Saul Landau: In Angola, in Africa, what did you do?
Gerardo Hernandez: I went as second-in-command in a scout platoon. First, our class received general training. Then we joined different units throughout Angola. I was placed in Cabinda, in the 10th Tank Brigade, 11th tactical group. The lieutenant left and I became platoon leader until his replacement arrived. Our mission was to explore a part of the north of Angola, very close to the Congo, a combination of jungle and desert. To protect our troops we scouted the area around the unit, looking for indications of enemy activity. We would explore, along with the combat engineers, and inspect the roads our unit’s vehicles used.
For example, we used a well to get the unit’s water, and our trucks had to drive there. To prevent the enemy from placing mines, we patrolled the area with combat engineers to locate mines.
I was there from 1989 to 1990. The press has said that I did combat missions. There’s a big difference between a combat mission and a combat action. The scouting platoon accomplished its mission without getting into combat. We completed 64 combat missions but I never had any combat action. Despite it being the last phase of Cuban collaboration in Angola, I had comrades who did encounter enemy mines.
Landau: Could you speak about living in Miami? How does life compare with Havana?
Hernandez: I come from Havana, between La Guinera and Vieja Linda. There are so many differences. The first thing that comes to mind is the material difference. But what most struck me wasn’t material. For example, in Cuba people live with their doors open to their neighbors and they know practically everyone in the neighborhood. At 8 at night your child could be outside playing. So you yell from the doorway for the kids to come in and eat, or bathe. They live with the assurance of knowing no one will be selling their child drugs or kidnapping him. In my apartment building in Miami, even though I was there for years, I recognized some neighbors; but people live with their doors closed. It’s such a different environment. In Cuba, if you see a baby out with the parents, even if you don’t know that baby, you say, "Oh what a beautiful baby!" And you pat him on the head and pick him up…and this is normal. Not here. You have to be really careful about that kind of thing here. Also, there were certain Miami neighborhoods where all the inhabitants or a large percentage of them are of one race. And people tell you, "Be careful, don’t go there because you look white and that’s a black neighborhood with gangs."
That shocked me because in Cuba we live in a complete mixture. The other thing I noticed — reading Cuban history, and from stories my relatives had told me, you see people like Esteban Ventura, the famous Batista police torturer who came to Miami after the triumph of the revolution. So, you can walk on the same streets where these people had strolled freely. Several times I heard Orlando Bosch speaking, and saw him up close, knowing he was one of those who ordered a bomb put on a Cuban airplane, that killed 73 people . Such experiences … well, it’s hard to describe. I’m talking about my personal experiences. But the other four had enormous experiences as well, if not more.
Their experiences were very similar to mine. They weren’t in the same "hole" as me in Lompoc, but theirs was just as bad or worse.
One small detail about Miami. In that "environment" of fear and intimidation, of profiteering, of the "Just give me money and we’ll bring down Castro" extortion they [refers to exiles like Guillermo Novo and Pedro Remon who used their violent reputations to collect money. Both collaborated with Luis Posada in an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in Panama in 1999] sometimes use against their enemies, within all that moral bankruptcy, I noticed many Cubans, or Cuban Americans including those born here, and other Latinos as well — struggling so Cuba and the United States can have a better relationship; a mutually respectful relationship, rid of the intrigue, confusion and tensions. It really struck me because I know they are risking their lives to do this.
Negrin [Eulalio, assassinated by Omega 7 in New Jersey 1979] lost his life because he opposed them. Replica Magazine (edited by Max Lesnik) opposed the prevailing hard line], the Marazul [charter company flying to Cuba from Miami] office [both bombed]. All the bombings of people, victims, just because they desired a more respectful U.S.-Cuba relationship, like Cubans here being able to travel to Cuba to spend time with their families there. It was like a ray of hope knowing not everyone in Miami was confined inside the atmosphere of that asphyxiating, recalcitrant, overbearing mafia, but that there are many good people as well.
Landau: Hector Pesquera [FBI Bureau Chief, Miami] interrogated you. What was his motivation in your opinion?
