Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 12, 2009
HAVANA -- Throughout the Cuban countryside are hand-painted murals featuring the famous faces of the revolution, Che and Fidel, of course, but also René, Antonio, Fernando, Gerardo and Ramón -- known here as "Los Cinco," the Cuban Five, no last names necessary.
The men were confessed spies* who operated the Wasp Network in Miami during the late 1990s, where they infiltrated Cuban American exile organizations that opposed the Castro regime, including the group Brothers to the Rescue, whose two planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets over the Florida Straits. The Five were convicted in 2001 of espionage* and conspiracy to commit murder** and received sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison.
After years of legal appeals in the United States -- and vigorous condemnation by Cuban officials, who call the trial a farce -- three of the Cuban Five are about to be re-sentenced by a federal judge in Miami. An appeals court threw out sentences for three defendants last year, ruling their punishment too harsh because the government never proved the spies had traded in "top secret" intelligence.
The first of the three, Antonio Guerrero, is scheduled to appear Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard. In court papers filed Friday, lawyers struck a deal to recommend a 20-year term. Guerrero, 50, has been serving life at a federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo., where, his attorney said, he has been a model prisoner, helping other inmates earn their high school diplomas.
"He has been serving all this time, thinking that he would never get out," Leonard Weinglass said.
A sentencing hearing for the other two -- Ramón Labañino and Fernando González -- has been postponed, as lawyers argue about whether the U.S. government must show what harm was done by the intelligence agents.
Every twist and turn regarding the Cuban Five is followed closely in Cuba, where even schoolchildren can recite details of the case, and it is unlikely that a slim reduction in Guerrero's sentence will win any applause. In Miami's Cuban exile community, some consider the intelligence agents killers. Four U.S. citizens died in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down. After a seven-month trial, in the emotional aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez affair, the jury deliberated only a few hours before deciding its verdict.
"It is impossible to overstate how big the Five are in Cuba," said Thomas Goldstein, a constitutional lawyer who has worked on the case for the Cuban government. "They are viewed as symbols of U.S. injustice, and the consensus here is they received unfair trials and were given impossibly long sentences."
When the U.S. Supreme Court declined in June to hear appeals for the Cuban Five, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón said that any future talks with the Obama administration must include a discussion about their fate.
After President Obama was elected, Cuban President Raúl Castro said, "Let's make a gesture for a gesture," and suggested that his government would free its political prisoners and let them leave the island -- "but give us back our heroes."
"If you look at this case, you have to be appalled. The case stinks," said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana who is now a senior fellow at Center for International Policy in Washington. "Therefore the Cuban see an advantage in raising it, and making an issue of it, and they will keep it up, because world opinion is on their side."
* Note of Editor: This is a mistake: The Cuban Five were never acussed of espionage, only three of them, Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio, were charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; and they never pleaded guilty to those crimes.
** Note of Editor: Gerardo Hernández was the only one accused of Conspiracy to commit murder and he never pleaded guilty.