A blog called Capitol Hill Cubans has taken me to task for my recent Washington Post commentary in which I ask why the United States put the Cuban Five in jail when their primary goal was to prevent terrorist attacks on their homeland?
After “commending” the Post for allowing me to present what it calls my “defence” of the Five, Capitol Hill Cubans quickly notes that, “while Prof. Kimber is entitled to his own opinion, he’s not entitled to his own facts.”
Fair enough. So let us compare facts.
Capitol Hill Cubans is edited by Mauricio Claver-Carone, who is also a co-founder and Director of something called the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. It is “the largest single [issue] foreign-policy political committee in the United States.” According to a 2007 report in the Miami Herald, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC “raised about $1.5 million [between 2003 and 2007], most of it in South Florida, to lobby Congress to keep the sanctions against [Cuba] in place.” According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, Claver-Carone’s PAC doled out more than $400,000 in campaign contributions in 2012 to politicians who “have key roles on congressional committees responsible for Cuba-related issues or have demonstrated their support for the struggle for human rights in Cuba.” Including such luminaries as Cuban-American Tea Party favourite and wannabe president Ted Cruz ($15,000) and influential Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner ($10,000) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ($10,000).
Mauricio Claver-Carone, it is clear, has his own skin in the game of maintaining an American policy hard line against anything remotely connected to Cuba.
Claver-Carone launches his attack on my commentary by declaring that my ability to state my views in the Post is — change the channel — “in stark contrast to the five Cuban spies’ bosses in Havana, who punish diverging opinions with torture, imprisonment and potentially even death, as famed Castro regime critic Oswaldo Paya may have recently been a victim of.”
He does not, of course, mention how rare it is for a dissenting view on Cuban-American policy — let alone a “defense” of the Five — to make it into the pages of the Post.
Instead, he continues by invoking his best diversionary schoolyard “So’s-your-mother” taunt, calling on me to now “defend the countless innocent Cubans who have been victims of the Castro regime’s arbitrary and subjugated judiciary.”
Excuse me? I thought we were talking about the Cuban Five. I was.
I’m not an apologist for the Cuban government. I’m a journalist who looked into a particular espionage and murder case involving Cuba and Cubans that happened in the United States. I don’t know enough about the Paya case or the generic “countless” others he references to offer a considered opinion on them. But I did spend three years reading the 20,000+ pages of transcripts and evidence in the trial of the Cuban Five and interviewing participants on both sides of the Straits of Florida. Has Claver-Carone done the same?
Let’s look more closely at some of Claver-Carone’s “facts.”
“Prof. Kimber absurdly claims the so-called Cuban Five are venerated on the island as ‘national heroes.’ As he is surely aware, Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship, where all means of communication are controlled by the Castro brothers. Thus, if the Cuban Five constantly appear on national television and billboards across the country, it’s not because they are venerated by the Cuban people — it’s because the dictatorship compels it.”
When was the last time Claver-Carone visited the island? I’m guessing the answer — given his arguments and his assumptions the Cuban people are mindless, fear-ridden automatons — is not recently. During my trips to the island I’ve talked with plenty of ordinary Cubans who can be openly critical, sometimes scathingly so, of their government and its policies.
I won’t dispute Claver-Carone’s contention that the media in Cuba is government controlled, and one could therefore argue that the billboards are more a reflection of government policy than popular will.
But my sense — again after talking to Cubans in cabs, in shops and restaurants, on the street — is that the cause of the Five transcends the usual politics.
At one point — as an experiment to test my theory — I put on a “Free the Five” t-shirt and went on a five-kilometre walk through various Havana neighbourhoods. I lost count of the number of thumbs-up, high-fives and handshakes I encountered. The T-shirt started countless conversations, not all of them sympathetic to the government but all of them supportive of the cause of the Five.
How is it possible — in this “totalitarian dictatorship” — for Cubans to sympathize with Cuban government “spies?”
The simple answer is that terrorist bombs have no ideology.
Consider the bartender in the Bodeguita del Medio, who lost his hearing to a bomb set off by a mercenary operating at the behest of Luis Posada Carriles in a terrorist campaign that Posada himself boasted was financed by the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation. Or the mothers of the children who miraculously escaped being blown to bits by another exile terrorist bomb placed near the site of a schoolboy chess tournament.
Can Claver-Carone not understand why those Cubans might be grateful a group of Cuban government “spies” risked their own lives and futures to uncover terrorist plots against them?
That doesn’t sound so absurd to me?
“Prof. Kimber also seeks to justify the Cuban Five’s penetration of U.S. military bases, including the U.S. Southern and Central Command and Ft. Bragg, by claiming the Castro regime was somehow legitimately concerned about a U.S. invasion.”
No intention of invading Cuba? It would be helpful if Claver-Carone provided actual evidence to back up his claim. Because there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite.
The reality is that, in the previous decade alone, American troops had invaded Haiti, Grenada and Panama. As he well knows, the overthrow of the Castro government has been on the American agenda/wish list since the revolution.
When the U.S Department of Defense announced plans to relocate its Southern Command headquarters from Panama to Miami in 1995, the Miami Herald pointedly included — along with already-happened examples like Haiti and Panama — a hopeful “toppling of the communist government in Cuba” as among the scenarios the new command centre might be called upon to oversee.
