Cuban Political Prisoners in the United States


Bill Blum 

Defending
pro-Castro Cubans in Miami, in a criminal case utterly suffused
with political overtones, with the U.S. government wholly determined
to nail a bunch of commies, is a task on a par with conducting a
ground war with Russia in the wintertime. Even in the absence of
known anti-Castro Cuban exiles on the jury, the huge influence the
exiles have on the rest of the community is an inescapable fact
of life in Miami, a place where the sound of the word “pro-Castro”
does what the word “bomb” does at an airport. 

President
Bush has stated repeatedly that he will not heed the many calls
to lift the Cuban trade embargo unless Fidel Castro releases what
Washington calls “political prisoners.” Bush tells us
this while ten Cubans sit in U.S. prisons, guilty essentially of
not being the kind of Cubans George W. loves. If a political prisoner
can be defined as one kept in custody who, if not for his or her
political beliefs and/or associations would be a free person, then
the ten Cubans can be regarded as political prisoners. 

In
September 1998 the Justice Department accused 14 Cubans in southern
Florida of “conspiracy to gather and deliver defense information
to aid a foreign government, that is, the Republic of Cuba”
and failing to register as agents of a foreign government. Four
of the accused were never apprehended and are believed to be living
in Cuba. Five of the ten arrested, having less than true-believer
faith in the American-judicial-system, copped plea bargains to avoid
harsher penalties and were sentenced to between three and seven
years in prison. 

The
U.S. attorney said the actions of the accused—who had been
under surveillance since 1995—were an attempt “to strike
at the very heart of our national security system and our very democratic
process.” Their actions, added a judge, “place this nation
and its inhabitants in great peril.” 

To
add further to the level of melodrama: in the Criminal Complaint,
in the Indictment, in public statements, and in the courtroom, the
federal government continuously squeezed out as much mileage as
it could from the fact that the Cubans had gone to meetings and
taken part in activities of anti-Castro organizations—“duplicitous
participation in and manipulation of” these organizations is
how it was put. But this was all for the benefit of media and jury,
for there is obviously no law against taking part in an organization
you are unsympathetic with; and in the end, after all the propaganda
hoopla, the arrestees were never charged with any such offense. 

The
Cubans did not deny these activities. Their mission in the United
States was to act as an early warning system for their homeland
because over the years anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the U.S. have
carried out hundreds of terrorist actions against the island nation,
including as recently as 1997 when they planted bombs in Havana
hotels. One of the exile groups, Omega 7, headquartered in Union
City, New Jersey, was characterized by the FBI in 1980 as “the
most dangerous terrorist organization in the United States.” 

Some
exiles were subpoenaed to testify at the trial, which began in December
2000, and defense attorneys threw questions at them about their
activities. One witness told of attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro
and of setting Cuban buses and vans on fire. Based on their answers,
federal prosecutors threatened to bring organized crime charges
against any group whose members gave incriminating testimony and
the Assistant U.S. Attorney warned that if additional evidence emerged
against members of Alpha 66, considered a paramilitary organization,
the group would be prosecuted for a “long-standing pattern
of attacks on the Cuban government.” 

Cuba
has complained for many years that U.S. authorities ignore information
Havana makes available about those in the U.S. it claims are financing
and plotting violence. None of the exiles who testified at the trial
about terrorist actions or the groups they belonged to were prosecuted.
The arrested Cubans were involved in anti-terrorist activities—so
cherished by the government of the United States in word—but
were acting against the wrong kind of terrorists. Some of what they
uncovered about possible terrorist and drug activities of Cuban
exiles—including information concerning the 1997 hotel bombings—they
passed to the FBI, usually delivered via diplomats in Havana. This
presumably is what lay behind the statement in the Criminal Complaint
that the defendants “attempted manipulation of United States
political institutions and government entities through disinformation
and pretended cooperation”—i.e., putting every action
of the Cuban defendants in the worst possible light. 

One
of the Cubans, Antonio Guerrero, was employed as a manual laborer
at the U.S. naval base in Boca Chica, Florida, near Key West. The
prosecution stated that Guerrero had been ordered by Cuba to track
the comings and goings of military aircraft in order to detect “unusual
exercises, maneuvers, and other activity related to combat readiness.”
Guerrero’s attorney, to emphasize the non-secret nature of
such information, pointed out that anyone sitting in a car on U.S.
1 could easily see planes flying in and out of the base. 

