René and the Russian spies


René González Sehwerert told me he “wasn’t surprised at all” when the United States government reached a swift deal this summer to swap 10 freshly captured Russian spies for four Russians who’d been convicted of passing their country’s state secrets to the U.S.

Pass Go.

Get out of Jail Free.

Go home.

Sing patriotic songs with Vladimir Putin…

René González didn’t get to do any of those things.

René González

An American-born Cuban, González is currently in prison in Marianna, Florida, serving a 15-year sentence for what a Miami jury concluded amounted to the vague-notion crime of “general conspiracy” and conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent – which, if you think about it, is pretty much what those now-free Russians were accused of doing.

González was part of a group of intelligence agents Havana dispatched to Florida in the 1990s to infiltrate wing-nut Miami-based exile groups that were bent on – and were, in fact – committing terrorist acts against their former homeland.

In Havana in June 1998, Cuban State Security turned over to a visiting delegation of FBI agents some of the fruits of the labours of González and his fellow agents.

What the Cubans revealed – through affidavits, confessions, wiretapped phone conversations, bomb-making equipment, bomb fragments, etc. – clearly connected the dots between a wave of hotel bombings in Havana in 1997, which killed Fabio Di Celmo, an Italian-Canadian businessman (read an excerpt and listen to Fabio’s brother’s memories of that day), and extremist anti-Castro exile groups in Miami(another excerpt).

The FBI thanked the Cubans and promised to investigate and respond. They didn’t. Instead, three months later, the FBI arrested not the terrorists who’d planned the bombings, but the Cuban agents who’d helped uncover their plots.

In Castro-phobic, up-is-down Miami, González and his four arrested compatriots – who’ve since become known globally as the Cuban Five and are considered heroes in their homeland – were tried, quickly convicted, and even more quickly sentenced to way-out-of-whack-with-the-known-facts prison terms.

They’re all still in prison. Two, including González, have been denied a single face-to-face visit with their wives for the last 12 years. One – convicted on the flimsiest of jury-baiting evidence of conspiracy to commit murder – is currently in the process of losing his last faint-hope appeal, thus facing an until-death-do-us-part future of two consecutive life terms plus 15 years.

Unless, of course, the United States government decides to cut the kind of deal with Cuba that it willingly did with the Russians.

The U.S. could easily swap the Five for whatever remains of Cuba’s “political prisoners.” Raúl Castro, in fact, offered to do just that at the time of Obama’s election. The Cubans would also probably happily toss into that bargain American contractor Allan Gross, who is currently in jail in Cuba after entering the country illegally in order to distribute satellite communications devices.

The reality is that the Cubans – like the patriotic song-singing Russians – didn’t steal (or even try to steal) a single American state secret.

Forget the conspiracy-to-murder charge, which wouldn’t stand up in any courtroom outside America. According to a 2005 report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in fact, their trial “did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality that is required in order to conform to the standards of a fair trial.”

For the most part, the Five were engaged in the kind of anti-terrorist work that, in post 9-11 America, would have earned them patriotic medals and the thanks of a grateful nation – if, that is, they had been American agents trying to keep Al Qaeda from attacking their homeland.

If, more importantly, they weren’t Cubans.

So why won’t the United States cut a deal with Cuba like it did with Russia?

“The policies of the U.S. government against Cuba are from another galaxy,” González responds when I ask him that question in an email, adding that those other-worldly policies are “fed by a rabid, irrational mentality that is almost impossible to fathom.”

As part of my research for a book on the Cuban Five, I’ve been corresponding with several of the Five, including González.

For a man who has spent the past 12 years in jail – some of that time in “the hole” – for a crime he still believes was not a crime and who has not been allowed a single visit with his wife in all that time, González remains remarkably positive and upbeat.

“I’ve tried to make the best of it, with some success, I suppose,” he tells me of his jail-induced health and physical fitness regimes. “To tell you the truth I feel great at my 54 years. Some good has to come out of this.”

One thing that hasn’t changed as a result of his incarceration, however, is González’s belief in the legitimacy of what he did. Neither has his hard-won understanding of what drives Cuban-American relations, even in the age of Obama.

“It is far more complicated than the common explanation about the ‘too powerful Miami Cubans,’” he tells me. “The Miami Cubans are still the puppets, although from time to time they try to pull at the strings, like on the Elian [González] affair.”

The deeper explanation, he believes, has to do with America’s historic understanding of the Cuban revolution. “By their logic we are a property that they ‘lost,’ and it carries a heavy price for the ‘lost’ property to assert its own independence.”

René González is still paying that price, while the Russian spies are back home, singing patriotic songs.

This commentary also appears in
The Mark: The People and Ideas Behind the Headlines.

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