What Lies Across the Water:
The Real Story of the Cuban Five
By Stephen Kimber
This is not the book I intended to write. That book was to be a novel, a love story set partly in Cuba. In the spring of 2009, I travelled to Havana to do some preliminary research for it, and got sideswiped by the truth-is-stranger-but-way-more-interesting story of the Cuban Five.
I’d vaguely heard of them. Back in 2004, my wife and I spent a week at Breezes Jibacoa, a beach resort halfway between Havana and Varadero. It was there, in fact, that I conceived the idea for the novel, perhaps for no better reason than to ensure I would have to return. Like most Cuban resorts at the time, communication with the outside world from Jibacoa was primitive: two painfully slow Internet-connected computers tucked away in a second-floor lounge. Since you invariably had to line up to use them, I filled up my waiting time one day literally reading the writing on the wall — a collection of Soviet-style government posters about the plight of a group of men known as the “Cuban Five.” They were, the posters declared, “political prisoners” in the United States. The English translation was awful — “Prisoners of the Impire” was the heading on one — and the information about their case was confusing and frustratingly incomplete. As if I should already know the details. I hadn’t a clue.
When I returned to Canada, I did a Google News search for “Cuban Five” but found only one mainstream American news story from the previous month — in spite of the fact lawyers for the Five were in the midst of appealing their controversial convictions up the ladder of the U.S. court system. Most of the rest of what I discovered about them on the Internet consisted of polemics, which painted the Five either as heroic young patriots worthy of veneration or as murderous villains for whom even the death penalty wasn’t punishment enough.
Reading between the bombast and broadsides, the short version seemed to be that the Five were members of a Cuban intelligence network who’d surreptitiously entered the United States, infiltrated several militant anti-Castro groups, got caught by the FBI, were tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. I wrote a brief newspaper column about what I’d learned — and the fact no one except the Cuban government seemed to care — filed it and forgot it.
When he was in his late fifties — for reasons I’m not sure I understood or that mattered all that much — Alex had a falling out with his bosses, and retired. In the mid-1990s, he got kicked out of the Communist Party but somehow managed to hold onto his prized party ID card. Like plenty of others in that distressed, depressed, post-Soviet, “Special-Period-in-Time-of-Peace” Cuba, Alex re-invented himself. He became an off-the-books entrepreneur, employing his language skills, guile and charm to survive in impossibly difficult circumstances. One of the many services he offered was as a guide and raconteur for tourists who wanted a “no-guff introduction to the real Havana.”
I did. I’d read about him in a newspaper travel story before I left home, and I gave him a call soon after I arrived in Havana in May 2009. He picked me up at my hotel the next morning in his battered, Russian-made Lada. He’d been allowed to buy the car back in 1979, he told me, as a reward for being a good communist. The price: 2,200 pesos, paid off at 35 pesos a month for five years, interest-free. The engine now had over 400,000 km on it but was running “just fine.”
We spent the day tooling around parts of the city I’d never have experienced on my own. But far more interesting than what I got to see — as interesting as that was — was getting the chance to listen to Alex’s stories: in the car, over cigars after lunch at an outdoor restaurant where everyone knew his name, over drinks back on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional, where the security guards kept an especially watchful, wary eye on a smooth-talking Cuban in relaxed English conversation with a foreigner.
He’d been married three times, he told me, had four children and four grandchildren. These days, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his 18-year-old daughter, a university student. She slept in a second bedroom he’d carved out of the balcony. To save money, he never turned on the air conditioning. But he had an antenna on the roof of his building so he could watch television. And he had an Internet connection, in the name of a friend.
Alex was interested in, and thoughtful about, the world beyond Cuba. Because many of his customers came from Canada, he told me, he read the Toronto Globe and Mail online every day. He mentioned a recent report in that paper about a speech Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had given at the Summit of the Americas. “When you only get one side of the story,” he noted, referring more to me than himself, “how can you be informed?” He even followed Canadian politics. “What do you think of Stephen Harper?” he asked at one point.
I was curious too. Barack Obama had just won the American presidency, and there was much wishful hoping among my liberal friends in the United States that his ascendancy might finally signal not only an overdue end to the counter-productive U.S. trade embargo but also fresh water in the poisoned well of personal relations between the two old enemies. What did Alex think Obama’s victory might mean, I asked, assuming the best?
He paused, took a contemplative puff on his cigar, exhaled. “Nothing,” he said simply. “It doesn’t matter who is the president of the United States or who is in charge in Cuba. Nothing will change between Cuba and the United States until they resolve the issue of the Five.”
