Ten years ago today—on December 6, 2000—five Cuban men finally went on trial in a small chamber on the seventh floor of the Miami court building. They were charged with everything from the relatively minor offence of failing to register as foreign agents all the way to conspiracy to commit murder.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Buckner claimed the evidence would “paint a portrait of a sophisticated and highly motivated espionage cell operating in the midst of our community” The spies, he claimed, had gone so far as to help “bring about the murders” of four exile fliers who’d been shot down while flying near Cuba in 1996.
The Cubans acknowledged the Five were intelligence agents but claimed their mission was not to spy on the United States government but to infiltrate militant, Florida-based anti-Cuban exile groups. Their goal: to prevent terrorist attacks on their own country. They denied any responsibility for the downing of the aircraft, which the Cuban government claimed had repeatedly violated Cuban airspace and refused to desist despite many warnings.
The trial, which would last six months and generate more than 3,000 pages of evidence and 20,000 pages of testimony, took place in a highly charged atmosphere. The trial began in the immediate aftermath of the infamous Elián González affair and against the backdrop of a Miami so hostile to Cuba and its leader Fidel Castro that several defence lawyers felt compelled to begin their opening statements “by disavowing any sympathies for Castro or communism,” the Miami Herald reported.
It was not a good start. And it would only get worse.