An interview with Gerardo Hernandez
Campaign News | Thursday, 14 May 2009
By Saul Landau
US film maker Saul Landau is making a film about the five and carried out an in depth interview with Gerardo Hernandez on 1 April 2009.
Before his 1998 arrest, Gerardo directed the operations of the other Cuban State Security agents who infiltrated violent groups in the Miami area for the purposes of stopping them from carrying out terrorist attacks on tourist sites in Cuba.
Saul Landau: What was your mission and why?
Gerardo Hernandez: In the U.S. in general and Florida specifically, many groups contemplated and carried out acts of terrorism in Cuba. We were collecting information on Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue. Many years have passed and I hope that nothing has escaped me but I think those were the principal groups in which we working [infiltrating].
Landau: What did you learn through your infiltration?
Hernandez: The first thing that struck me was the impunity with which these groups operated, violating the laws of the U.S.: The Neutrality Acts [of the 1790s] that supposedly means no organization can use American soil to commit terrorism against another country.
In the case of Alpha 66, the operatives would take a fast boat and shoot at targets along Cuba’s coast. When they would return to Miami, they would hold a press conference and openly say what they had done.
And when someone would ask, “Hey, doesn’t that violate the neutrality laws,” they would reply: “Not really, because first we went to one of the Keys somewhere in the Caribbean and then we went to Cuba. So technically, we didn’t leave from the U.S.” They did this openly and no U.S. agency took responsibility.
Landau: In what years?
Hernandez: This has been going on since 1959. I personally began dealing with this in the 1990s. Since I’ve been here in prison in Victorville [California] about 3 years ago, I think in 2005 they arrested a Cuban right here in this county with an arsenal, all kinds of weapons in his house. And the first thing he said was, “Well, I am a member of Alpha 66 and I’m using these weapons in the struggle for Cuban freedom.” That was his defense.
Landau: Were the Cuban Five all volunteers? How does one prepare to infiltrate an enemy group in an enemy country? And then act as if you were enemies of your country and friends of them?
Hernandez: Yes, all volunteers. In my case, I’m not a career military man. I studied to be a diplomat. It took me 6 years to complete my degree in International and Political Relations. Afterwards, I went to Angola, as part of a voluntary international mission. And while I was in Angola it seems I sparked the attention of the Cuban intelligence services, and when I got back, they approached me with this mission. They said, “We know you studied to be a diplomat, but you know our country has a certain situation with these terrorist groups that are coming from Florida to commit all kinds of crimes and we need someone to go and fulfill these tasks.”
I could have said “No, I studied diplomacy, I want to be a diplomat,” but Cubans, those who were raised with the Revolution, know that during the past 50 years our country has faced almost a war environment. In Cuba, he who doesn’t know personally a victim of terrorism, at least knows about the plane that exploded over Barbados, killing 73 people [October 1976]. Who doesn’t know about the bomb [in 1997] that killed Fabio di Celmo [an Italian tourist and guest at Havana’s Hotel Copacabana detonated by a Salvadoran who said he was hired by Luis Posada] just to mention a few acts? There was a pre-school where the counter revolutionaries lit a [gas] tank on fire. These actions are part of the Cuban conscience. So, I told the Intelligence officers, “Yes, I am prepared to fulfill this mission.”
Landau: How did you manage to infiltrate these groups? How did you convince them, people like Jose Basulto [head of Brothers to the Rescue], for example?
Hernandez: For Cubans in this country, everything is connected. Cubans in the United States have enormous privileges, ones that no other citizens of the world have. Cubans arrive by any route, including with false passports, and the only thing they have to say is, “I come seeking freedom,” and right away the U.S. gives them all the documents they need. So, in the case of Basulto, for example, one of our comrades who infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue had originally “stolen” a plane from Cuba. Rene [Gonzalez, another of the Cuban Five] flew his plane here and, as is the custom, he was received as a hero. He got lots of attention and, later joined the Brothers. His job was collecting information about that organization.
So, if you ask me how, I say that we used as our foundation for infiltration the very privileges all Cubans receive when they arrive in this country; even those who took others with them, and have hijacked airplanes, or have put a gun up to a pilot’s head. Look at people like Leonel Matias, who [in 1994 he hijacked a boat in Cuba and killed a naval officer in the process] killed someone on a boat, arrived here on that boat, with his gun -- and the body was even discovered. But despite all of that, he didn’t have to face any processes in the U.S. justice system. Those people are automatically pardoned. So using exactly that kind of advantage, we were able to penetrate to a certain level, these organizations.