Suddenly, I was back to the Cuban Five. In Cuba — as I was about to discover — all conversations about the future of Cuba-U.S. relations invariably wind their way back to Los Cinco. In Cuba, their real-life story has long since transcended mere fact to become myth. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have marched past the United States Interest Section in Havana shouting demands for their release. Their images are ubiquitous. They stare back at you from highway billboards beneath a starkly confident: “Volverán.” They Will Return. Much younger versions of their faces are painted on fences, the sides of apartment buildings, office waiting-room walls, postage stamps, even on stickers glued to the dashboards in Old Havana Coco cabs.
Though they still rank below Fidel and Ché in the revolutionary pantheon, they have become certified, certifiable, first-name Heroes of the Revolution. Ask any Cuban school child and they can rhyme off those first names: Gerardo, René, Antonio, Ramón and Fernando. The children will inform you that los muchachos — though all are now well into middle age, they are usually still described in Cuban propaganda as “the young men” — are Cuban heroes unjustly imprisoned in the United States for trying to protect their homeland from terrorist attack.The Cuban version of their story is straightforward: During the nineties, Miami-based counter-revolutionary terrorist groups were plotting — and sometimes succeeding in carrying out — violent attacks against Cuba. Since the American government seemed unable or unwilling (or both) to stop them, Cuba dispatched intelligence agents to Miami to infiltrate these violent anti-Castro organizations, find out what they were planning and, if possible, stop them before they could wreak their havoc.
The American version? Actually, there are two. In most of the United States beyond South Florida, the Cuban Five are still more likely to be the Cuban Who? Or the Cuban What? As stories about their arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing played out daily on the front pages in Miami newspapers, the Five registered barely a blip on the national media radar screen. During much of that period, of course, the media’s Florida antennae were jammed by another, very different, and more emotionally appealing tug of war between Miami and Havana: the crisis/circus over Elián González, and whether his Cuban father or Miami relatives should get custody of the six-year-old miracle survivor of a 1999 rafting disaster that killed his mother. That story had barely faded from public consciousness when the national media became obsessed by the might-have-been-laughable-if-it-hadn’t-been-so-consequential tale of the “hanging chads” and Florida’s (particularly Cuban-American Floridians) even more than usually decisive voice in determining the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. After that came 9/11 and the stunning revelation that several of the hijackers who attacked New York and Washington had learned how to fly jets on simulators at training schools in — where else? — Florida. If the Cubans hoped terrorism-terrified Americans might finally understand their rationale for sending agents to Florida, they were thinking wishfully. The media’s fixed lens moved quickly from Florida, to Afghanistan, then Iraq. Three months after 9/11, while American forces were gearing up to chase the evil Taliban out of Afghanistan, the Cuban Five were being sentenced and disappeared into the abyss of the U.S. prison system.
In Miami, on the other hand, everyone knew about the Five. Most believed they got what they deserved. Or, more likely, that they got off lightly, considering… Considering that the Five were responsible for the deaths of four civilian fliers from Brothers to the Rescue. The Floridians are quick to point out that that story — the one about how the Brothers fliers, who were only trying to save the lives of innocent Cubans, were blown out of the sky by Cuban MiGs, and how the Five had helped murder them — is somehow left out of the Cuban narrative. (That’s not quite true, I was to discover. It’s just that the Cubans see the shootdown as a separate, different issue, one more example in which the exact same facts can unfurl polar opposite narratives.)
Castro’s version, the Floridians added, made it seem as if his agents had somehow been sent to Florida because a few bombs — probably planted by his own agents for his own purposes — had exploded in Havana. Castro has been sending his army of infiltrators, double agents, dupes and agent provocateurs to Florida since the day he seized power in 1959. Don’t believe it? Look at the Five. One of them “defected” to the United States in 1990, seven years before any bombs exploded in the hotels. And, despite what the Cubans claim, their agents were not just spying on legitimate, peaceful exile organizations like Brothers to the Rescue and the Cuban American National Foundation. These Cuban spies were also trying to burrow inside the United States military in order to steal secrets Cuba could use to launch a military attack on America, or peddle to fellow-traveling, terrorist rogue states like Iran or Libya.
I will confess that — on the hot spring afternoon when Alex Trelles and I were sitting on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional contemplating the view of the sparkling waters of la Bahia de la Habana, sipping mojitos, puffing cigars and discussing the future of Cuban-American relations in the Obama era — I understood almost nothing about the unfathomable pit of this abyss between the American and Cuban versions of reality. But I was intrigued. Was any of this documented, I asked?