And it is also no secret influential exile groups were lobbying the U.S. government during the 1990s to overthrow the Castro government.
Sounds like a legitimate concern to me.
“Prof. Kimber then argues that the Cuban Five could not have been tried by a ‘reasonable jury’ in Miami, home to so many Cuban exiles. Yet, he fails to mention that not a single Cuban exile served on the juries that convicted the Cuban Five.”
Where to begin? While it is true that no Cuban exile served on the jury that convicted the Five, you didn’t have to be a Cuban exile to have been influenced — perhaps even intimidated — by the poisonous anti-Cuban government atmosphere in Miami.
We could start back in the 1970s when the FBI described Miami as the “terrorist capital” of the United States, thanks to its average of 100 bombings and an assassination a week, much of it directed against Cuban Americans who weren’t considered “pure” enough in their opposition to Fidel Castro. That view was neatly summed up by Andrés Nazario Sargen, a founder of Alpha 66, who declared that “when an American citizen… helps a person in Cuba in any way, it gives the Cubans hope, which postpones their need to risk their lives to overthrow [Fidel Castro], which hurts the cause.”
Not much had changed by the 1990s. In 1994, when Human Rights Watch released a report on the state of freedom of expression in Miami — not good — the city had to assign nine police officers to protective duty at the press conference about the report just to protect the presenters.
One of the issues Human Rights Watch flagged was the community’s response after a delegation of moderate exiles recently visited Cuba. When the moderates returned to Miami, they were verbally attacked on Spanish-language radio talk shows, shunned in the streets, subjected to harassing phone messages and death threats — “You’ll be floating in the Miami River with flies in your mouth” — their businesses were boycotted and some were even physically assaulted.
During the months leading up to jury selection for the trial of the Cuban Five, potential jurors were subject to the spectacle of militant Miamians declaring angry war on their own government over Elian González, the Cuban boy whose custody case had become their anti-Castro cause célèbre. Not to forget reading and seeing the steady drumbeat of hostile columns and commentaries in the local media, much of it — it turns out — bought and paid for by the U.S. government.
No wonder then that prosecutors in another high profile case — the trial of a group of prominent Cuban exiles accused in Puerto Rico of planning to assassinate Fidel Castro — opposed a defence motion to move that trial to Miami. The prosecutors knew better than to trust their case to a Miami jury.
“Throughout his defense, Prof. Kimber alludes to a host of alleged plots supposedly uncovered by Cuban agents. It’s worth noting that his source is the Castro dictatorship itself.”
It is worth noting, in fact, that my sources for these particular plots included the Cuban Five trial transcript and the pages of the Miami Herald.
“Finally, to add insult to injury, Prof. Kimber unequivocally states that the ringleader of the Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernandez, was not aware of Castro regime’s 1996 plan to shoot-down two civilian Cessna planes, belonging to the humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue, which resulted in the murder of three Americans and a U.S. resident (see below). He must be unaware of Operacion Escorpion (“Operation Scorpion”), the code-name used by Hernandez and the spy network for the operation to shoot-down the civilian planes.”
I am certainly aware of Operacion Escorpion, which was a plan to “perfect the confrontation” between the Cuban government and the Brothers to the Rescue exile group.
Brothers had been routinely and flagrantly illegally violating Cuban airspace for more than a year while the American government seemed powerless to rein them in. Cuban intelligence agents had also uncovered evidence that the group were test-firing missiles that could used in an attack against Cuba.
On February 24, 1996, the Cuban government shot down two of Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four people.
The question is not what happened but whether Gerardo Hernandez, a street-level illegal intelligence officer in a state security agency that prides itself on extreme compartmentalization and limited “need to know” would have known of the Cuban military’s actual plans.
Certainly, “perfect the confrontation” is ambiguous. It could have, as even a U.S. appeal court judge acknowledged, mean anything from forcing the planes to land and arresting the participants to shooting them down.
The rest of the so-called evidence concerning the shootdown presented during the trial is equally ambiguous. The prosecutors made much of a message from Havana in the week after the shootdown congratulating Hernandez and his agents for having “dealt the Miami right a hard blow,” thanks to their role in what the message called “Operacion German.”
Operacion German? Not Operacion Escorpion. Although the prosecutors treated them as one and the same, the likelihood is that Operacion German referred to Hernandez’s success in another assignment: helping agent Juan Pablo Roque, whose code name was German and who had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, return home to Havana. His return to Havana happened at around the same time as the shootdown. The congratulatory message, in fact, specifically referred to the fact that Fidel Castro had visited with Roque twice “to exchange details of the operation. We have dealt the Miami Right a hard blow.”
Given that, after his return, Roque was interviewed on CNN — where he dissed his former trusting colleagues in Brothers to the Rescue and even disclosed the cell phone number of an FBI agent who’d recruited him to spy on the Brothers group — it seems much more likely that is the “hard blow” the message refers to.
That was the problem with much of the evidence in the trial. It wasn’t evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Unless, of course, you were a member of a Miami jury.
So when Claver Catone argues that the Five “were granted complete due process by our independent judiciary [and] were duly convicted by a federal jury for their illegal activities against the United States,” we should not be reassured.