This
particular operation of the Cuban agents is difficult to comprehend,
for it is hard to say which was the more improbable: that the U.S.
government would undertake another attack against Cuba or that these
Cubans could get timely wind of it in this manner. The FBI admitted
that the Cubans had not penetrated any military bases and that activities
at the bases were “never compromised.” “They had
no successes,” declared an FBI spokesperson. The Pentagon added,
“there are no indications that they had access to classified
information or access to sensitive areas.” 

These
statements did not of course rise from a desire to aid the Cubans’
defense, but rather to assure one and all that the various security
systems were impenetrable. But the government was admitting that
nothing that could be termed “espionage” had been committed
or even intended. Nevertheless, three of the defendants were charged
with communicating to Cuba “information relating to the national
defense of the United States…intending and having reason to believe
that the same would be used to the injury of the United States.” 

The
FBI agents who closely surveilled the Cubans for several years did
not seem worried about the reports the “espionage agents”
were sending to Havana and made no attempt to thwart their transmission.
Indeed, the FBI reportedly arrested the Cubans only because they
feared that the group would flee the country following the theft
of a computer and disks used by one of them, which contained information
about their activities, and that all the FBI surveillance would
then have been for nothing. 

Somewhat
more plausibly, those arrested were each charged with “acting
as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, Cuba.” Yet,
in at least the previous five years, no one in the United States
had been charged with any such offense, although, given the broad
definition in the law of “foreign agent,” the Justice
Department could have undoubtedly done so with numerous individuals
if it had had a political motivation as in this case. 

In
addition to the unregistered foreign agent charge, which was imposed
against all five defendants, there was the ritual laundry list of
other charges: passport fraud, false passport application, fraudulent
identification, conspiracy to defraud the United States, aiding
and abetting one or more of the other defendants (sic), conspiracy
to commit espionage, and tacked onto all five—conspiracy to
act as an unregistered foreign agent. 

There
was one serious charge, which was levied eight months after the
arrests against the alleged leader of the Cuban group, Gerardo Hernández:
conspiring to commit murder, a reference to the February 24, 1996
shootdown by a Cuban warplane of two planes (of a total of three),
which took the lives of four Miami-based civilian pilots, members
of Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). In actuality, the Cuban government
may have done no more than any other government in the world would
have done under the same circumstances. The planes were determined
to be within Cuban airspace, of serious hostile intent, and Cuban
authorities gave the pilots explicit warning: “You are taking
a risk.” Indeed, both Cuban and U.S. authorities had for some
time been giving BTTR—which patrolled the sea between Florida
and Cuba looking for refugees—similar warnings about intruding
into Cuban airspace. 

Jose
Basulto, the head of BTTR, and the pilot of the plane that got away,
testified at the trial that he had received warnings that Cuba would
shoot down planes violating its airspace. In 1995, he had taken
an NBC cameraperson on a rooftop-level flight over downtown Havana
and rained propaganda and religious medals on the streets below,
the medals capable of injuring people they struck. Basulto—a
long-time CIA collaborator who once fired powerful cannonballs into
a Cuban hotel filled with people—described one BTTR flight
over Havana as “an act of civil disobedience.” His organization’s
planes had gone into Cuban territory on nine occasions during the
previous two years with the pilots being warned repeatedly by Cuba
not to return, that they would be shot down if they persisted in
carrying out “provocative” flights. A former U.S. federal
aviation investigator testified at the trial that in the 1996 incident
the planes had ignored warnings and entered an area that was activated
as a “danger area.” 

Also
testifying was a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former regional
commander of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), George
Buchner. Citing National Security Agency transcripts of conversations
between a Cuban battle commander on the ground and the Cuban MiG
pilots in the air, he stated that the two planes were “well
within Cuban airspace” and that a Cuban pilot “showed
restraint” by breaking off his pursuit of the third plane as
the chase headed toward international airspace. 

Buchner’s
conclusion was at odds with earlier analyses conducted by the United
States and the International Civil Aviation Organization (which
relied heavily on intelligence data provided by the U.S.). However,
he added that the three planes were acting as one and that Cuba
was within its sovereign rights to attack them—even in international
airspace—because the plane that got away had entered Cuban
airspace, a fact not disputed by the prosecution or other investigators. 