“Fidel gave a speech,” he said. “It’s all there. Names, dates, places. They put it on the Internet. In English. Look it up.”
Eventually, I did. The speech, which was delivered on May 20, 2005, at the José Marti Anti-imperialist Square in Havana, opens with a kind of breathless urgency. “My fellow countrymen,” Fidel Castro begins, “what I will immediately read to you has been elaborated on the basis of numerous documents from our archives. I have had very little time, but many comrades have cooperated…” It was hardly a speech in the way I understood speeches, even speeches by a legendary speechmaker like Fidel Castro. It was, essentially, a remarkable 10,286-word j’accuse in which the Cuban leader read into the public record details of every one of the significant events of the 1997 Havana hotel bombing campaign: from April 12, 1997 (“a bomb explodes in the ‘Ache’ discotheque at the Melia Cohiba hotel”) to September 12, 1998 (“the five comrades, now heroes of the Republic of Cuba, are arrested”).
“It’s all there,” Alex repeated, “even the part about García Márquez.”
After returning from his secret mission in May 1998, García Márquez wrote a chatty, finely detailed, 4,000-word report on his adventures, which Castro also proceeded to read into the record — “an exact copy without removing a word.” He even included the text of a message he’d sent García Márquez the day before his speech, asking permission to publish the novelist’s report: “It is indispensable that I discuss the subject of the message I sent with you about terrorist activities against our country,” Castro wrote. “It is basically the message that I sent and the wonderful report you sent back to me, which is written in your unmistakable style… This will in no way,” he added, perhaps unnecessarily, “damage the addressee and much less will it affect your literary glory.”
According to Castro’s speech, Gabriel García Márquez’s visit to the White House opened a back channel that eventually led to an unprecedented meeting between Cuban State Security and the FBI in Havana in June 1998. At the conclusion of three days of face-to-face gatherings, Castro claimed, “the U.S. side acknowledged the value of the information they had been given and made a commitment to give a reply with an analysis of these materials as soon as possible. It is strange that almost three months went by without the serious response promised… On September 12 — mark my words, hardly three months had passed — the Five comrades, now heroes of the Republic of Cuba, are arrested.”
“After you read that speech,” Alex told me that afternoon, “you’ll begin to understand why the Five matter so much here and why nothing can really be resolved between Havana and Washington until they are returned to Cuba.” He paused, smiled. “But you’ll only begin to understand… It’s complicated.”
It is. After I returned from Havana, I began to burrow deeper into that labyrinthian netherworld. I started with the Castro speech, then moved on — novel? what novel? — to the Miami Herald archive, where I read hundreds of news stories about the arrest, trial, conviction and appeals of the Cuban Five. Eventually, I tracked down an electronic copy of the 20,000-plus-page transcript of United States of America versus Gerardo Hernández, et al., Case Number 98-721, and read it from opening gavel to final sentencing. And then began an ongoing correspondence with the Five in prison. The more I read, the more I realized I didn’t know.
I began to read books about Cuba, about Cuban-American relations, about Fidel, about the exile experience, about Havana, about Miami, about migration accords and foreign policy, even novels about Cuba’s Special Period and its effect on Cubans. I tried to make sense of the Alpha-66 to Omega-7 Greek alphabet soup of militant Miami exile groups who’ve been doing their best to topple Fidel Castro since the day he took power. I tried — and gave up trying — to add up the dozens, probably hundreds, maybe even thousands of Cuban government agents who’ve infiltrated, disrupted, undermined, exposed and even led those same groups. (So many prominent anti-Castro exiles have ultimately unmasked themselves, or been unmasked, or at least been accused of being Cuban intelligence agents, that even exile groups can never be certain who among them is working for Cuban State Security. Which, of course, is the goal.)
CANF President and US President
Nothing, it seems, is ever as it seems. Consider the Cuban American National Foundation, ostensibly the single most powerful American lobby group working for peaceful, democratic regime change in Cuba. CANF has helped elect — and influenced the Cuba policy of — every American president since Ronald Reagan. CANF’s leaders hang out at the White House and in the best offices on Capitol Hill, posing for photos and peddling their stridently anti-Castro, tighten-the-embargo-screws-and-we’ll-win message. Privately, however, some among them were also organizing and financing their own secret paramilitary wing whose purpose was to overthrow the Cuban government by force and, if possible, murder Fidel Castro. The fingerprints of upstanding CANF board members are smudged over more than a few of the 638 — and counting — failed plots to assassinate Castro.
The more I investigated, the more I realized I couldn’t take anything for granted.Consider the Five themselves. Although the group that would become known as the Cuban Five consists of the five men — Gerardo Hernández, René González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero — who stood in the prisoners’ dock in Miami when their trial finally began in 2000, there were, initially, many more than five of them.