When I mention Brothers to the Rescue, some might think, “This is a humanitarian organization that rescued balseros [rafters].” On the contrary, while their activities were limited to rescuing balseros, they had no problems with the Cuban authorities. What people tend to not know is that Jose Basulto, the head of that organization, has a long record? He trained with the CIA, and infiltrated Cuba in the 1960s. In 1962, he came to Cuba on a fast boat and fired shells at the Cuban coast, including targeting a hotel. Even Basulto, with all his known history, had no problems while he limited his actions to rescuing balseros. In 1995, however, the United States and Cuba signed migratory agreements specifying that boats intercepted at sea would no longer be brought to the United States; rather they would be returned to Cuba. At that point, people stopped contributing money to Basulto and his organization because, they said: “Why are we going to give money to Basulto’s organization? When he calls the coast guard, they are just going to return those balseros to Cuba?”
So, when Basulto saw his business in danger, he invented this invasion [in 1995] of Cuban airspace as a way to keep people donating money. We presented this evidence in our case. If the press hasn’t wanted to pay much attention to this ? well, they don’t want to touch such material.
It doesn’t behoove them. I am referring to the corporate press. The documents are all there showing how Basulto and the Brothers to the Rescue were trying out handmade weapons in order to introduce them in Cuba.
When Basulto testified at our trial , our attorneys asked him what he intended to do with all those weapons. All this is in the trial record, though no one seems to want to pay attention to it. People tend to talk about the Brothers to the Rescue as if they were a humanitarian organization, omitting the part about terrorism; like they omit the facts that the FBI had penetrated that organization as well. The FBI had someone inside the group giving them information on the Brothers’ activities. Why would the FBI penetrate a humanitarian organization?
Saul Landau: Did you personally meet any of the terrorists, as you call them?
Gerardo Hernandez: No, I saw some of them. But I had no contact with them. Some of us [the five] were accused of being illegal agents. I had a false identity -- Manuel Viramonte. I compiled information the other agents delivered to me, those who had maintained their own identities, like Rene Gonzalez. He kept his own name. He stole an airplane from Cuba. Someone like that can count on gaining the trust of, and can approach an organization. Not so in my case, since I didn’t even have a real story. So my mission was to compile information the others gave me, and send it to Cuba.
Landau: During the day you worked as a graphic artist?
Hernandez: I was more of an independent contractor. At least that was the [cover] story. I did a few illustrations for a newspaper, but it was just to maintain the image.
Landau: So you supervised those who had infiltrated violent groups? Explain how you did this.
Hernandez: It’s not appropriate to give too many details, right? But in the trial documents it shows we had agents with access to these [terrorist] organizations. Their function was to protect Cuba by learning countless pieces of information regarding terrorist plans of these organizations.
For example, Rene joins the Brothers to the Rescue and he hears a comment from Basulto that they have a weapon ready to test on targets in the Everglades. They fire it and it works. Now they try to find a place in Cuba to fire it. Well, I’m alerted through previously arranged methods of communication, like a beeper. I’d call him and with coded language we’d arrange to meet. We’d take precautions and meet and he’d tell me about them testing this weapon.
Or, Alpha 66 is planning an expedition to fire weapons at the Cuban coast or they want to put a bomb on a plane full of tourists going from Central America to Cuba. I’m not making this up. I’d try to encourage them to find out more while not taking unnecessary risks. I then sent this information to Cuba and Cuba would respond telling me to do this or that, to seek information through this means or that. Basically, that was my job.
Landau: Describe what happened the day the FBI arrested you.
Hernandez: It was a Saturday [September 12, 1998]. I was sleeping. It was about 6 a.m. I lived in a small, one-room apartment. My bed was close to the door. I remember hearing in my sleep someone trying to force open the lock. I heard a loud sound as they knocked the door down. It was a swat team. By the time I sat up in bed, I was surrounded by people with machine guns and helmets and all you would see in the movies. They arrested me, handcuffed me, and looked in my mouth. I guess they had seen a lot of James Bond movies and they thought I would have cyanide in my mouth. So, they checked to make sure that I wouldn’t poison myself. I asked them why they arrested me. They said, “You know why.” They put me in a car and took me to the office of the head of the Southern Florida FBI Bureau on 163rd Ave. here in Miami. There, the interrogation began.
