Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    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

    Havana

    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

    NBC News

    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 , 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

    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 ,

    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

    welcome it."

    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

    of necessity.,"

    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 bombings in

    Havana in 1997 that killed an Italian businessman and were believed to

    have been aimed at disrupting Cuba's nascent 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

    through the years has violated many times Cuban

    air space, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba

    complaining over that situation."

    , 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. 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.

    government.

    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 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 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.

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