Hernandez: I don’t know if he wanted a promotion, or some other benefit, maybe even an economic benefit. He has moved to the private sector. Ports and Airports Advisor, I think. I do know he wanted to win favor with those who control the "Republic of Miami." As I told you, the FBI’s reputation was shaky there, after the Roque and the Brothers to the Rescue experiences.
Listen to the call-in radio shows. People complained: "The FBI has betrayed us!" "They were spying on the Brothers to the Rescue!" So I think one motivating factor was to throw a piece of meat to the beasts, to make them happy. To say to them, "You say we’ve done nothing, but look we caught these guys!" In Pesquera’s case, based on what I’ve read, it’s possible that his own convictions were pretty extremist, quite pro the Cuban American mafia. So I do think that for him it was a great pleasure. And after the trial, he and the other FBI officials celebrated with Basulto, together in their triumph. So, it wasn’t too strange.
Landau: Did you play a key role in Roque’s return? [Juan Pablo Roque, a former Cuban MiG pilot, sneaked out of Miami for Havana on February 23, 1996, the day before the two planes were shot down. Two days after the shoot down, he appeared on Cuban TV condemning Brothers to the Rescue. Roque had staged his defection in 1992 and was then recruited by and flew missions for the Brothers. Roque said the Brothers planned attacks on Cuban military bases and were going to smuggle anti-personnel weapons into Cuba and blow up high tension pylons to interrupt the energy supply. The FBI recruited Roque to inform on the Brothers. After he surfaced in Cuba, Miami radio talk show hosts denounced the FBI as communists for having hired a Cuban agent to infiltrate Brothers.]
Hernandez: Yes, I played a part [in getting Roque secretly back to Cuba]. The U.S. government wanted to show that Roque’s return was linked with the downing of the [Brothers'] planes. That’s absolutely false. It’s well documented that Roque’s return had been planned [by Cuban State Security] for a year before that happened. Yet, that confusion persists. The prosecution cleverly removed certain communiqués from the evidence regarding Operation Venice — Roque’s return — and made it seem like part of Operation Scorpion, the operation to prevent violations of Cuban airspace.
One clear example is a message I sent responding to a request from Cuba saying that for me it was an honor to contribute, though in even the most minor way, to a successful mission. It is very clear in the evidence that this referred to Operation Venice, about Roque. The government used it to show I was involved with the shooting down of the planes, though they know it had nothing to do with Operation Scorpion. Our lawyer knew this, but unfortunately, because of the way this system works, we couldn’t waste time and space clarifying. The prosecution mixed the two up purposely to create a cloud. But we haven’t yet been able to clarify that point because of space and other limitations, limitations on everything. I hope at some point, it will be clarified. Though it’s not really essential because even with the confusion, it remains clear I had nothing to do with that. But I don’t want to even concede on that, because it didn’t happen that way. But yes, I played a part in Roque’s return.
Hernandez: Cuba wanted Roque back in Cuba, so he would reveal the information he had against the Brothers to the Rescue; their true intentions, explaining that they weren’t a humanitarian organization, but rather one involved in plans involving weapons.
But it couldn’t be done in time and coincidentally Roque returned [to Cuba] around the time of the shoot down [February 24, 1996]. But there’s another message in the evidence [at the trial], that Cuba told Roque to return to Miami on the 23rd or the 27th, because there were flights on those days back to Miami. And the Brothers to the Rescue flights were on the 24th. That’s clear in the evidence. So, if Roque’s return was linked to the downing of the planes, why would they tell him he could return on the 27th since everyone knew the flights were going to be on the 24th? That piece of evidence negates those who claim Roque’s return linked to the shootdown. But the government won’t touch that because it would affect their invented story. In essence, Roque had to be gotten out of there with a series of security measures and that was where we had to do our part. But I assure you that the operation to remove Roque had nothing to do with the downing of the planes. It was a completely different operation from the one that had to do with the Brothers to the Rescue.
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don’t play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .