Radio show interview transcribed by Joan Malerich.
Phil Taylor (PT): Stephen Kimber, are you there sir?
Stephen Kimber (SK) : I am.
PT: How are you?
SK: Very Good.
SK: It’s great to talk to you. I have interviewed lawyers, and I have interviewed members of the family of the Cuban Five on this show and I was under the impression that I really understood the story but frankly until I read your book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five I realized there is a LOT to know. It is just very very readable.—terrific book. I almost want to sign up for your journalism course
Stephen Kimber (SK): Laughs. We could use you.
PT: OK, well consider this an application. Now you are going to come and talk on Sunday at Ryerson (University) at 2:00 PM on the 7th floor, 55 Dundas (Street) (West Toronto) . We are very much up to date with this matter, because today in the New York Times there has been an editorial calling for an exchange –I hate to say they use the word swap, but at any rate- because there is an American being held in Cuba, Mr. Gross, I believe is his name. And, of course, there are three Cubans being held by the US government. And, the New York Times, it seems to me, I guess it is a break-through discussion. So, I guess I’d better ask you right off the bat. I would tell anybody considering whether this should go forward ought to read your book. How are you reacting to this news today?
SK: I am very pleased. I think this has been growing. There are complications with this. Nothing comes without a price and nothing is exactly as you would like it, but the New York Times is obviously a newspaper of record in the United States, a newspaper that has influence in Washington and they didn’t couch this particularly which is often of concern.
They used some of the arguments that came from the Atlantic Court in 2005 –which was the court ruling that favored the Cuban Five. They actually put this stuff on the record. That hasn’t really hasn’t been done before in a major mainstream American newspaper. So, I think that is really important.
But , if you look at what has been the build-up to this. Last Spring you had 66 members of Congress writing a letter—you have to read between the lines, but what they were saying was start some negotiations, don’t just pretend there’s not equivalence, that you can’t talk about them together. Let’s get some negotiations. Their concern, obviously, was to get Alan Gross home. But, they recognized that part of that process is that the remaining members of the Cuban Five have to be freed as well. That is very important. I think there has been kind of perfect storm for a little while. You had Ebola –even hard right in Miami had a hard job trying to spin that as a bad thing—the Cuban contribution to the fight against Ebola…
PT: Disproportionately, large compared to the super power.
SK: This is nothing new. So, that was one thing. And then, ah, the pressure from Latin American countries who say if you want to come to the Summit of the Americans next April – ah -Cuba is going to have to be there too, or else it does not happen. So, in the more general sense, the tone is changing.
PT: The US in a sense is finding itself isolated from years of trying to isolate Cuba. Is that right?
SK: I think in fact it backfired, and it is starting to come to the fore. I think that imprisonment of the Five is sort of one part of it. But, then, you also have the desire –we may not like this, but the Cubans are more than capable of making up their own minds–but, clearly there is the desire from American business to end the embargo so they can go back into Cuba and sell whatever it is they want to sell. They have begun to put pressure on the United States. When the delegation from the Chamber of Congress that was in in Havana not so long ago –groups that most of us have not heard much about like the American Soy Delegation, which is a producers association, is saying end the embargo. This is crazy. It hasn’t worked. Let’s stop. And, people seem to be less afraid for the most part of Miami Cubans and their power. That again is another major change in the climate.
PT: I have to say, and by the way again, we are speaking to Stephen Kimber, and the book is What Lies Across the Water—terrific title. The word lies staring me in the face– The Real Story of the Cuban Five. Now, you really got into—at least for me–I noticed something I had not realized before this great powerful lobby. Everybody says well we have to tow the line. The Cubans are going to get unhappy in Miami if we try to change. But, you say Richard Allan—going way back and you can tell who he is — got together a really wonderful reputable fellow (said sardonically) named Gorge Mas Canosa and said we think it would be a good idea if you had a lobby.
SK: What they intended to create—this is back in the early 1980s right after Ronald Reagan came into office in the United States—what they intended to create a lobby much like the Israel Lobby in the United States, a very powerful lobby that would help to underwrite Congressional campaigns and push for legislation, write legislation and they did that. Another thing they did—this is where the Cuban Five came in to it. In 1992, at a meeting in Naples, Florida, they created a secret paramilitary. So, one hand, these people who are going to Washington and meeting at the White House with the top officials in the land. On the other hand, they are plotting the overthrow of the Cuban government with a paramilitary that they financed with millions of dollars. This sort of allowed to go unchecked means that there would be more attacks on Cuba, and more serious attacks. And so, the Cuban were able to infiltrate that group, and they knew what they were planning and that’s again part of this very complicated but very interesting story of what the Cubans were doing in the United States.
