Review of What Lies Across the Water in Science & Society
By Helen Yaffe (University College London), Science & Society
In 2009 Stephen Kimber was in Havana researching for a love story he planed to write when, he explains, he “got sideswiped by the truth-is-stranger-but-way-more-interesting story of the Cuban Five” (1).
Thanks to serendipity, Kimber has produced the first full-length book in English about the case. During his research, the Canadian writer, broadcaster and professor of journalism read 20,000 pages of court transcripts, and a mass of books, media reports and documents. He conducted interviews and established correspondence with the Five in prison. The book is organized chronologically into sections, which are sub-divided by diary-like entries providing updates on the entire “cast of characters.”
This work is meticulously researched, factual without being dull, and written with sensitivity and honesty — warts and all. It is as gripping as an action-packed movie, and deeply moving. Most important, it contextualizes the story of the Cuban Five within the shocking history of Miami-based Cuban exile attacks against the Cuban Revolution, and the complicity of U.S. authorities.
At the center of this exile opposition is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), “ostensibly the single most powerful American lobby group working for peaceful, democratic regime change in Cuba” (7). However, Kimber explains, members of CANF “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.” At least 638 assassination attempts have been documented by Cuban authorities. The U.S. government created the monster, Kimber explains. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 catalyzed the campaign of sabotage and terrorism. This book demonstrates that terrorist attacks against Cuba have never ceased and were actually escalated in the 1990s.
The need to keep abreast of these plots, and the abject failure of the U.S. authorities to prevent or punish the perpetrators, led Cuban intelligence to create the Wasp Network (La Red Avispa) to infiltrate Miami exile groups and gather information. The agents who stepped into this murky labyrinth of conspiracy and intrigue were Gerardo Hernández, Rene González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero. In fact, Kimber explains, ten Cuban agents were arrested in 1998, but five of them struck deals with the U.S. authorities: lesser sentences in exchange for testifying against their compatriots. That’s not all. According to Kimber: “Adding up all those names and code names, I arrived at a total of 22 members of La Red Avispa” (9).
The agent’s preparations involved affecting growing disillusionment with the Revolution before “abandoning” the country. In December 1990, Rene González “escaped” to the United States on a hijacked Cuban aircraft. That night, Rene was wined and dined by the Cuban-American president of Key West’s Latin American Chamber of Commerce. He joined the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, led by CIA-trained José Basulto, which ran hostile flights over Cuban airspace. Kimber describes the personal anguish and sacrifice involved for the Cuban agents. With trepidation we read that the FBI began surveillance of the agents in 1996.
In June 198, an unprecedented meeting took place in Havana between Cuba’s Interior Ministry, the FBI and other U.S. agencies. This followed Fidel’s warnings, delivered via Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez directly to President Bill Clinton, about CANF plans to “set up bombs in planes from Cuba or any other country’s airline carrying tourists to, or from, Cuba to Latin American countries” (185). Kimber explains: “The Cubans presented the Americans with a blizzard of material: photos, audio and video tapes, confessions, wiretap transcripts, bomb-making paraphernalia …” (199) and three documents: a 65-page Report on Terrorist Activities Against Cuba, a 61-page who’s-who of 40 exiles the Cubans had identified as terrorists, and a 52-page Operational Appendices with intricate details of operations.
Unaware that the Wasp Network was under FBI surveillance, the Cubans were determined to hide the identities of their agents. The FBI took the information away to “evaluate.” Then they arrested the Wasp Network.
The court case took place in Miami; a fair trial was impossible. The Cuban Five were convicted of false identification, conspiracy to commit espionage and, in Gerardo Hernández’s case, conspiracy to commit murder. He was blamed for the shoot-down of a Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in 1996. They received sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
In 2005, a U.S. court conceded that the Cuban Five did not receive a fair trial and ordered a retrial in a new location. The U.S. Attorney General overturned this decision and the convictions were upheld. Evidence since obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the U.S. government paid millions of dollars to Miami-area journalists to prejudice the public against the Cuban Five before and during their trial.
The Five have received “cruel and unusual” treatment, including long stretches in isolation and being denied access to lawyers or family-visits. In late 2011, Rene González (15 years) was granted “supervised release” on a three-year term, initially under life-threatening conditions — to remain in Miami alongside the terrorists he monitored. In spring 2013 he returned permanently to Cuba. In late February 2014, Fernando González (18 years) was released into detention by U.S. immigration authorities, prior to his return to Cuba.
Antonio Guerrero (22 years) and Ramón Labañino (30 years) face many more years of incarceration. Gerardo Hernández (two consecutive life sentences) will never leave prison, except through political intervention.
All of this has been tracked and opposed by an international campaign to demand freedom of the Cuban Five. Campaign committees are active in many countries and especially active in the USA. Some progress has been made in engaging international “dignitaries,” from actors to politicians, in raising the campaign’s profile.
However, as mainstream media censorship has prevailed public knowledge of the case is limited. Kimber makes a vital contribution to addressing that by revealing the real story of the Cuban Five.