We were put in separate offices, each one of us. They sat me in an office, handcuffed me to the wall. There, they interrogated me. I had the “honor” that Hector Pesquera came to see me. He was the director of the South Florida branch of the FBI, and he was Puerto Rican. And my assumed identity, Manuel Viramonte, was Puerto Rican, too. I told him I was from Puerto Rico and so he started to ask me questions about Puerto Rico. All kinds of questions. Who was the governor in such-and-such a year? Where did you live? What bus did you take to get to school? What route did you take? And when he saw that I was able to answer these questions he got really upset. He slammed his fist into the table and said, “I know you are Cuban and you are going to rot in prison because Cuba isn’t going to do anything for you.”
Then, not him specifically, but the others who took part in the interrogation, started to try all sorts of techniques. They would say to me, “You know how this business works. You know that you are an illegal official. You know what it says in the books, that Cuba will never recognize that they sent you here with a fake passport. They’ll never recognize you, so you will rot in prison. The best thing you can do is cooperate with us and we’ll offer you whatever you want. We will change your identity, give you a new bank account.” They said whatever, so that I would rat on the others. They would say, “Here is the phone. Call your Consulate.” Strategies designed to get me to turn. This is what happened to all 5 of us separately. Later, they took us to the prison, the Center of Federal Detention in Miami, and put us in “the hole.”
Landau: For how long?
Hernandez: 17 months. The first five were hard for the 5 of us, of course. Those with false identities didn’t have anyone to write to; nor did anyone write to us; no one to telephone. Sometimes, we were allowed phone calls. The guards would open the little window in the door, and put the phone there. “Aren’t you going to call anyone? Your family in Puerto Rico?”
“No,” I would say, “I’m not going to call.”
“But why?” they’d say, to be cruel, because they knew I wasn’t Puerto Rican and wouldn’t use the phone. Those were difficult months.
Landau: Describe “the hole?”
Hernandez: It’s an area that every prison has, where they put prisoners for disciplinary, or for protective purposes if they can’t be with the rest of the population. The Miami cell was on the 12th floor. The cells are for 2 people, but we were alone in ours, individually for the first 6 months - with no contact. Later, our lawyers took legal measures so that we could meet in pairs. In those first 6 months in “solitary confinement,” we had a shower inside the cell so you can bathe whenever you want. But you get everything in the cell wet when you take a shower. You’re in the cell 23 hours a day, and one hour a day of recreation where they take you to another place. In Miami, it was practically just another cell, but a bit bigger and with this grid through which you could see a little piece of the sky. You could tell if it was day or night, and a bit of fresh air would come through. That was what they called “recreation.” But often we didn’t go because they’d take too long handcuffing you, checking your body, your cell, to get you there and back. Sometimes, they’d put us all together in the cell; so during that hour we could talk. The regimen was strict. They used to punish prisoners who commit a serious indiscipline.
There we were 23, some times 24 hours a day, inside those 4 small walls, with nothing to do. It’s very difficult from a humane point of view. And many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds, start screaming.
Landau: Did you do something bad?
Hernandez: No, we were sent there from the beginning. They told us it was to protect us from the general population. But in my opinion, it had more to do with their attempt to get us to turn. After fear and intimidation didn’t work they thought, “Well let’s put them in solitary for a few months and see if they change their minds.”
The only thing to read was the Bible, and even for that, you had to submit a written request to the chaplain. I made the request, to have something to read, and got a bible. When they brought it to me -- I don’t know if it was a coincidence or what -- it had some cards inside, including the telephone numbers of the FBI. Just in case I had forgotten, right? As if, “Well, this communist guy is asking for the Bible?he must be about to turn.”
That’s how I imagine they were thinking, or scheming.
Saul Landau: Later you went to prison at Lompoc [California]?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes, we had a legal battle to get us out of “the hole” and into the general population. Then came the trial, and after the trial, another month back in “the hole.” Then, after the sentencing, they sent us to different penitentiaries. I was sent to Lompoc in 2003, and into “the box.” That happened in all 5 prisons on the same day. It still isn’t clear why, or who gave the order. Lompoc is a very old prison, apart from “the hole,” which is where they send people who attack guards or set fire to mattresses; for the incorrigible, “the box,” a basement below “the hole” -- 10 double-doored cells. They put me down there, in my underwear, barefoot for a month. I didn’t know if it was day or night, because you’re inside for 24 hours.
There’s no hour of recreation or anything. A leak dripped from the cell above. Whenever that person flushed the toilet, dirty water would run down my cell’s walls.
