Here’s a true story. It’s about a Chicago born US citizen who has dedicated his life to fighting terrorist attacks against his country. It’s about a man that left his wife and 1 year old daughter to infiltrate renowned terrorist groups who have planned and executed many bombings and killed innocent victims, including tourists. This man worked assiduously and brilliantly in this anti-terrorist endeavour and put his life at risk to save others on many occasions. As well as providing evidence to the US state forces that helped catch and jail drug dealers and crooks he was a major part of a unit which presented a very thick file to the FBI about embedded terrorists on US territory. His reward?
He, along with four fellow members of his intelligence unit, were turned upon by a highly politicised US judicial system in South Florida and jailed by the USA, in his case for 15 years. He spent the early part of his incarceration in a solitary confinement unit usually reserved for the most violent prisoners and yet the man has never been accused of, let alone found guilty of, any violent act. Confused? Well the story is true, current and, if you are the man’s colleague Gerardo Hernandez – sentenced to two life terms and 15 years – an outcome that involves freedom in his lifetime is not planned. When I tell you that Rene Gonzalez and his four colleagues were working for Cuban intelligence to protect Cuba from terrorists based in Miami perhaps you will be less surprised. But you should be no less appalled.
There is something about sitting in the English Law Society in London’s Chancery Lane listening to this case that makes it’s facts all the more remarkable. That the facts were last week put to an International Commission of three esteemed Justices from France, South Africa and India is a good thing, for international justice has miserably failed these men to date. That the evidence includes contributions not only from the participants and their families, but from people of unquestionable international diplomatic and legal renown must surely mean that the USA will soon see sense and free the Cuban 5. We will return to the evidence later but for now, what is the case, and the International Commission about?
First let us imagine a small island of 14 million citizens just 90 miles from the Florida Keys and the southernmost coast of the world’s only remaining superpower, at least in the traditional sense. This island, Cuba, went from being a Spanish colony to an American plaything and, eventually the playground of the mob and America’s leading gangsters. Cuba was the mobs Las Vegas before Las Vegas was developed. All that changed in 1959 when Fidel Castro led a peasant revolution that, to the surprise of the watching world, drove the mob, their prostitutes and their drugs back across the Florida Straits to South Florida and Miami. Castro then declared the revolution to be a socialist revolution, some would say communist, and began to forge alliances with China and the Soviet Union, right on America’s doorstep. Those that stayed and backed Castro have remained remarkably loyal in very trying circumstances. These circumstances include a US blockade that has stymied the Cuban economy, is denounced every year in the United Nations but which America’s UN veto allows it to maintain without UN sanction. Those that left, especially those who left in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, remain hate filled and bitter towards Castro, socialist Cuba and the revolution which they are determined to overthrow using whatever means is necessary. Despite their efforts Castro’s revolution has outlasted eleven US Presidents.
It is in this context that terrorism against Cuba has been a fact of life almost since the very start in 1959. While Castro’s victory at the Bay of Pigs and the infamous missile crisis of 1963, when Khruschev and Kennedy brought the world to the nuclear brink in a game of bluff, have been written and reported on voluminously the small island’s fight against ongoing terrorism is a lonely and often silent one. And while it would be wrong to blame the US as a nation for this terrorism, the fact remains that the terrorists live, fund raise and plan their acts from South Florida and have done so for over fifty years. It is probably the case that most readers have not heard about this terrorism against Cuba, about the long list of hotel bombings, crop poisonings including precious tobacco plants, infrastructure sabotage efforts and the never ending and bizarre attempts on Fidel Castro’s life that range from exploding cigars to beard poisoning agents.
For example, you probably don’t know about the blowing out of the sky of a passenger jet in October 1976 which killed all 76 people on board. This was the worst terrorist attack on a passenger plane in all of the America’s until 9/11. The 73 passengers were mostly Cuban athletes – a fencing team whose average age was 21 to be precise – en route to the Pan American games when two terrorists planted bombs in a camera and toothpaste tube, checked their bags in, didn’t board and waited for the plane to blow to pieces and plunge into the sea killing all on board. As soon as it did so bomber Hernan Ricardo phoned his Cuban exile boss ‘ El Jefe Orlando Bosch’ back in Miami to confirm ‘a bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed’ (the three crew members may not have been viewed by Ricardo and Bosch as ‘dogs’ but they are just as dead all the same).
Those who planned this atrocity were convicted in a Venezuelan Court – long before Chavez and when that country was ultra-right wing to boot – but managed to escape and were welcomed back to Miami as heroes by George and Jeb Bush. They now live there with impunity, boasting about their murder in the slum they call ‘Little Havana’.
And if you didn’t know about that atrocity you almost certainly haven’t heard about Fabio Di Celmo. Fabio was a young Italian killed on 4 September 1997 when a bomb planted by these same terrorist groups in Havana’s Copacabana Hotel hurled a piece of shrapnel that lodged in his neck and severed his jugular. This bomb was one of dozens planted in tourist hotels by terrorists to try to kill Cuba’s then fledgling tourist industry in the mid 1990’s. Last week at the International Commission the pain was still evident in his father Guistino Di Celmo’s face and voice as he told the Judges about the day the Miami based fanatics took the life of his beautiful son. These incidents and many others are why Cuba needs and has one of the most sophisticated counter-intelligence agencies in the world. Rene Gonzalez and his four colleagues, ‘The Cuban 5’, are a key part of this agency. Even so, despite their efforts it is a little known fact that to date 3278 Cubans have been killed by terrorism against Cuba since Castro took power in 1959.
Ramsay Clarke addressed the International Commission last week. Clarke was John F. Kennedy’s first Deputy Attorney General and knows more than most about the obsessive mania of the Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s Cuba and settled in South Florida. He knows for example that they hated Kennedy almost as much as Castro for nothing more than not using USA nuclear weapons to obliterate Castro, Cuba and perhaps half the planet during the missile crisis of 1963. Clarke spoke last week in a slow American drawl that seemed to amplify his sadness at his countries behaviour towards the Cuban 5. So angry is he that not only does he say that ‘justice for the five is a great measure of justice, or the lack of it in the USA’ but he describes the five as ‘patriots who left their families to prevent crimes, prevent terrorism, before it began. If that is a crime then the law is an ass’. He believes that President Obama, a man he and many in the hall have had hope in which has been unfulfilled to date, ‘should send the five home in Airforce One with apologies from America’.
Also attending on behalf of the incarcerated Cubans was none other than European Parliament Vice President Miguel Angel Martinez. Martinez lambasted the UK Home Secretary Teresa Mays decision last week to deny Rene Gonzalez a visa to give evidence to the Commission. Rene has completed his full 15 year sentence and addressed the Commission via Skype from Havana. When the Law Society Human Rights group appealed May’s decision to the Law Courts the Judge had ‘weighed Gonzalez’s right to give evidence against the right of the Home Secretary to deny him a visa as a convicted felon’ and backed May’s decision while commenting that Gonzalez could give his evidence through telephone. Gonzalez’ wife and Daughter were however in Chancery Lane to witness two lengthy standing ovations from the watching crowd before and after he gave his evidence.
Gonzalez’s evidence could have come from any James Bond movie. He calmly told how he had ‘hijacked’ a small plane from an airfield outside Havana and flown the 90 short miles to Key West. This ‘escape to exile’ was so secret he couldn’t even tell wife Olga who, initially believing he had actually defected, threatened to end their marriage. Once in Miami he was quickly welcomed as a useful resource (he had a pilot’s license) by the real Cuban exiles. He settled down as a secret member of ‘the infiltration team’ and spent his time gathering evidence of plots to attack Cuba by exile groups.
One of these groups was called ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ (BTTR). The Group had initially been established to help spot and rescue rafters escaping Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union had plunged the island nation into profound economic difficulty. However when Castro opened the nations doors and told anyone who wanted to leave they could simply go the daring escape attempts ended. Just because BTTR’s stated reason for existing, and fundraising, had disappeared didn’t mean the group vanished however. As money, some of which was funded by drug deals that Gonzalez was spying on and passing information onto the US authorities about, continued to pour in BTTR flew another 1800 missions without spotting a single rafter. Castro’s open door policy and President Clinton’s decision to put ‘escapee’s’ in holding camps including Guantanamo Bay had stemmed the human tide. Instead BTTR engaged in increasingly reckless low level flying missions not only into Cuban airspace but actually over Havana dropping propaganda leaflets aimed at starting a counter revolution. During informal contacts (there are no full and official diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba) between the Cuban defence ministry and the White House the Cubans appealed to the US to stop these unlawful flights and, when the flights continued, made it clear that they would act if they didn’t stop.