According to U.S. prosecutors, the Five were members of a Cuban intelligence network called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network, a name they discovered buried in decoded computer disks. When FBI agents initially swooped in on September 12, 1998, they arrested 10 people. Five of them quickly struck deals, pleading guilty in exchange for lesser sentences and a promise to testify against their compatriots. At the same time, the FBI publicly identified four other Avispa agents it claimed had left the country before they could be arrested.
So that adds up to 14.
But reading between the lines of the thousands of pages of decoded documents and testimony presented during the Five’s trial, it’s clear there were other officers and agents associated with La Red Avispa, people with code names like Sol, Ariel, Laura, José, Tania, Horacio and Manny. Some of them probably returned to Cuba before the arrests. A few were likely among a scattering of Cubans arrested on other charges over the next few years and linked, at least tangentially, to the Wasp Network. And then, of course, one or two might have been FBI double agents all along.
Adding up all those names and code names, I arrived at a total of 22 members of La Red Avispa. But I’ve seen estimates as high as 27. Not that those numbers really tell you much, other than to affirm that nothing is as it seems. During the time it operated, La Red Avispa was only one aspect of a much larger Cuban intelligence-gathering picture. Percy Alvarado, for example, wasn’t a member of La Red Avispa, but his penetration of the Cuban American National Foundation as a Cuban counter-intelligence agent during the same period provided Cuba with a critical link from Luis Posada to CANF to the 1997 hotel bombing campaign. And, on a broader canvas, La Red Avispa represents just a few brush strokes in the picture of Havana-Miami spying — and terrorism — that’s been painted since 1959 and is still being tinkered with today.
So, the story of the Cuban Five isn’t really the story of the Five at all. Or, at least, it’s not just their story. And it isn’t a simple linear narrative. It’s a cascading accumulation of incident and irritant, of connivance and consequence, a parallel, converging, diverging narrative featuring an ensemble cast of eclectic characters on both sides of the Straits of Florida — spies, terrorists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, cops, mercenaries, politicians, heroes, villains, journalists, innocents — whose personal ambitions, actions, loyalties, vanities, secrets, strengths and foibles collectively weave larger narratives: about Cuban-American relations, about the war on terror, about hypocrisy, about truth and fiction, about right and wrong.
Perhaps it was the quicksand complexity of it all that ultimately convinced me this story needed to be told, and needed to be told by someone who didn’t already know which versions of which stories were true.
It was the first time I’d ever opened a Microsoft Word document that was so long the Pages count read: ****of****.
Exile groups aren’t the only ones who’ve found themselves fooled and/or confused by Cuban double agents. Consider the case of Florentino Azpillaga, the head of Cuban intelligence in Czechoslovakia, who sought asylum in the United States in 1987. Azpillaga told his CIA interrogators that many of the Cubans the Americans believed they were “running” in various intelligence operations were actually double agents working for Cuban State Security and feeding the CIA “misleading or useless” information. “We certainly underestimated the Cubans,” one official told the Los Angeles Times in an August 12, 1987, story. “We never realized that the operations we thought were so good were theirs all along.” Assuming, of course, that Azpillaga wasn’t himself a plant… Which many believed he was.
Hernández, the intelligence officer identified in court as Avispa’s senior agent, told me he doesn’t know how or why Avispa got its name, or what, if anything, the name was supposed to signify. He didn’t even appear to think of it as a network, perhaps because most of the people in the so-called network didn’t connect at all. René González and Antonio Guerrero, for example, who were both described as Avispa field agents, didn’t meet — or even know of each other’s existence — until after their arrest. Fernando González told me he’d known Hernández when they were students together at Havana’s elite International Relations Institute but hadn’t known he’d also become an intelligence officer until he was dispatched to Miami to fill in for Hernández when he returned home on vacation.
During the trial of the Five, prosecutors — for national security reasons — were never required to say when or why they began surveillance of La Red Avispa. In 2010, however, an exile named Edgerton Ivor Levy told an anti-Castro Miami television station he and his wife were agents Ariel and Laura, and that they’d told American authorities “what the intentions of the Castrista intelligence were… as soon as we got here.” The two arrived in the Florida Keys, ostensibly as rafters, in 1993. Although Levy claimed he’d come forward because “it bothers me to see so much propaganda based on a basic lie that [the Five] were fighting against terrorism,” it is worth noting the Miami Hispanic television station paid Ivor Levy for exclusive rights to his story, so other reporters didn’t have chance to question his account.