I complained about health dangers. But they had planned to keep us there for one year for “special administrative measures.” They had warned me I wouldn’t have any contacts, no visits, no nothing. To communicate with my lawyer, I had to submit a letter. I had to make an envelope out of a piece of paper, and seal it with toothpaste. Nothing to read, nothing to write with, nothing! That was quite a difficult month. They [prison authorities] told us we’d be there for a year, and at the end of that year they’d review our cases; we could be there indefinitely. When the guards planned to take me for a bath 3 or 4 guards would handcuff me. The other cells had their exterior doors open. The interior door was like a closed fence, but the iron exterior door that isolated you completely, was left open, so people wouldn’t go crazy. But mine was always closed. When they’d take me to shower, they’d close the other doors so no one would even see me -- because one of the rules was that I could have contact with no one. I was there for a month, not knowing if it was day or night, dirty water running down my walls, barefoot, with the light on 24 hours a day; hearing screams of people around me, some of whom gone crazy. One day, a Thursday, they brought me papers to sign, saying I would be there for one year. The following Tuesday, without explanation, just as they’d brought me there without knowing anything, they took me out. We found out that lots of people had protested outside the prison. Members of Congress had inquired about us.
Landau: Under what pretext were you thrown in “the box?” How did you keep sane?
Hernandez: Pretext? None. The lieutenant who took me to the hole asked me: “Why are you going to the hole?” I said, “You’re asking me? You should be telling me.” When I asked they’d tell me, “Orders from above.” Coincidentally, this took place a month before we were to present our appeals, when we most needed contact with our lawyers on finalizing the appeal documents. We [the five] went to “the hole,” a mysterious coincidence, right before our appeal.
How could I stand it? We were acutely aware of the wide support from people trying to get us justice. That really affected us. We knew Cuba would protest, but also that friends throughout the world, including in this country, would do everything possible to free us. We did get out of the hole, finally. Indeed, protests took place in many countries, and in front of the Bureau of Prisons. Such actions really give you hope, strength. And you know you can’t turn on your comrades? people who wouldn’t fail you and hope you won’t fail them. So, you spend all day thinking: “Nothing can happen to me in here, I can’t have a panic attack, a nervous breakdown, I cannot yield, not even a little bit because too many people out there will hold that against me.” That gives you strength.
Landau: Did you think about your family?
Hernandez: The U.S. government won’t give her [wife] a visa to visit me -- for 10 years. Denying me the chance to see my wife is part of this process; the interrogation, incentives to betray, months of solitary confinement, The FBI’s or Administration’s plans didn’t materialize. Initially, they thought: “Arrest these Castro agents, threaten them and they’ll grovel, because this is the richest and best country in the world. Cuba is a poor country, a dictatorship?” For the past 50 years, they’ve told Americans, “Cuba is hell -- but you can’t go there to see for yourself.”
Americans are free to do many things, but not travel 90 miles to visit that country to check the government’s claims. They planned for ‘the 5’ to switch sides, create this fantastic propaganda show: we’d denounce whatever they thought we should denounce, condemn the revolution; like they do with defecting athletes or musician. All you have to say is: “I come here seeking freedom.” The government squeezes the maximum from them; then they’re forgotten. That was more or less the plan for us, but it didn’t work. In retaliation they were going to make our lives as difficult as possible. For 10 years. Prisoners e-mail their families. They don’t let me use e-mail, not even with my wife.
Landau: What did Cuba do to the United States to deserve punishment for 50 years?
Hernandez: Cuba’s biggest “crime”: its desire to be a sovereign and independent nation. History goes back beyond 50 years. Cuba was winning the independence war against Spain [1895-98], when the United States said: “This is no good for us!” Suddenly and mysteriously, the USS Maine explodes [in Havana Harbor], the pretext for U.S.
intervention to defeat Spain. Then they put the Platt Amendment in Cuba’s constitution [allowing U.S. intervention].
Go back much further: Cuba, the ripe fruit, would fall into U.S. hands; Cuba is in the U.S.’ backyard. That little island suffers the misfortune of being 90 miles from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba refused to be the U.S. spa and brothel like in the good old days when marines urinated on the Jose Marti statue. Those times remain present in the minds of Cubans. Cuba’s worst crime is to be free and sovereign -- without the U.S. Ambassador dictating as he did for about half a century.
That’s why Cuba cannot be forgiven; for wanting to have its own system. Remember they [U.S. companies] owned the casinos, industries, best land; they practically owned the country. That ended in 1959; something for which they can’t forgive us.
Landau: You’re being punished as a symbol of “disrespect?”
