Detroit Says Free the Cuban Five

Attorney Leonard Weinglass speaks in Detroit. Five men whose convictions have been overturned by a federal court remain imprisoned, internationally renowned human rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass told a public forum this weekend in Detroit.

The conditions of the arrest and imprisonment of the five men were so egregious, says the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Arrest and Detention that they “violate international norms of lawful detention.” This isn’t a case of injustice to be found in dictator-run Pakistan, authoritarian Burma, or religious fundamentalist dominated Sudan. It is right here in the US.

Weinglass spoke at a forum organized by the Michigan Campaign to Free the Cuban Five. The host committee included Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Father John Nowlan, Reverend Ed Rowe, Judge Claudia Morcom, former Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson, and many local labor and community leaders and activists.

The men, convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, are five Cuban men sent to Miami to infiltrate and report to the Cuban government on the activities of terrorist groups based in Miami who have openly planned attacks on the tourism industry in Cuba, according to Weinglass who represents one of the men.

The men were tried in a Miami court under conditions later found by a three-judge panel on the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to be a “perfect storm of prejudice” that prevented their receiving a fair trial. Last August, the three judges released a 93-page decision overturning the convictions of the men and agreeing with defense arguments that the men did not receive a fair trial.

Jurors who convicted the men openly admitted their anti-Cuban hostility that prejudiced their views about the men. Several had strong ties to the federal government and its agencies. “It was an impossible situation,” Weinglass said.

Weinglass represents Antonio Guerrero who was convicted on conspiracy charges. Weinglass pointed out that none of the men have been convicted for stealing US government, military, or industrial secrets. In fact, by its own admission, the government’s case against Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González, was based only on convincing a biased jury that the men intended at some point in time to spy on the US. With the help of a prejudicial instruction by the judge, the jury easily convicted the men.

 According to Weinglass, the judge’s instructions were so favorable to the prosecution that the even the government lawyers handling the case fought them. Weinglass said that the prosecutor’s believed the instructions might be grounds for overturning the convictions in the future, so they appealed to a higher court to prevent the judge from giving the instructions. That higher court, the 11th Circuit Court, refused to intervene.

So what is the nature of the “crime” committed by these five men?

The background of the case begins in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which, because Cuba relied on aid from the USSR, nearly caused the collapse of that island country’s economy. Combined by with a tightened economic blockade imposed by the first Bush administration with the view of bringing down Cuba’s government, the economic picture was bleak.

To reverse the trend, Cuba developed a tourism industry. Forging deals with European construction companies to build five-star hotels near Cuba’s spectacular beaches, the Cuban government actions soon revived the ailing economy. Jobs and income quickly boosted prospects.

Needless to say, the new developments angered and frustrated the Cuban exile community based in Miami, which has sought to overthrow the Cuban government since 1959. Since that time, this wealthy community, which controlled Cuba’s banking industry under the former brutal dictator Juan Batista and stole $450 million when it left the country, used it privilege in Miami to dominate that city’s political machine and local media.

Only under a threat of violence can anyone publicly use their right of free speech to support Cuba in Miami. Pro-Cuban organizations are harassed and outlawed. Organizations, individuals, and even non-political businesses or entities that might wish to present Cuba in any positive light are threatened or shut down.

Former members of the Batista regime and his family have strong ties to the Bush family and to the Jeb Bush administration in Tallahassee. By all accounts the wealthy exile community has disproportionate political influence in US politics through its power in Florida. Disputed election results in Florida in 2000 were deeply tied to the exile community’s influence in Tallahassee and in Washington.

Organizations with ominous sounding names like Brothers to the Rescue and Commandos F4 based in Miami and funded by groups like the Cuban American National Foundation and individuals with financial ties to the US-funded Nicaraguan rebel group known as the Contras decided to step up their attacks on Cuba.

On television stations and other media based in Miami, these groups publicly announced their intention to target Cuba’s tourism industry with terrorist attacks. Bombs were found on flights to Cuba and in facilities associated with Cuban tourism. A bomb exploded in a Cuban hotel, killing one Italian tourist. One group organized illegal overflights into Cuban airspace to harass the Cuban government and threaten the tourist industry.

Numerous Cuban government protests to the US government about these illegal activities fell on deaf ears. Cuban protests to the UN Security Council, on which the US government holds veto power, went unheard.

In a final effort to enlist US law enforcement agency aid in stopping these activities, which are prohibited by international and US law, the Cuban government compiled a mountain of evidence on these attacks and information about the Miami-based groups that had conducted them and presented it to the FBI in a special meeting with US officials in Havana.

Films of training exercises made by the organizations themselves and obtained by the Cuban government were copied and turned over to the FBI. Weinglass, who has also viewed the films, noted that they “were very reminiscent of the films made of the camps in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was purported to have trained.”

Instead of enforcing US law and stopping the activities of these organizations, the FBI sat on its hands.

In a desperate situation, Weinglass said, “Cuba had no alternative but to take steps to defend itself.” In 1998 the five men were sent to Miami. Without weapons of any kind, the five men volunteered to infiltrate the organizations that openly carried out terrorist attacks on Cuba. At great risk to their own lives and freedom, they succeeded.

In an ironic twist, the FBI soon learned that Cuba had inside knowledge about planned terrorist activities. Using the reports and evidence compiled and given to them by the Cuban government, the FBI tracked down the five men, obtained secret warrants from a FISA court, and secretly broke into and searched their homes. Downloading reports and information from their computers, the FBI learned that the five men had been successful in their efforts.

Soon after, the five men were arrested and indicted. Seven months after the initial indictment, one of the men, Gerardo Hernandez was also indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

According to Weinglass, the new charges stemmed from the fact that Hernandez had reported on illegal overflights of Cuba out of Miami, two of which were shot down by the Cuban airforce. Weinglass points out that these charges, too, are incredible due to the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration had reported specific information to the Cuban government about the illegal flights that were shot down

Cuba has described the shootdowns as part of its legal obligation to protect its airspace, an act that every country has the right to under international law. US prosecutors have admitted that they know Hernandez was not involved in the specific instances of shooting down the flights, but that his “crime” is one of having conspired to be involved at some future time.

Despite having these convictions overturned, the five men remain in federal prisons. After the three-judge panel documented massive prejudice that prevented the five men from receiving a fair trial, the US prosecutors, under orders from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, appealed the decision. The five men continue to wait for justice and to be returned to their families in Cuba.

Weinglass concluded, “It is a remarkable case in what it reveals about justice in the US and between the US and Cuba.”

The forum at which Weinglass spoke came on the heels of the passage of a Detroit City Council resolution that calls for freedom for the five men, an end to the US economic blockade of Cuba, and the restoration of the right to travel to and trade with Cuba. The resolution also called for the extradition of Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile who is known by federal authorities to have planned and carried out the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 76 people. Carriles is currently in US protective custody and has strong connections to the Bush family.

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–Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at



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