The Cuban Five
On Monday, June 15, 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court denied a bid by the Cuban Five to hear their final appeal. The articles below were written before the Supreme Court decision. —The Editors
The following two articles are conversations recorded by Saul Landau, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, with Gerardo Hernandez, leader of the Cuban Five. Mr. Landau (with Jack Willis) is making a film on the Cuban Five.
Who are the Cuban Five? The Cuban Five are five Cuban men who are in U.S. prison, serving four life sentences and 75 years collectively, after being wrongly convicted in U.S. federal court in Miami, on June 8, 2001 of committing espionage conspiracy against the United States, and other related charges. They are Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González.
The Five have pointed out vigorously in their defense that they were involved in monitoring the actions of Miami-based terrorist groups, in order to prevent terrorist attacks on their country of Cuba. Their actions were never directed at the U.S. government. They never harmed anyone nor ever possessed nor used any weapons while in the United States. For more information about the Cuban Five and the ongoing campaign to free them, go to: National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, www.freethefive.org
Infiltrating Alpha 66
An Interview with Gerardo Hernandez, Leader of the Cuban Five
This conversation took place on April 1, 2009. Our film crew received Justice Department approval to talk with “the prisoner,” with a prison official in the room. Before his 1998 arrest, Gerardo Hernandez directed the operations of the other Cuban State Security agents who infiltrated violent groups in the Miami area for the purposes of stopping them from carrying out terrorist attacks on tourist sites in Cuba. We took complete and careful notes.
Saul Landau: What was your mission and why?
Gerardo Hernandez: In the U.S. in general and Florida specifically, many groups contemplated and carried out acts of terrorism in Cuba. We were collecting information on Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue. Many years have passed and I hope that nothing has escaped me but I think those were the principal groups in which we working [infiltrating].
Saul Landau: What did you learn through your infiltration?
Gerardo Hernandez: The first thing that struck me was the impunity with which these groups operated, violating the laws of the U.S.: The Neutrality Acts [of the 1790s] that supposedly means no organization can use American soil to commit terrorism against another country.
In the case of Alpha 66, the operatives would take a fast boat and shoot at targets along Cuba’s coast. When they would return to Miami, they would hold a press conference, lecture and openly say what they had done.
And when someone would ask, “Hey, doesn’t that violate the neutrality laws,” they would reply: “Not really, because first we went to one of the Keys somewhere in the Caribbean and then we went to Cuba. So technically, we didn’t leave from the U.S.” They did this openly and no U.S. agency took responsibility.
Saul Landau: In what years?
Gerardo Hernandez: This has been going on since 1959. I personally began dealing with this in the 1990s. Since I’ve been here in prison in Victorville [California] about three years ago, I think in 2005 they arrested a Cuban right here in this county with an arsenal, all kinds of weapons in his house. And the first thing he said was, “Well, I am a member of Alpha 66 and I’m using these weapons in the struggle for Cuban freedom.” That was his defense.
Saul Landau: Were the Cuban Five all volunteers? How does one prepare to infiltrate an enemy group in an enemy country? And then act as if you were enemies of your country and friends of them?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes, all volunteers. In my case, I’m not a career military man. I studied to be a diplomat. It took me six years to complete my degree in International and Political Relations. Afterwards, I went to Angola, as part of a voluntary international mission. And while I was in Angola it seems I sparked the attention of the Cuban intelligence services, and when I got back, they approached me with this mission. They said, “We know you studied to be a diplomat, but you know our country has a certain situation with these terrorist groups that are coming from Florida to commit all kinds of crimes and we need someone to go and fulfill these tasks.”
I could have said, “No, I studied diplomacy, I want to be a diplomat,” but Cubans, those who were raised with the Revolution, know that during the past 50 years our country has faced almost a war environment. In Cuba, he who doesn’t know personally a victim of terrorism, at least knows about the plane that exploded over Barbados, killing 73 people [October 1976]. Who doesn’t know about the bomb [in 1997] that killed Fabio di Selmo [an Italian tourist and guest at Havana’s Hotel Copacabana detonated by a Salvadoran who said he was hired by Luis Posada] just to mention a few acts? There was a pre-school where the counter revolutionaries lit a [gas] tank on fire. These actions are part of the Cuban conscience. So, I told the Intelligence officers, “Yes, I am prepared to fulfill this mission.”
Saul Landau: How did you manage to infiltrate these groups? How did you convince them, people like Jose Basulto [head of Brothers to the Rescue], for example?
Gerardo Hernandez: For Cubans in this country, everything is connected. Cubans in the United States have enormous privileges, ones that no other citizens of the world have. Cubans arrive by any route, including with false passports, and the only thing they have to say is, “I come seeking freedom,” and right away the U.S. gives them all the documents they need. So, in the case of Basulto, for example, one of our comrades who infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue had originally “stolen” a plane from Cuba. Rene [Gonzalez, another of the Cuban Five] flew his plane here and, as is the custom, he was received as a hero. He got lots of attention and, later joined the Brothers. His job was collecting information about that organization.
So, if you ask me how, I say that we used as our foundation for infiltration the very privileges all Cubans receive when they arrive in this country; even those who took others with them, and have hijacked airplanes, or have put a gun up to a pilot’s head. Look at people like Leonel Matias, who [in 1994 he hijacked a boat in Cuba and killed a naval officer in the process] killed someone on a boat, arrived here on that boat, with his gun—and the body was even discovered. But despite all of that, he didn’t have to face any processes in the U.S. justice system. Those people are automatically pardoned. So using exactly that kind of advantage, we were able to penetrate to a certain level, these organizations.
When I mention Brothers to the Rescue, some might think, “This is a humanitarian organization that rescued balseros [rafters].” On the contrary, while their activities were limited to rescuing balseros, they had no problems with the Cuban authorities. What people tend not to know is that Jose Basulto, the head of that organization, has a long record as a terrorist. He trained with the CIA, and infiltrated Cuba in the 1960s. In 1962, he came to Cuba on a fast boat and fired shells at the Cuban coast, including targeting a hotel. Even Basulto, with all his known history, had no problems while he limited his actions to rescuing balseros. In 1995, however, the United States and Cuba signed migratory agreements specifying that boats intercepted at sea would no longer be brought to the United States; rather they would be returned to Cuba. At that point, people stopped contributing money to Basulto and his organization because, they said: “Why are we going to give money to Basulto’s organization? When he calls the coast guard, they are just going to return those balseros to Cuba?”
So, when Basulto saw his business in danger, he invented this invasion [in 1995] of Cuban airspace as a way to keep people donating money. We presented this evidence in our case. If the press hasn’t wanted to pay much attention to this…well, they don’t want to touch such material. It doesn’t behoove them. I am referring to the corporate press. The documents are all there showing how Basulto and the Brothers to the Rescue were trying out handmade weapons in order to introduce them in Cuba.
When Basulto testified at our trial , our attorneys asked him what he intended to do with all those weapons. All this is in the trial record, though no one seems to want to pay attention to it. People tend to talk about the Brothers to the Rescue as if they were a humanitarian organization, omitting the part about terrorism; like they omit the facts that the FBI had penetrated that organization as well. The FBI had someone inside the group giving them information on the Brothers’ activities. Why would the FBI penetrate a humanitarian organization?
—Counterpunch, April 17-20, 2009
‘The Small Island 90 Miles Away has the Right to choose its Own Destiny’
Telephone conversation with Gerardo Hernandez from the U.S. prison (Last of 5 parts)
Saul Landau: Did you talk to the prosecution?
Gerardo Hernandez: No. Everything goes through our lawyers. Initially I talked with the government lawyer [public defender]. He suggested the possibility of cooperating with the government. I don’t know if he was presenting the prosecution’s idea or not. But I told him that if he wanted to continue being my attorney we should not touch that subject again. And he never mentioned it again. Although later they [the government] offered so-called plea bargains, meaning one would admit guilt and cooperate. We rejected all such attempts. But we never had direct contact with the prosecution.
Saul Landau: Did it occur to you to cooperate, so as to escape the nightmare you’ve described?
Gerardo Hernandez: Look, we’ve been in prison for over ten years. People who know about this case have said to me: “Cuba must have paid you lots of money to do this!” I always laugh and say: “If I had done what I did for money, I wouldn’t be here.” Because when one works for money, one works for the highest bidder. And Cuba could never pay what this country could pay. I would have accepted their [U.S.] offers and saved myself 10 years behind bars without seeing my wife. A lot of people don’t understand; people brought up to think money means everything in life.
No, betrayal never crossed my mind. It’s so obvious that it becomes difficult to explain. It would mean not only self-betrayal, as a revolutionary, but also a whole country, my family. It would mean betraying all the Cubans that in the hundred something years since the 1868 revolution, have given their lives so Cuba could be free, independent and sovereign. I was clear from the start: what I was doing was not wrong. I’m sorry I had to break some [U.S.] laws, but it was for a greater good and absolutely necessary. So I have nothing to repent.
Saul Landau: One accusation against you: Conspiring to commit espionage. What evidence did the U.S. government have?
Gerardo Hernandez: None. I’m accused of supervising others who were involved in that [information gathering operation]. Take Antonio [Guerrero, one of the five] for example. Antonio went to an [employment] office in Key West, where he lived, to look for a job.
A woman in the office told him about a plumber’s job at the Key West naval base. And he accepted. He didn’t seek that job. She offered it to him. We brought that employment agency woman to the trial [as a witness]. She testified she had kept insisting he take that job. Once he started working there, we informed Cuba. Cuba said: “We know that prior to a U.S. invasion of another country, like Haiti and previously, there may be an increase in resources being deployed at that base. For example: “On a normal day there might be 12 planes. If you see 25 planes let us know because something funny is gong on.”
It was defensive. Cuba wanted to know about any extraordinary movements there. Remember, this is the base closest to Miami, where these folks [militant exiles] have so much influence. And they dream the U.S. army will eliminate all the revolutionaries from Cuba, so they can return. So, Cuba has always had this concern. Occasionally, Antonio would say: “There’s a bad situation on the base; there are this many planes, this many left and this many returned.” That is obviously military information. But according to U.S. laws, it’s not espionage. Anyone driving along Route 1 [in south Florida] can see how many airplanes there are; public information. There are extensive legal precedents that it’s not espionage.
The prosecution said: “You’re right, that’s not espionage. It’s conspiracy to commit espionage.” Because some day Antonio would want clearance, so he could get another position with access to secret information.” Throughout all those years [from 1993 to 1998] that never happened. But they say it could have happened. So they stretched that charge, and convicted him. It’s possibly the only case in the United States of someone being found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage” in which the person had absolutely no access to secret information.
Saul Landau: About you knowing Brothers to the Rescue would be flying on that day? Did you know the Cuban Air Force planned to attack them, and attack them over international waters?
Gerardo Hernandez: That’s the other charge. If you had initially asked the prosecution, “What involvement did he [Gerardo] have in making that happen?” they would say, “He sent them the flight plans.” Later it was proved that I didn’t send the flight plans. The FAA, [Federal Aviation Administration] sent the flight plans. But besides that, what flight plan? Basulto had given a press conference, announcing they would be flying on February 24.
Our own lawyers even made this mistake saying: “When you sent them information regarding the flight plan...” No, I didn’t even do that. I sent absolutely no information concerning that flight. They said that out of carelessness; and even if it had happened, it would have nothing to do with anything, but it didn’t even happen. The crazy idea the prosecution invented is that not only did I know they [Cuba] were going to shoot the planes down—I did not know that—but I knew they would do so over international waters; that Cuba was conspiring, not just to shoot down these planes invading Cuban air space, but over international waters. That’s the most absurd idea that anyone could ever invent. But the trial was held in Miami, and therefore I would be found guilty of any charge at all.
Saul Landau: Who in Cuba controls that kind of attack, MIG pilots or people on the ground?
Gerardo Hernandez: I assume it’d be Cuban Anti-Air Defense and the Armed Forces Ministry—including ground radar and the Air Force. My understanding is Fidel Castro and, I believe, Raul explained in detail on Cuban TV how the orders were given. I don’t have details about that because it happened while I was here. I assume the radar system, the Air Force and the high command worked together like a well-oiled machine.
Saul Landau: With Obama’s election, do you anticipate positive steps toward Cuba and your case?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. Obama, in his campaign, had the courage to say he’d be willing to talk with Cuba without preconditions. Previously in Miami, that was practically political suicide. Anyone doing that would know he’d lose the Florida Cuban vote. But he said it and I think everything U.S. politicians say is calculated. So he knew the risk. He won without getting a majority of the Cuban vote. So he owes them nothing. He’s intelligent, and knows that 50 years of erroneous politics towards Cuba has not produced any result. So I wait, and without much hope or false expectations, for him to take more reasonable, rational measures towards Cuba. This country is moving towards a more respectful relationship with Cuba—in the interests of both countries.
In my case, I don’t expect anything to happen. My policy has always been: expect the worst; if something good happens, I’ll be grateful. In our situation—the 5—one can’t live on false hopes and illusions. I’m facing a life sentence and I’m prepared. If something should change, I’d welcome it, but I can’t think in ifs. Psychologically, you must be prepared for what will happen, not live on illusions.
Saul Landau: How do you survive each day?
Gerardo Hernandez: I spend most of the day reading and writing. I have an enormous and pleasant tragedy with correspondence. Some days I get 60, 80 letters. ...The record is 119. So imagine, just reading those letters is difficult. The days pass by incredibly fast. They help keep my mind distracted. I try to read what is published about Cuba, to keep myself current on my area of expertise, international relations. Sometimes people here ask me: “How can you read all the time?” I enjoy it. Unfortunately, I cannot answer all the letters. Some people even get mad. But it’s impossible because there are so many letters and not enough time.
Saul Landau: Do you have a message for Washington?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. If I could, I’d say: “If we are guilty of anything it is only of doing the same thing that many American patriots are doing right now, those in the mountains of Tora Bora searching for information about Al Qaeda, so that the acts committed on 9/11 are never repeated.”
I’m sure those people are seen here as patriots. That’s exactly what we were doing here: collecting information in Florida to impede terrorist acts in Cuba. Terrorism against Cuba is not an abstraction. Those who have died because of those acts have first and last names; acts planned with impunity here in U.S. territory. Our only crime is the one committed by young Americans who today receive medals for it. So it’s paradoxical: a country waging a war against terrorism houses terrorists [in Florida], protects those who put bombs on planes that killed dozens of people [Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch]; and they are glorified for doing so.
I’d also like the United States to understand: Cuba is a free and sovereign country. It has the right to choose its own path, to build its own destiny, its own system. Like it or not, we Cubans are the ones to decide what we will fix, what we must change, what to do differently, and how to build our society. If we had the necessary peace to build our social system the way we have always dreamt, things would be different today. We would have advanced much more. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the peace to be able to do that. I hope the day will come when the United States will understand that the island, small 90 miles away, has the right to choose its own destiny. I think that day will come as will the day in which American and Cuban peoples will feel more closely connected, based on mutual respect.
Saul Landau is the author of A Bush and Botox World, (Counterpunch A/K)
—Transnational Institute, May 14, 2009