Hernandez: Yes, but there’s another fundamental element, in my opinion. The FBI was in an uncomfortable position, because it became known that the FBI had penetrated the Brothers to Rescue using Juan Pablo Roque [another Cuban intelligence agent]. He was their agent; they paid him to give them information. When this came out, the FBI looked bad to the extreme right wingers in Miami. The FBI looked for a scapegoat, so they could say: “We nabbed these five guilty ones.”
Landau: What did Brothers to the Rescue hope to achieve with your trial?
Hernandez: Mainly, an economic goal. Some of them have legitimate political views and are patriots in their own way, but many are in it for economic reasons. The anti-Castro industry is a multi-million dollar industry. For 50 years, people have lived off it: radio commentators to heads of the 3,500 organizations sucking up federal money to “achieve freedom in Cuba;” or taking donations from the elderly to buy arms for the “liberation of Cuba.” It never occurred to [Jose] Basulto to fly into Cuban airspace while people were giving him money to patrol the waters off Florida. He’d bought a few small planes with that donated money. When people stopped giving -- why would they do so if the Coast Guard would send rafters back to Cuba -- he thought, “I better invent something else.” That’s when he started flying into Cuban airspace? to keep money coming in.
Also, in my opinion, Basulto, who is intelligent, may have wanted to provoke a serious conflict. They dream of the day the U.S. Army would wipe those revolutionaries off the planet. Upon those ashes they’d rebuild their own Cuba; the Cuba they had before the revolution. What they haven’t been able to do, the U.S. Army would do for them. That’s why they call the Bay of Pigs a “betrayal.” They thought the U.S. Army would support them at the Bay of Pigs. That was Kennedy’s betrayal. So, I don’t doubt Basulto intended to create an international conflict. It didn’t matter how many Cubans or Americans would die. All that mattered was getting their country back, what they consider to be their country.
Landau: In Miami, there was a rumor: Basulto was a Cuban agent. All his missions ended in failure or disaster.
Hernandez: That second part is true, but the first part? I doubt it. It’s a shame that lives were lost [after the February 1996 shoot down of Brothers’ planes] but I assure you Cuba did everything possible to prevent it. They sent 16 diplomatic notes through official channels, asking the U.S. not to allow The Brothers to fly into Cuban airspace.
Saul Landau: In Angola, in Africa, what did you do?
Gerardo Hernandez: I went as second-in-command in a scout platoon. First, our class received general training. Then we joined different units throughout Angola. I was placed in Cabinda, in the 10th Tank Brigade, 11th tactical group. The lieutenant left and I became platoon leader until his replacement arrived. Our mission was to explore a part of the north of Angola, very close to the Congo, a combination of jungle and desert. To protect our troops we scouted the area around the unit, looking for indications of enemy activity. We would explore, along with the combat engineers, and inspect the roads our unit’s vehicles used.
For example, we used a well to get the unit’s water, and our trucks had to drive there. To prevent the enemy from placing mines, we patrolled the area with combat engineers to locate mines.
I was there from 1989 to 1990. The press has said that I did combat missions. There’s a big difference between a combat mission and a combat action. The scouting platoon accomplished its mission without getting into combat. We completed 64 combat missions but I never had any combat action. Despite it being the last phase of Cuban collaboration in Angola, I had comrades who did encounter enemy mines.
Landau: Could you speak about living in Miami? How does life compare with Havana?
Hernandez: I come from Havana, between La Guinera and Vieja Linda. There are so many differences. The first thing that comes to mind is the material difference. But what most struck me wasn’t material. For example, in Cuba people live with their doors open to their neighbors and they know practically everyone in the neighborhood. At 8 at night your child could be outside playing.
So you yell from the doorway for the kids to come in and eat, or bathe. They live with the assurance of knowing no one will be selling their child drugs or kidnapping him. In my apartment building in Miami, even though I was there for years, I recognized some neighbors; but people live with their doors closed. It’s such a different environment. In Cuba, if you see a baby out with the parents, even if you don’t know that baby, you say, “Oh what a beautiful baby!” And you pat him on the head and pick him up?and this is normal. Not here. You have to be really careful about that kind of thing here. Also, there were certain Miami neighborhoods where all the inhabitants or a large percentage of them are of one race. And people tell you, “Be careful, don’t go there because you look white and that’s a black neighborhood with gangs.”
That shocked me because in Cuba we live in a complete mixture. The other thing I noticed -- reading Cuban history, and from stories my relatives had told me, you see people like Esteban Ventura, the famous Batista police torturer who came to Miami after the triumph of the revolution. So, you can walk on the same streets where these people had strolled freely.
