Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in Havana
Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in
In what could be the setting for a gripping thriller, Cuba and the U.S.
are reportedly locked in a standoff this weekend, with the fate of an
American contractor hanging in the balance. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.
By Michael Isikoff
It seems straight out of a Cold War spy movie. A group of Cuban
undercover agents sneak into the U.S. and set up a secret pro-Castro
network in south Florida — receiving instructions in code through late
night radio transmissions from handlers in Havana. But the FBI gets
wind, tails the agents, intercepts their messages and busts them,
sending the agents off to federal prison, their ringleader for life.
Today, the story of those spies — called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp
Network — rolled up by the feds 14 years ago is barely known in the
United States. But its members, now known as the Cuban Five, are
national heroes in Cuba – the subjects of mass demonstrations, their
pictures on billboards and posters – and their petitions for freedom
are championed around the world by Nobel Prize winners, celebrities like
Danny Glover, even former President Jimmy Carter.
And they may now prove key to the tense impasse between Havana and
Washington over the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross,
arrested three years ago Monday for distributing sophisticated satellite
equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community and later sentenced to 15
years in prison for "acts against the independence and/or territorial
integrity of the state." (Gross says he was only bringing Internet
access to Cuba.)
While the U.S. is demanding that Cuba release Gross, who visitors say is
angry and frail, having lost 110 pounds in prison, Cuban officials say
they are willing to do so only if President Barack Obama will release
the Cuban agents.
"I understand what Mr. Gross is going through," Gerardo Hernandez, 47,
the Cuban Five ringleader, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News
in October at his current home –a federal prison outside Victorville,
Calif. "I understand his sufferings and that of his family. … If an
agreement can be reached, to stop the sufferings of six families, then I
The idea of a swap—the release of Gross for Hernandez and his
confederates among the Cuban Five — faces legal and political hurdles.
An Obama administration official told NBC News that the "imprisonment of
Alan Gross, an international development worker, is not comparable in
any way to that of the five Cuban agents," noting that the Cubans were
afforded their "due process rights" and convicted of serious crimes.
Members of Congress have denounced Cuba for holding Gross "hostage" to
the release of the Cuban Five. "The Castro regime has no regard for
human rights or international law," said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez
of New Jersey, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
and frequent critic of the Castro regime. "The Cuba Five should serve
their sentences for spying."
And Hernandez, who sports a trim goatee and displays a hearty laugh
despite 14 years in prison, might not make the ideal candidate for a
pardon or commutation from Obama — a precondition for a swap to take
place. Asked if he regretted any of his actions, he smiled and said, "I
regret that I got caught." In a follow up phone interview, Hernandez
readily acknowledged that "we violated some U.S. laws" — mainly failing
to register as foreign agents with the U.S. Justice Department. "We came
here with fake passports. Fake identities." But, he added, "We act out
As Hernandez and Cuban officials tell it, the Cuban Five was not sent to
spy on the U.S. government. In fact, the members weren't accused of
stealing any U.S. secrets (although they were convicted of conducting
surveillance of U.S. military bases.) Instead, the mission of the Wasp
Network, they say, was to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups in South
Florida who Havana suspected of plotting terrorist attacks inside Cuba.
Among those attacks: the notorious bombing of Cubana Flight 455 over the
Caribbean in 1976, killing 73 passengers (including teenage members of a
Cuban national fencing team) as well as a string of hotel bombings in
Havana in 1997 that killed an Italian businessman and were believed to
have been aimed at disrupting Cuba's nascent tourist industry.
"Cuba doesn't have drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad," said
Hernandez. "They need to send people to gather information and protect
the Cuban people from these terrorist actions. … I think it's the same
feeling that Americans have that defend their country and love their
country when they go to infiltrate al-Qaida and send information here to
avoid the terrorist acts. And the U.S. has to understand that Cuba has
been involved in the war against terrorism for 50 years."
While admitting his role in spying on anti-Castro exiles —"I would do it
again," he said — Hernandez adamantly denies the most serious charge
against him: conspiracy to commit murder. His conviction on that count,
which has earned him a life sentence, was based on his alleged
complicity in the February 1996 shoot-down by a Cuban fighter jet of two
Cessna planes flown by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the
Rescue, killing four men.
