United States. "We gave them an upbringing and an education in which we made them reflect on the well-being of humanity," Llort said. "We know that they wouldn't be capable of committing a [harmful] act against anybody, including the North American people."

Sehwerert is a retired director of a Cuban chemical, mining, and energy-workers union who began her labor activism in the Fifties, at age sixteen, when she organized a union at a greeting-card factory in Chicago. She called the spy mission "a purely defensive necessity" to protect Cuba from terrorism. "From the beginning of the revolution," she declared, "we have constantly suffered terrorist acts." For example the two madres cited the 1976 bombing of a Cubana de Aviación jet, which exploded after takeoff from Barbados, killing 73 people. They also mention Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, whom the Cuban government has long blamed for planning that attack. Bosch resides in west Miami-Dade; Posada is awaiting trial in Panama for an alleged plot to kill Fidel Castro with a bomb during last November's Ibero-American Summit.

Sehwerert chuckled at the suggestion that Posada, Bosch, and other exiles do not see themselves as terrorists but rather as soldiers in a war of liberation against the Castro regime. "We won the liberation of Cuba in the year 1959," she clarified. "And we are very proud of it. We're not going to give it up for anybody, because we don't want anything to do with the Cuba of old."

Recalling her son's career as a flier and flight instructor, Sehwerert reminisced, "He always dreamed of being a pilot." After serving with Cuban troops in Angola and working as a crop-duster back home in the Eighties, her boy flew to Key West in 1990 and publicly announced he had defected. It was a ruse. Over the next eight years, he infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, the Democracy Movement, and the paramilitary Partido Unido Nacional Democratico and secretly reported to Havana on their activities.

Rene's mother confessed that she never had an inkling her son was a spy. At least not until two Interior Ministry officials arrived at her house while she was having dinner one September night in 1998. They said her son was under arrest in Miami. When she learned he was charged with spying, Sehwerert was "relieved" that it was a crime of which she could be proud. Despite the shock she stuck with her plans for the evening and attended a neighborhood meeting of Communist Party activists. "I'm a party militant," she explained.

For nearly two years Sehwerert kept the news about Rene to herself, though, until officials decided to publicize the arrests after the five agents went on trial last December and the Cuban government turned the case into the island's biggest anti-American cause célèbre since Elian Gonzalez. "After it was made public, everybody came by and congratulated me," she recalled. "It really made everybody very happy, because they knew that a boy like Rene couldn't be any other way, given his convictions."

Llort was devastated when Interior Ministry officials notified her of Fernando's arrest. "It had a terrible impact on me," she confided. But her pain turned to pride. "I too am a party militant, and I understand that everyone has his role to play and a trench to defend. And that was his role." Her son's subterfuge brought to mind a poem by the one Cuban who is eternally popular on both sides of the Florida Straits: José Martí. "It had to be in silence," she recited, "because there are things that must be hidden to be accomplished."

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