Several times I heard Orlando Bosch speaking, and saw him up close, knowing he was one of those who ordered a bomb put on a Cuban airplane, that killed 73 people . Such experiences ? well, it’s hard to describe. I’m talking about my personal experiences. But the other four had enormous experiences as well, if not more.
Their experiences were very similar to mine. They weren’t in the same “hole” as me in Lompoc, but theirs was just as bad or worse.
One small detail about Miami. In that “environment” of fear and intimidation, of profiteering, of the “Just give me money and we’ll bring down Castro” extortion they [refers to exiles like Guillermo Novo and Pedro Remon who used their violent reputations to collect money. Both collaborated with Luis Posada in an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in Panama in 1999] sometimes use against their enemies, within all that moral bankruptcy, I noticed many Cubans, or Cuban Americans including those born here, and other Latinos as well -- struggling so Cuba and the United States can have a better relationship; a mutually respectful relationship, rid of the intrigue, confusion and tensions. It really struck me because I know they are risking their lives to do this.
Negrin [Eulalio, assassinated by Omega 7 in New Jersey 1979] lost his life because he opposed them. Replica Magazine (edited by Max Lesnik) opposed the prevailing hard line], the Marazul [charter company flying to Cuba from Miami] office [both bombed]. All the bombings of people, victims, just because they desired a more respectful U.S.-Cuba relationship, like Cubans here being able to travel to Cuba to spend time with their families there. It was like a ray of hope knowing not everyone in Miami was confined inside the atmosphere of that asphyxiating, recalcitrant, overbearing mafia, but that there are many good people as well.
Landau: Hector Pesquera [FBI Bureau Chief, Miami] interrogated you. What was his motivation in your opinion?
Hernandez: I don’t know if he wanted a promotion, or some other benefit, maybe even an economic benefit. He has moved to the private sector. Ports and Airports Advisor, I think. I do know he wanted to win favor with those who control the “Republic of Miami.” As I told you, the FBI’s reputation was shaky there, after the Roque and the Brothers to the Rescue experiences.
Listen to the call-in radio shows. People complained: “The FBI has betrayed us!” “They were spying on the Brothers to the Rescue!” So I think one motivating factor was to throw a piece of meat to the beasts, to make them happy. To say to them, “You say we’ve done nothing, but look we caught these guys!” In Pesquera’s case, based on what I’ve read, it’s possible that his own convictions were pretty extremist, quite pro the Cuban American mafia. So I do think that for him it was a great pleasure. And after the trial, he and the other FBI officials celebrated with Basulto, together in their triumph. So, it wasn’t too strange.
Landau: Did you play a key role in Roque’s return? [Juan Pablo Roque, a former Cuban MiG pilot, sneaked out of Miami for Havana on February 23, 1996, the day before the two planes were shot down. Two days after the shoot down, he appeared on Cuban TV condemning Brothers to the Rescue. Roque had staged his defection in 1992 and was then recruited by and flew missions for the Brothers. Roque said the Brothers planned attacks on Cuban military bases and were going to smuggle anti-personnel weapons into Cuba and blow up high tension pylons to interrupt the energy supply. The FBI recruited Roque to inform on the Brothers. After he surfaced in Cuba, Miami radio talk show hosts denounced the FBI as communists for having hired a Cuban agent to infiltrate Brothers.]
Hernandez: Yes, I played a part [in getting Roque secretly back to Cuba]. The U.S. government wanted to show that Roque’s return was linked with the downing of the [Brothers’] planes.
That’s absolutely false. It’s well documented that Roque’s return had been planned [by Cuban State Security] for a year before that happened. Yet, that confusion persists. The prosecution cleverly removed certain communiqués from the evidence regarding Operation Venice -- Roque’s return -- and made it seem like part of Operation Scorpion, the operation to prevent violations of Cuban airspace.
One clear example is a message I sent responding to a request from Cuba saying that for me it was an honor to contribute, though in even the most minor way, to a successful mission. It is very clear in the evidence that this referred to Operation Venice, about Roque. The government used it to show I was involved with the shooting down of the planes, though they know it had nothing to do with Operation Scorpion. Our lawyer knew this, but unfortunately, because of the way this system works, we couldn’t waste time and space clarifying. The prosecution mixed the two up purposely to create a cloud. But we haven’t yet been able to clarify that point because of space and other limitations, limitations on everything. I hope at some point, it will be clarified. Though it’s not really essential because even with the confusion, it remains clear I had nothing to do with that. But I don’t want to even concede on that, because it didn’t happen that way. But yes, I played a part in Roque’s return.