The anti-Castro group had provoked Cuba by dropping anti-government
leaflets over Havana. At the trial of the Cuban Five, prosecutors
introduced messages between Hernandez and his controllers in Havana
suggesting he had prior knowledge of the shoot-down. But Hernandez
insists that prosecutors misinterpreted the messages and he knew nothing
that wasn't already public.
"No, sir, absolutely not," Hernandez replied when asked if he knew in
advance about the incident. "All I knew was what everybody knew: that
Brothers to the Rescue through the years has violated many times Cuban
air space, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba
complaining over that situation."
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly (the Parliament)
and a longtime Castro confidante, said this week in Havana that "the
Cuban government publicly, front page in our papers, months before that
incident had warned that we are not going to allow any more intrusions
into our air space. … The order, the decision (to shoot down the planes)
came from the highest level. Fidel Castro himself had said that
publicly, that he was responsible for that decision."
U.S. Appeals Court Judge Phyllis Kravitch of Atlanta concluded in 2008
that prosecutors never proved their case tying Hernandez to a plot to
shoot down the planes, but she was outvoted two to one and his
conviction on the murder conspiracy charge was upheld. Now Hernandez and
his lawyers are appealing on another ground: that hundreds of thousands
of dollars in secret U.S. government payments to anti-Castro
journalists in Miami — newly discovered through Freedom of Information
Act requests —inflamed the Miami community against the Cuban Five and
made it impossible for them for them to get a fair trial. The payments
were mostly made for appearances on Radio Marti, a TV and radio
operation funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent
agency that oversees international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S.
In court papers, lawyers for the Cuban Five have cited articles by some
of the journalists, including one that denounced the "genocidal
character" of Castro's regime and another that speculated that the real
purpose of the Wasp Network was to introduce "chemical or
bacteriological weapons" into south Florida. "This information was
spread throughout the Miami area and helped inflame the community
against these guys," said Martin Garbus, Hernandez' lawyer. "It was
total madness. … When the case was brought, the anti-Castro feeling in
the Miami area was at a fevered pitch."
U.S. prosecutors dismiss as "implausible" and "unfounded" the idea that
the Radio Marti payments were part of a U.S. government effort to
influence the jury in the Cuban Five case.
"The jury (in the case) was carefully selected, following a searching
voir dire (jury selection process) that the appellate court deemed a
high model for a high-profile case, and that the trial comported with
the highest standards for fairness and professionalism," wrote Caroline
Heck Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, in a court filing in
July asking a judge to reject Hernandez' motion for a hearing into the
payments to the journalists. She also noted, as federal prosecutors have
repeatedly done when the issue has come up, that "no Cuban-Americans –
the audience (Hernandez) hypothesizes as the target of the government
campaign he imagines—served on the jury."
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Unless Hernandez can somehow persuade a court to reopen his case – or
barring a prisoner swap with Gross — he would seem to have few options.
Rene Gonzalez, another member of the Cuban Five who was not convicted of
the conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge, was released from federal prison
on probation late last year, but has not yet been allowed to return home
to Cuba to live.
The Cubans are doing their best to ratchet up the pressure. Just as Judy
Gross has launched a public relations campaign in the United States to
free her husband, appearing at a National Press Club press conference on
Friday, this week the Cubans made Hernandez wife, Adriana, available for
an interview with NBC News. A chemist in the food industry in Havana,
she wept as she described the pain of separation from her husband – and
how it has left her unable to bear children. "Every detail, every single
moment reminds me of him," she said. "I believe there are many people in
the U.S. and the American people as a whole, who could convey to
President Obama that there is a woman here suffering."
Hernandez, too, says missing his wife is the hardest part of his life in
prison. And he has few illusions about his prospects of being freed.
"The only thing I know for sure with me is that I have two life
sentences and live with that every day," he said. "And to keep your
sanity and your mind, you have to be realistic. But I would be dishonest
to say that I don't have hope. "
Michael Isikoff is NBC News' national investigative correspondent; NBC
News Producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.