Dear President Obama,
This is my first ever letter to an American president. That’s not just because I’m not an American citizen. I’m also a journalist, and journalists are not in the habit of writing letters to heads of governments.
But having spent the past three years researching the case of the Cuban Five, I believe I have an obligation to write to you.
The fact is American journalism hasn’t done a very good job of explaining to the American public the case of the five Cuban intelligence agents who have been incarcerated in the U.S. since 1998. As a result, your administration has mostly managed to avoid dealing with the issue at all or, when forced to comment, responding with the tired, rote rhetoric of the Cold War era.
But the case of the Cuban Five has recently been brought back into the public spotlight because of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor currently serving a 15-year jail term in Cuba for bringing satellite communication equipment into that country.
The media reporting of his case has been equally problematic, mostly parroting your own State Department line that Gross is a “humanitarian” who was arrested while trying to help Havana’s tiny Jewish community communicate with the outside world, and is now being held “hostage” by Havana.
You know that’s not true. So, of course, should the media. After all, it was Desmond Butler, a foreign affairs reporter for the Associated Press—a news agency subscribed to by most American media and unlikely ever to be mistaken for a tool of the Cuban regime—who documented the facts of the case.
Alan Gross was “paid a half-million dollars” by USAID, your government’s “democracy promoting” agency, to smuggle sophisticated communications equipment into Cuba. That technology included Internet satellite phones capable of avoiding detection and spy-quality SIM cards “most frequently” used by the Defense Department and the CIA.
The goal of all of this was not to assist Cuba’s Jewish community communicate, as your government has insisted (the Jewish community already had Internet connectivity) but to promote regime change—to overthrow the government of Cuba.
Gross’s own reports make clear he knew he was engaged in “very risky business” and that discovery of what he was up to “will be catastrophic.”
That said, Alan Gross’s family and friends, not surprisingly, want him freed.
Just as the Cubans want the Five—who are considered national heroes in their homeland—freed.
Your government’s unblinking response has been that there is simply “no equivalence.” The Cubans were trained intelligence agents convicted of trying to steal military secrets and conspiracy to murder four innocent civilians killed in the shootdown of two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in 1996. By contrast, the American argument goes, Alan Gross was just a humanitarian do-gooder.
We now know Alan Gross was much more than that.
But it is equally true the Cuban Five are much less than the murderous danger to American security the media and your government has portrayed.
I have read the 20,000-plus pages of the transcript of their trial and examined the thousands of additional pages of documents prosecutors entered into evidence to try to convict them.
I won’t try to whitewash the case against them. They were trained intelligence agents, and some of them used false identities to enter the United States. Part of the mission of some of them was to gather military information.
Their primary military mission, however, was not to look for information that could be used to attack the United States (forgetting, for the moment, the ludicrousness of the idea of tiny Cuba launching a military attack against the might U.S.).
The Cuban Five posed no military or security threat to the United States. Don’t believe me. Ask retired U.S. Lieutenant General James R. Clapper, your own Director of National Intelligence. When you appointed him in 2010, you said he possessed “a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.”
You should hear then what General Clapper had to say about the Cuban Five. In 2001, as Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Clapper testified at the trial of the Five. He was asked specifically whether he would, “with your experience in intelligence matters, describe Cuba as a military threat to the United States?” His answer: “Absolutely not. Cuba does not represent a threat.”
The real military goal of the Five was to protect Cuba from possible American attack. That such an attack was possible is beyond dispute. Consider—as the Cubans undoubtedly did—Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Haiti (1994).
Cuba’s unarmed agents were essentially canaries in a foreign coal mine, using their trained eyes and ears to detect signals of possible imminent attack. When you think about it, that’s exactly what your American satellites, drones and, yes, human agents do in countries where you perceive a threat to American security from hostile governments—or terrorist elements.
That, in fact, was the real purpose behind Cuba sending its agents to Florida—to infiltrate and report back on the activities of terrorist anti-Castro exile groups who were actively plotting and often carrying out deadly attacks against Cuba from the safe sanctuary of Florida.
I don’t need to tell you that such attacks are illegal under the U.S. Neutrality Act, but perhaps it is worth reminding you that American authorities have rarely arrested anyone in connection with such plots and that Florida juries have even more rarely convicted anyone accused of any crime against Cuba.
I’ll come back to that.
Perhaps the most significant—and seemingly rational—rationale your government has offered for refusing to consider a humanitarian swap of the Five for Alan Gross is the reality that one of the Five was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shootdown of those Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996.