Hernandez: Cuba wanted Roque back in Cuba, so he would reveal the information he had against the Brothers to the Rescue; their true intentions, explaining that they weren’t a humanitarian organization, but rather one involved in plans involving weapons.
But it couldn’t be done in time and coincidentally Roque returned [to Cuba] around the time of the shoot down [February 24, 1996].
But there’s another message in the evidence [at the trial], that Cuba told Roque to return to Miami on the 23rd or the 27th, because there were flights on those days back to Miami. And the Brothers to the Rescue flights were on the 24th. That’s clear in the evidence. So, if Roque’s return was linked to the downing of the planes, why would they tell him he could return on the 27th since everyone knew the flights were going to be on the 24th? That piece of evidence negates those who claim Roque’s return linked to the shootdown. But the government won’t touch that because it would affect their invented story. In essence, Roque had to be gotten out of there with a series of security measures and that was where we had to do our part. But I assure you that the operation to remove Roque had nothing to do with the downing of the planes. It was a completely different operation from the one that had to do with the Brothers to the Rescue.
Saul Landau: Did you talk to the prosecution?
Gerardo Hernandez: No. Everything goes through our lawyers. Initially I talked with the government lawyer [public defender]. He suggested the possibility of cooperating with the government. I don’t know if he was presenting the prosecution’s idea or not. But I told him that if he wanted to continue being my attorney we should not touch that subject again. And he never mentioned it again. Although later they [the government] offered so-called plea bargains, meaning one would admit guilt and cooperate. We rejected all such attempts. But we never had direct contact with the prosecution.
Saul Landau: Did it occur to you to cooperate, so as to escape the nightmare you’ve described?
Gerardo Hernandez: Look, we’ve been in prison for over 10 years. People who know about this case have said to me: “Cuba must have paid you lots of money to do this!” I always laugh and say: “If I had done what I did for money, I wouldn’t be here.” Because when one works for money, one works for the highest bidder. And Cuba could never pay what this country could pay. I would have accepted their [US] offers and saved myself 10 years behind bars without seeing my wife. A lot of people don’t understand; people brought up to think money means everything in life.
No, betrayal never crossed my mind. It’s so obvious that it becomes difficult to explain. It would mean not only self betrayal, as a revolutionary, but also a whole country, my family. It would mean betraying all the Cubans that in the hundred something years since the 1868 revolution, have given their lives so Cuba could be free, independent and sovereign. I was clear from the start: what I was doing was not wrong. I’m sorry I had to break some [US] laws, but it was for a greater good and absolutely necessary. So I have nothing to repent.
Saul Landau: One accusation against you: Conspiring to commit espionage. What evidence did the US government have?
Gerardo Hernandez: None. I’m accused of supervising others who were involved in that [information gathering operation]. Take Antonio [Guerrero, one of the five] for example. Antonio went to an [employment] office in Key West, where he lived, to look for a job.
A woman in the office told him about a plumber’s job at the Key West naval base. And he accepted. He didn’t seek that job. She offered it to him. We brought that employment agency woman to the trial [as a witness]. She testified she had kept insisting he take that job. Once he started working there, we informed Cuba. Cuba said: “We know that prior to a US invasion of another country, like Haiti and previously, there may be an increase in resources being deployed at that base. For example: “On a normal day there might be 12 planes. If you see 25 planes let us know because something funny is gong on.”
It was defensive. Cuba wanted to know about any extraordinary movements there. Remember, this is the base closest to Miami, where these folks [militant exiles] have so much influence. And they dream the US army will eliminate all the revolutionaries from Cuba, so they can return. So, Cuba has always had this concern.
Occasionally, Antonio would say: “There’s a bad situation on the base; there are this many planes, this many left and this many returned.” That is obviously military information. But according to US laws, it’s not espionage. Anyone driving along Route 1[in south Florida] can see how many airplanes there are; public information. There are extensive legal precedents that it’s not espionage.
The prosecution said: “You’re right, that’s not espionage. It’s conspiracy to commit espionage.”
Because some day Antonio would want clearance, so he could get another position with access to secret information.” Throughout all those years [from 1993 to 1998] that never happened. But they say it could have happened. So they stretched that charge, and convicted him. It’s possibly the only case in the United States of someone being found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage” in which the person had absolutely no access to secret information.
Saul Landau: About you knowing Brothers to the Rescue would be flying on that day? Did you know the Cuban Air Force planned to attack them, and attack them over international waters?
