The Sting of the Wasp

The Sting of the Wasp: Castro, Clinton, Marquez and the Cuban Five

On June 15, 1998, a remarkable secret meeting occurred in Havana between representatives of Cuban State Security and a visiting delegation of American FBI agents.

Over the course of three unprecedented days, the Cubans handed over to the FBI a mountain of documents, photographs, audio recordings, videos and physical evidence its intelligence agents had gathered. The Cubans claimed the material proved that key players in the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation—the largest anti-Castro exile group in the U.S. with direct links to every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan—had not only provided the money and muscle for a wave of bombings at Cuban hotels and resorts but that they were also now in the process of ratcheting up both the stakes and the consequences in their campaign against Cuba.

The evidence it had gathered, the Cubans told the FBI agents, showed that the exile group had hatched a deadly plan to blow up airplanes filled with Cuba-bound tourists from Europe or Canada.

The agents thanked the Cubans, took their material and promised to get back to them as soon as they’d had a chance to analyze all the evidence.

They didn’t.

Instead, three months later, FBI agents in Miami swooped down and arrested members of La Red Avispa—the Wasp Network—the clandestine group of Cuban intelligence agents who’d infiltrated the CANF and assembled the evidence of its involvement in various terrorist plots.

Not one of the plotters the Cubans fingered was ever arrested by U.S. authorities.

The Cuban Five—as the arrested men quickly became known—were charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for what they claim was nothing more sinister than trying to prevent terrorist attacks on their homeland. They are all still serving time in U.S. jails.

Though their story is barely known in America, they are a cause célèbre in Cuba—and elsewhere.

In Cuba—where they are known simply as los cinco or los muchachos (the young men)—hundreds of thousands have marched past the U.S. Interests Section in downtown Havana shouting demands for their release. Their photos adorn everything from highway billboards and the exteriors of apartment building walls to stickers on the dashboards of Havana taxicabs.. Their stories are even featured in lobby displays in tourist resorts where Canadian and European visitors regularly send home postcards decorated with stamps bearing their images.

Their cause has been taken up beyond Cuba’s borders. Amnesty International has criticized the American justice system for its “unnecessarily punitive” handling of their case. And the United Nations Human Rights Commission has concluded, “from the facts and circumstances in which the trial took place and from the nature of the charges and the harsh sentences handed down to the accused, that the trial did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality.” Five Latin American presidents, 10 Nobel Prize Laureates, British parliamentarians, European Union legislators and the Mexican Senate, among others, have all called for their release.

Even in the United States, where the mainstream media has largely ignored their case, a number of national lawyers’ groups have disputed the legitimacy of their detention, as has the Detroit city council. Liberal celebrities from Alice Walker and Danny Glover to Noam Chomsky have spoken out in support of the Five, and a San Francisco-based group maintains a popular web site called The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five.

While the story of the Cuban Five is partly about the specific facts of the case against them, it has become about much more than just that. In post-9/11 America, the case raises tricky but essential questions about the meaning of the worldwide “war on terror,” and what any country is entitled to do to protect itself from terrorist attack.

The Sting of the Wasp is neither a polemic nor an apologia. It is instead a layered, gripping narrative that will unfold the still mostly untold tale of The Cuban Five—a story filled with spies, lies, secrets, intrigue, politics, passion, violence, death, diplomacy, hypocrisy, collaboration, mistrust, trust and betrayal—in a compelling, in-the-moment style. The narrative heart of the book will be the 12-month period between the murder of an Italian tourist in the lobby bar of the Copacabana Hotel in September 1997 and the arrest of the Cuban Five one year later, a period that also includes a star turn by Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a confidential emissary between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Marquez’s involvement sets the stage for the critical Havana meeting in June 1998.

The Sting of the Wasp will also move backward in time, providing readers with the necessary history and context to understand the whys of what happened as well as forward through the trial, conviction, appeals and international controversy to showcase the broader implications of this case for the future of Cuban-American relations.

With the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 and the ongoing transition of power in post-Fidel Cuba, the complex, ever-fascinating relationship between the United States and Cuba is at what could be an historic turning point.  As The Sting of the Wasp will make clear, the case of the Cuban Five, which is still framed in such starkly different terms in the United States and Cuba, represents a golden opportunity for—but also a major stumbling block to—that change.

For Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the issue is intensely personal. Having reluctantly okayed the decision to turn over secret Cuban intelligence documents to the FBI, he was forced to watch helplessly as that very information was used to identify and arrest the group of Cuban men and women he’d sent into harm’s way in Florida in order to protect his country from attack. At one level, it is clear that Castro’s feelings of personal guilt over what happened has, almost certainly, helped propel the elevation of the Cuban Five to the iconic status of heroes and martyrs within—and beyond—Cuba.

But even now—with Fidel’s own political power diminished and his future in the past—the place of the Five is now so cemented in fact and mythology that it is impossible for any Cuban government to imagine reaching an accommodation with America without a resolution of their case.

The Sting of the Wasp is a story Americans—and everyone else—needs to know in order to understand the past and see clearly into the future.

The Sting of the Wasp
By Stephen Kimber
Nonfiction Book In Progress