One of the parts left out of the New York Times’ editorial — it doesn’t explain that in fact what they were trying to do was stop terrorist attacks against Cuba.
PT: They seemed to be very good at what they did. The subtitle of course is The Real Story of the Cuban Five. So what is the real story? Why did they come ——why was it necessary for government of Cuba, in their opinion, to send agents into the US to keep track of people like this this wonderful man Mr. Canosa.
SK: After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a real feeling in Miami, like a lot of the Soviet allies in Eastern Europe, Cuba was simply going to fall and next year they could march back in and take over again. These were a lot of exiles who had roles in Batista government or had connections back and that is what they thought.
PT: They had a motto, didn’t they? Next year in Havana?
SK. Like next year in Havana, exactly. And, they were plotting those things and beginning to carry them out. There were many attacks. These go back, obviously, to the time of the Revolution. But, they were ramping them up in the early 1990s. So, the Cubans knew that this was being done. The only way to stop it—because the American government had laws on the books. There is a law called the American Neutrality Act that prohibits somebody from plotting to attack a third country from inside the United States. That was clearly happening, and there was no effort by American authorities to stop it.
So, the Cubans sent these agents over, whose job was to infiltrate these various groups. And, there were a lot of them in Miami and report back to Havana what they were doing. Then, Havana could stop them. Now in terms of what they stopped– how they stopped them, mostly they arrested them. They arrived at the airport with bombing equipment, the Cubans knew they were coming and they arrested them. So, it was a very legitimate—they weren’t going out and assassinating anybody or shooting anybody. It was a very lawful process carried out by a government that was under fire. The only thing that was illicit about it was that they didn’t tell the American government what they were doing. But, if they told the American government what they were doing, they wouldn’t have been able to do it.
PT: And, let me ask you that—serious efforts have been made by this government, have they not, to achieve some cooperation. That is, they say –we have some information. We are giving it to you. You quote the letters in What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five where correspondence where they write to the US Interest Section and say my Dear Fellow etc we have information that a criminal named so and so is up to something and we expect you will look into that.
SK: It worked both ways. And, it was very interesting in the lead up to the time the Cuban Five were arrested that the US government was also secretly giving the Cubans information they gathered. Now the Cubans, in most cases, had already gathered that same information on their own. But, there was cooperation. There was growing sense—before the arrest of the Cuban Five—that you know things might start to get better between the United States and Cuba. And, then what seems to have happened, just to pick up on that, Fidel Castro sent a secret message to Washington through Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the White House.
SK: What the Cuban were saying was there was a plot to blow up an airplane filled with tourists coming to Cubawhich would have been from Europe or Canada or perhaps from South America and you know they took that seriously. The Cubans said here is who is plotting it. It is being done. And, the FBI went to Havana in June of 1998 and meet with the Cuban State Security for three days and they (Cuba) turned over all sorts of information to them. The FBI was supposed to go back and investigate and instead three months later the Cuban Five were arrested. Instead of arresting the terrorists, they arrested the people who were working to uncover what they were up to.
So, the truth is, up to that point, there was a feeling, I think, in both Washington and Havana, at various levels that something could be done to improve relations. We don’t know exactly what happened between June, when the FBI went to Havana, and September when the Five were arrested. It appears the FBI chief in Miami who was very close to a number of the Exiles, some who had been identified by the Cubans as terrorists, was trying to short circuit this. Instead of allowing the FBI agents who were already conducting surveillance of the members of the Cuban Five to continue to do it, they switched it and it became a criminal investigation. And, that is when they arrested them.
PT: You know, it strikes me. Part of this –everybody has a dynamic and complicated politics. One of the things that comes out in your book is that these guys who are involved, some of the central characters—by the way, you were going to write a novel and believe me if you put them all in a novel, we all would have said your pulling my leg, come on. A guy can’t be involved in the Bay of Pigs and the Iran Contra. They were involved in the Iran Contra. Some of that was the Democrats and Republicans pulling the rug out from under each other for their own advantage, to my memory, which makes it rather difficult for the Cubans to get a straight answer out of the Americans.
SK: I think it has been over the years very difficult. The truth is both countries deeply mistrust the other. Certainly, in the case of Cubans, with very good reason. They have been lied to. They have been had come to try and overthrow their government who at the least were tacitly supported by the US government. So, they have lots of reasons to mistrust. I think one of the things that seems to be happening now –I think the next two years will be really interesting in all this. After the midterm elections tomorrow, the electoral question is off the table for Obama. He doesn’t have to worry about that. The issue which I think may make it more difficult—at least until the last moment of his presidency to go forward and do what the New York Times suggested is that there is an anti-Cuban senator names Robert Menendez who is now chair of the US Foreign Relations Committee. The Obama administration needs him on other stuff, on Iraq, ISIL–all of that stuff. They don’t want to irritate him to the point where he is going to work against them. And, that is fine. American politics—well, politics generally but certainly American politics where you violate what should be your principles.
PT: Or even your best interests.
SK: To kowtow to somebody like Menendez so he’ll support you on other things. It is kind of a sad commentary in many ways.
PT: By the way, Cuba would find — I think even some Canadian officials would say — it is hard to get a deal with the United States because they say yes in the morning and maybe in the afternoon and no the next day.
By the way, again, we are speaking to What Lies Across —we’re not speaking to the book. We are talking to Stephen Kimber who wrote the book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. Incidentally, you should know StephenKimber.com –a terrific site. And Stephen Kimber is going to be in town this coming Sunday, September 9, at 2:00 PM at Ryerson and it’s the 7th floor—goes 2 to 5.
I want to be sure to note this. You started from an essay position. Was it 2009 that you were are a trip to Cuba thinking of writing—I guess — “Our Man in Havana” or the “Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” — but you met somebody and you really picked up the story in 2009. This is the most thorough that I have ever read. So, is that really the case?
SK: It really is the case. One of the things that happened — this was a person I met in Cuba who told me a little bit about the story and told me about the involvement of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which clearly was intriguing to me. Ah, when I got back to Canada, I started to track down the information that I could find. The more information that I found, the more I –you know I guess I came obsessed by this story. For the first six or eight months, I was thinking of it primarily as a story—just a fascinating story of espionage and back and forth and all that stuff. But, after I finished reading the transcript of the trial, I realized this is also an INCREDIBLE STORY OF AN INJUSTICE. That, you know, I am a journalist. I tend not to get involved in things, but this is a case where I felt I know enough about it based on the research to be able to make an argument that this is an injustice and that something needs to be done to fix it.
PT: I want to say something about your due diligence. You have been in and out of a few courtrooms too. You were actually in the courtroom in El Paso and saw one of most celebrated villains, as far as I am concerned, Mr. Posada. You saw him with your own eyes.
SK: I did. And, it was a very interesting exercise to go and see that, because here is somebody who by his own admission is a terrorist; and he has been involved in assassination plots against Fidel Castro. He was the orchestrator of a terrible act of air terrorism back in 1976.
PT: One of the first cases.
SK: That’s right. They blew up a plane—a Cubana airlines plane—killed 73 people in the name of freedom for Cuba. That was who he was. So, to see him being charged—but he was charged in an very interesting way. He was charged for lying to an immigration official when he came into the United States, because an immigration official asked him if he had been involved in a serious of terrorist acts against Cuba in Havana in 1997, which was a series of hotel bombings. He said no. Now, they didn’t charge him with being involved in those attacks. They charged him with lying about being involved in those attacks. They couldn’t bring themselves to charge him…..
PT: Almost slapped his wrists. Came within a hair of implicating him.
SK; To make matters worse, to add insult to injury, he was acquitted by the jury in El Paso.
PT: Well, that is Mexican territory
PT: Occupied by Texas. Now he lives free and does not have to pay for his meals when he walks down the streets in Miami.
SK: That’s right. He is a hero particularly to the old guard in Miami. And, there have been a number of events, dinners, nights in his honor even after it was clear this man is a terrorist. I guess I go back to 2001 when George Bush said if you harbor a terrorist you are a terrorist –saying to other countries. All that time, the United States’ government has been harboring terrorists is Miami. There was Posada. Before him there was Orlando Bosch, who was another (of them?) There is a whole group of them in Miami, who are not only living free but are “outstanding citizens” in Miami.
PT: Again, this is Stephen Kimber, stephenkimber.com. You know your book does describe that. They do have a Neutrality Act, and I guess the question rhetorically is: Is that just and “act” because there have been all kinds of criminal actions where they have been intercepted by the FBI. They set up traps and caught them. According to your book, nobody ends up in the slammer.
SK: Very rarely does anybody end up in the slammer.
PT: Especially the big shots.
SK: They have a term for it in law enforcement in Florida, and the term is admonition. So, in other word, they don’t want trouble. They will often find out about these terrorist plots and rather than arrest somebody for doing this, they will find a way to destabilize that and send a message don’t do this or don’t do this now.
PT: I’m sorry but reading your book I began to double outthink myself. Some of these guys appear to be these guys who want you to catch them on the way to the airport so they don’t get hurt.
SK: Laughs. There were certainly some of those.
PT: Because then they go back to Miami and brag again and everybody takes them out to dinner and they get awards and get funded but nobody got hurt.
SK: That is true in some cases. Though a huge number of cases in which there really were serious terrorist attacks carried out against Cuba by these kinds of people .
PT: A Canadian was killed at a hotel
SK: That’s right. In 1997 bombing, Fabio Di Celmo who was a young Montreal based business man, who lived part of the time in Havana with his father. Interestingly enough, after he was killed, his father moved to Havana permanently. And, lives there today. He is quite an old man now, but he is still there. That was where he needed to be.
PT: We are speaking, of course, to Stephen Kimber. I want to make sure I ask about this gentleman. Because I have talked on this show —we interviewed some lawyers involved in the case. Of course, this has gone on for years. One of the things I have been told is Gerardo Hernandez is sort of a special guy in the eyes of the US. Here were are, the New York Timessaying let’s make a prisoner exchange. He was sentenced to double life plus 15 years. Mr. Gross, of course, got 15 years in Cuba. Now, you have corresponded with Gerardo Hernandez. Tell us about him and what do you think – Is that one of the things that is going to prevent an exchange?
SK: I think ultimately no because a couple things. Anybody … He is in there with double life plus 15 years because he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder as a result of a shoot down of two planes flown by a group of exiles. They were shot down in the Florida Straits back in 1996. They claimed that he was involved, that he knew about this. But, the record doesn’t show that. In fact, the court case was so bad that at the end, when the judge issued her instructions to the jury, the prosecutors rushed off to the Appeal Court and said we can’t have the judge saying this because if those instructions stand, it means we didn’t prove our case and are going to lose. The Appeal Court said no, just go. The jury heard this. Let the jury decide. Of course, the Miami jury decided he was guilty.
I think it is becoming clearer and clearer to people in the United States government in various pockets of the US government that that trial was a travesty of justice. They are not going to admit that, but now how do we get out of this. I think they would like Hernandez out of here. He has also been a model prisoner. He hasn’t done anything in his 16 years in prison that would cause any reason why they wouldn’t let him go free. Certainly from my experiences with him—which have all been by mail because he’s not allowed to communicate and I am not allowed to see him—he is an incredibly bright thoughtful guy. If he does get back to Havana, I think you may see him at some point in a political role. He is very smart. As I said, he is very thoughtful. I think he would make a good political leader at some point.
PT: By the way, you talk about a nation of 10 million people (11 million) trying to defend itself against a super power, proud of being a super power, and they are rather capable of doing it and in a nonviolent way, I have to say.
SK: That was an interesting thing about the Five. Again, when you look at the trial transcripts, you realize that there was no evidence of any violence that they had actually committed in their time there. What they were there to do is to find out and report back and that is what they essentially did.
PT: Well, it is a great book. What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. Stephen Kimber –Stephenkimber.com We look forward to seeing you here in Toronto at Ryerson at 2:00 on Sunday.
SK: I look forward to seeing you as well. Take care now.
PT: Thank you. That was Stephen Kimber. And, again, go to his site. He has a great site. The book is full of incredible details and great stories. If you like to read an adventure. If you like to read a detective story. It’s got all that in it. Amazing personalities. They could not have been dreamed up by Jimmy Breslin (author of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight) or Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana). As I say, the editors would have said you had better dial it back. Incidentally, I found reading the book that some of these people like Posada and the man Bosch were very aware of themselves . While they were highly secretive, also, when they were talkative, had a very romantic notion of their own identities and frankly it is laughable. If you have ever seen Our Man in Havana, there is a lot of these our man in Havana people in Stephen Kimber’s What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. And, it’s stephenkimber.com.
TRANSCRIPT OF STEPHEN KIMBER ON THE NOVEMBER 3, 2014, TAYLOR REPORT with Phil Taylor.
The Taylor Report http://www.taylor-report.com/ played live on CIUT, OUT OF Toronto Canada.
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Segment is about 28 minutes.