Gerardo Hernandez: That’s the other charge. If you had initially asked the prosecution, “What involvement did he [Gerardo] have in making that happen?” they would say, “He sent them the flight plans.” Later it was proved that I didn’t send the flight plans. The FAA, [Federal Aviation Administration] sent the flight plans. But besides that, what flight plan? Basulto had given a press conference, announcing they would be flying on February 24.
Our own lawyers even made this mistake saying: “When you sent them information regarding the flight plan?” No, I didn’t even do that. I sent absolutely no information concerning that flight. They said that out of carelessness; and even if it had happened, it would have nothing to do with anything, but it didn’t even happen. The crazy idea the prosecution invented is that not only did I know they [Cuba] were going to shoot the planes down -- I did not know that -- but I knew would do so over international waters; that Cuba was conspiring, not just to shoot down these planes invading Cuban air space, but over international waters. That’s the most absurd idea that anyone could ever invent. But the trial was held in Miami, and therefore I would be found guilty of any charge at all.
Saul Landau: Who in Cuba controls that kind of attack, MIG pilots or people on the ground?
Gerardo Hernandez: I assume it’d be Cuban Anti-Air Defense and the Armed Forces Ministry --including ground radar and the Air Force. My understanding is Fidel Castro and I believe Raul explained in detail on Cuban TV how the orders were given. I don’t have details about that because it happened while I was here. I assume the radar system, the Air Force and the high command worked together like a well-oiled machine.
Saul Landau: With Obama’s election, do you anticipate positive steps toward Cuba and your case?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. Obama, in his campaign, had the courage to say he’d be willing to talk with Cuba without preconditions. Previously in Miami, that was practically political suicide. Anyone doing that would know he’d lose the Florida Cuban vote. But he said it and I think everything US politicians say is calculated. So he knew the risk. He won without getting a majority of the Cuban vote. So he owes them nothing. He’s intelligent, and knows that 50 years of erroneous politics towards Cuba has not produced any result. So I wait, and without much hope or false expectations, for him to take more reasonable, rational measures towards Cuba. This country is moving towards a more respectful relationship with Cuba -- in the interests of both countries.
In my case, I don’t expect anything to happen. My policy has always been: expect the worst; if something good happens, I’ll be grateful. In our situation -- the 5 -- one can’t live on false hopes and illusions. I’m facing life sentences and I’m prepared. If something should change, I’d welcome it, but I can’t think in ifs.
Psychologically, you must be prepared for what will happen, not live on illusions.
Saul Landau: How do you survive each day?
Gerardo Hernandez: I spend most of the day reading and writing. I have an enormous and pleasant tragedy with correspondence. Some days I get 60, 80 letters. ?the record is 119. So imagine, just reading those letters is difficult. The days pass by incredibly fast. They help keep my mind distracted. I try to read what is published about Cuba, to keep myself current on my area of expertise, international relations. Sometimes people here ask me: “How can you read all the time?” I enjoy it. Unfortunately, I cannot answer all the letters. Some people even get mad. But it’s impossible because there are so many letters and not enough time.
Saul Landau: Do you have a message for Washington?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. If I could, I’d say: “if we are guilty of anything it is only of doing the same thing that many Americans patriots are doing right now, those in the mountains of Tora Bora searching for information about Al Qaeda, so that the acts committed on 9/11 are never repeated.”
I’m sure those people are seen here as patriots. That’s exactly what we were doing here: collecting information in Florida to impede terrorist acts in Cuba. Terrorism against Cuba is not an abstraction. Those who have died because of those acts have first and last names; acts planned with impunity here in US territory. Our only crime is the one committed by young Americans who today receive medals for it. So it’s paradoxical: a country waging a war against terrorism houses terrorists [in Florida], protects those who put bombs on planes that killed dozens of people [Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch]; and they are glorified for doing so.
I’d also like the United States to understand: Cuba is a free and sovereign country. It has the right to choose its own path, to build its own destiny, its own system. Like it or not, we Cubans are the ones to decide what we will fix, what we must change, what to do differently, and how to build our society. If we had the necessary peace to build our social system the way we have always dreamt, things would be different today.
We would have advanced much more. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the peace to be able to do that. I hope the day will come when the United States will understand that the island, small 90 miles away, has the right to choose its own destiny. I think that day will come as will the day in which American and Cuban peoples will feel more closely connected, based on mutual respect.
Saul Landau is currently making (with Jack Willis) a film on the Cuban Five. His other films are available on DVD from email@example.com . He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.