“The
trigger,” said Buchner, “was when the first aircraft crossed
the 12-mile territorial limit. That allowed the government of Cuba
to exercise their sovereign right to protect its airspace.”
He stated, moreover, that the BTTR planes had given up their civilian
status because they still carried the markings of the U.S. Air Force
and had been used to drop leaflets condemning the Cuban government. 

Two
days after the incident, the New York Times reported, “United
States intelligence officials said that at least one of the American
aircraft—the lead plane, which returned safely to Florida—and
perhaps all three had violated Cuban airspace.” United States
officials agreed with the Cuban government that “the pilots
had ignored a direct warning from the air traffic control tower
in Havana.” 

Hernández
was charged with murder for allegedly giving Cuban authorities the
flight plan of the planes flown by Brothers to the Rescue. Even
if true, the claim appears to be rather meaningless, for the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) stated after the incident that after
BTTR had filed its flight plan with their agency, it was then transmitted
electronically to the air tower in Havana. In any event, on that
fateful day in February, when the three planes crossed the 24th
parallel—the beginning of the area before entering Cuba’s
12-mile territorial limit which the Cuban government defines as
an air-defense identification zone—Basulto radioed his presence
to the Havana Air Control Center and his intention to continue further
south. Havana, which was already monitoring the planes’ flight,
replied: “We inform you that the area north of Havana is activated
[air defense readied]. You are taking a risk by flying south of
twenty-four.” 

Hernández
was also accused of informing Havana, in response to a request,
that none of the Cuban agents would be aboard the BTTR planes during
the time period in question; one of them had flown with BTTR earlier.
This too was equated in the indictment with “knowingly…to
perpetrate murder, that is, the unlawful killing of human beings
with malice aforethought.” 

In
the final analysis, the planes were shot down for entering Cuban
airspace, for purposes hostile, after ignoring many warnings from
two governments. After a January 13, 1996 BTTR overflight, Castro
had issued orders to his Air Force to shoot down any plane that
entered Cuban airspace illegally. And just two weeks prior to the
shootdown, a delegation of retired U.S. officials had returned from
Havana warning that Cuba seemed prepared to blow the Brothers’
Cessnas out of the sky. Gerardo Hernández was not responsible
for any of this, and there was, moreover, a long history of planes
departing from the United States for Cuba to carry out bombing,
strafing, invasion, assassination, subversion, weapon drops, agricultural
and industrial sabotage, and other belligerent missions. According
to a former member of BTTR—who redefected to Cuba and may have
been a Cuban agent all along—Basulto discussed with him ways
to bring explosives into Cuba to blow up high tension wires critical
to the country’s electrical system and plans to smuggle weapons
into Cuba to use in attacks against leaders, including Fidel Castro. 

At
the time of the shootdown, Cuba had been under a 37-year state of
siege and could never be sure what such enemy pilots intended to
do. Yet Hernández was sentenced to spend the rest of his life
in prison. Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, the manual
worker at the U.S. naval base, were also sentenced to life terms;
they and Hernández were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit
espionage. Fernando González was put away for 19 and one-half
years and René González received 15 years. All five were
convicted of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government
as well as conspiracy to do the same. All except René González—
who is an American citizen—had the laundry list of identification
frauds thrown at them. 

For
most of their detention since being arrested, the five men have
been kept in solitary confinement. After their convictions, they
were placed in five different prisons spread around the country—Pennsylvania,
California, Texas, Wisconsin and Colorado—making it difficult
for supporters and attorneys to visit more than one. René González’s
wife and five-year-old daughter were denied visas to enter the United
States from Cuba to visit him. Hernandez’s wife was already
at the Houston airport with her papers in hand when she was turned
back, although not before undergoing several hours of FBI humiliation. 

The
United States is currently engaged in a worldwide, open-ended, supra-legal
campaign to destroy the rights of any individuals who—on the
most questionable of evidence or literally none at all—might
conceivably represent any kind of terrorist threat. 

If
Cubans—with a much longer history of serious terrorist attacks
against them by well known perpetrators—take the most reasonable
steps to protect themselves from further attacks, they find that
Washington has forbidden them from taking part in the war against
terrorism. This is particularly ironic given that the same anti-Castro
exiles have committed numerous terrorist acts in the United States.
   Z 


William
Blum is the author of
Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s
Only Superpower
and West-Bloc Dissident: A
Cold War Political Memoir