On 24th February 1996 BTTR flew three planes towards Havana and greeted Havana air traffic control as follows, ‘For your information Havana centre our area of operations are north of Havana today. So we will be in your area and in contact with you. A cordial greeting from Brothers to the Rescue and its president, Jose Basulto, who is speaking to you’. A couple of minutes later Basulto told the Cubans that ‘we are crossing parallel 24 in five minutes and we will maintain about three to four hours in your area’. Havana warned the planes that they were entering a military zone, all recorded, but Basulto shot back ‘we are conscious we are in danger each time we cross the area south of 24, but we are ready to do it. It is our right as free Cubans’. On this occasion however Castro and the Cuban military had had enough. They scrambled 2 Cuban Airforce MIG’s and shot two of the three BTTR planes out of the sky killing those on board.
Rene and the ‘infiltration team’ were completely ignorant of these events back in Miami. But the shootings caused such anger among Cuban exiles that the US felt it had to act. As the exiles, their media and their money whipped up a frenzy the US authorities in South Florida came under pressure to find someone to blame. They looked close to home for their bodies. In fact they looked to the people who had been infiltrating these activities and passing the information back to them in the first place. Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Rene Gonzalez were ultimately arrested and charged with a number of offences. Because none of what became known as the Cuban 5 had actually ‘done’ anything, conspiracy charges were the legal means used to convict the men allied to a charge of hiding their identities (a basic requirement for intelligence agencies the world over).
Ricardo Alarcon, a respected and senior diplomat and for many years Cuba’s New York based delegate to the UN told the Commission last Friday that the ‘offence’ of ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’ was like charging someone with spying but without having proof of illegal spying. In his view all of the team’s activities were lawful and were actions which Cuba was entitled to engage in for its own defence. In case Alarcon might be accused of bias the strongest arguments on this point were made in evidence by German law Professor Norman Paech. He gave evidence, and provided a paper to the Commission, which outlined in detail how the case ‘should be judged as an international argument between Cuba and the USA, not as a case of five individuals acting alone and in an isolated way. In this regard the right of Cuba to defend itself against terrorist attack is fully enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter’ stated Paech. It will be interesting to see what the Commission has to say on this point. The Commission was also attended by renowned British lawyer Gareth Peirce.
As I sat and listened to all of this my thoughts inevitably turned to President Obama. Last week, as I planned my trip to the Commission, I had watched him tell us that Russia is ‘on the wrong side of history’ in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. Yet the President is aware of the Cuban 5 case. Surely he must be aware that if his words are to be taken seriously on Ukraine, Iran, North Korea or anywhere else that the USA must address the Cuban 5 issue. On what side of history does yet more cynical pandering by yet another White House administration to Castro’s violent enemies in South Florida put his administration? Realistically we must accept that, tragic as they are, miscarriages of justice do happen. We had our Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven abominations with Britain. In each case the Police and Justice system convicted the wrong people, for awful crimes, in an atmosphere of public hysteria. Even last week the papers in London were full of scandal about Metropolitan Police abuse against the family of Stephen Laurence, 26 years after the black youth was senselessly murdered in south London.
The test for leaders like President Obama is not to avoid inheriting such scandals. No, the test is whether they right them when they have the chance. Failure to do so leaves administrations such as his open to accusations of complicity in injustice and at the moment, President Obama has failed to act as only he now can. Maybe when the International Commission’s report is filed it will help him to realise that if his style as President is ever to be matched by substance then it’s time to free the Cuban 5. Or, as European Parliament Vice President Miguel Angel Martinez told the Commission, ‘President Obama, yes you can’!
Brendan Ogle is a Trade Union Official and activist of many years. He is the former Secretary of the ESB Group of Unions and also the former head of the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association. In 2004 Brendan’s book ‘Off The Rails’ was published, critiquing Trade Union issues in which he had been involved.
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