One can argue—I do—that the Cuban government should not have authorized its jets to shoot down those aircraft. Despite the Brothers’ well documented ongoing provocations and illegal violations of Cuban airspace—which, by the way, both the FAA and the Clinton administration considered illegal and provocative, and attempted to stop—I continue to believe there were other, better options for the Cuban government than bringing down the planes.
But that is beside the point.
The only important issue here is whether any of those five agents had any control over, or played any role in the decision to shoot the planes down. Having read the trial transcript and examined the evidence presented during their trial, my conclusion is not only that there is no compelling link between any of the Five and the shootdown but that, in fact, the evidence leads to the opposite conclusion.
Cuban State Security is incredibly compartmentalized and information about such a significant attack would have only been communicated on a need-to-know basis. There was no need for low-level Florida field agents to know anything about what Havana’s military was actually planning, and there is no evidence they did.
But, you may counter, the Five were convicted by a Miami jury who heard all the evidence.
Let’s consider that.
I don’t have to tell you about the pervasive power and influence in Miami of right-wing Cuban exile groups. After two presidential campaigns, you know that better than anyone.
But let’s consider three other points when we imagine the chances that a Miami jury could impartially judge the actions of acknowledged Cuban agents.
In the lead-up to the trial of the Five—which took place in the aftermath of the emotionally charged Elian González affair—Miami’s media was filled to bursting with even more-frenzied-than-usual anti-Cuban rhetoric. We now know that at least some of that was orchestrated by journalists who were also being secretly paid by the U.S. Government’s own Broadcasting Board of Governors. When those clandestine payments were first revealed in 2006, the Miami Herald—to its credit—fired its bought-and-paid-for journalists for their egregious violations of journalistic ethics. But by then the damage had been done.
Consider as well the double standard of justice that was common in cases involving Cuba. There was another criminal case that took place around the same time as the arrest of the Cuban Five. The FBI had charged a group of anti-Castro Miami exiles, who had been arrested aboard a vessel off Puerto Rico, with plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Defense lawyers tried to get the trial moved to Miami. Federal prosecutors objected on the grounds that their case against the men would not get a fair hearing from a jury in Miami. Less than a year later, however, federal prosecutors objected again when the Five’s defense lawyers applied to have the trial moved out of Miami. Did they really believe Miami juries they’d claimed were too sympathetic to anti-Cuban exiles would suddenly be able to fairly adjudicate a case involving pro-Cuban agents?
Even more to the point, prosecutors in the Cuban Five case—just before the jury was to begin its deliberations— asked an appeal court to allow them to drop the charge of conspiracy to commit murder because they didn’t believe the evidence they’d presented could lead to a conviction.
Although the appeal court rejected their plea, the prosecutors needn’t have worried. After a seven-month trial, the Miami jury took just a few days to find the Five guilty on all counts, including conspiracy to commit murder.
I’d simply ask you to instruct your own lawyers to review the trial transcript and examine the evidence linking the Five to the shootdown—and report back to you on what they find.
It may be sobering.
You already know that Amnesty International has raised “doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the trial [of the Five]… the strength of the evidence to support the conspiracy to murder conviction… and whether the circumstances of the pre-trial detention of the five men, in which they had limited access to their attorneys and to documents, may have undermined their right to defense.”
You will know as well that the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, after examining the evidence, “requested the U.S. government to adopt the necessary steps to remedy the situation.”
You may point out—rightly—that the United Nations Working Group more recently determined that Alan Gross’s detention was also “arbitrary,” that the Cuban court did not act in an “independent and impartial manner” and called on Havana to “order [Gross’s] immediate release.”
Even if we accept the findings of the UN report, where does it leave us? Can two wrongs make a right?
The reality is that neither Alan Gross nor the Cuban Five should be languishing in prison. They are all, in the end, victims of the failed 50-plus-year history of American policy toward Cuba.
It is time to end the injustice—and, frankly, the stupidity—of a policy that hasn’t, and doesn’t serve the interest of either country. Or the world.
As you gear up for your inauguration and the unique opportunity a second-term American president has to create an historic legacy, I would urge you to reconsider the case of the Cuban Five.
You should use the occasion to grant executive clemency for the Five, allowing them to return home to Cuba. The Cubans have already indicated they would be prepared to reciprocate by freeing Alan Gross to return to his family in the United States.
Such a swap would not only represent a significant and long overdue humanitarian gesture by both governments but it would also signal an opportunity to finally restart relations between the United States and Havana on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
Thank you for your consideration.
Stephen Kimber is a journalist and Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. He is the author of one novel and seven nonfiction books. His latest book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, will be published in 2013.