The Miami Five: Heroes of their time
Campaign News | Saturday, 5 August 2006
Cuba's "Miami Five" claim that America has jailed them for fighting terror, writes the Guardian's Duncan Campbell
It would be almost impossible to travel in Cuba and be unaware of the "Five Heroes" or the "Miami Five". Their photos stare out from roadside billboards, stickers calling for their release adorn the dashboards of Havana taxis and their names are constantly evoked by the Cuban media.
They are the current symbols of the half century of conflict between Cuba and the United States.
The five, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Rene Gonzalez were dispatched by the Cuban government in the early nineties. Their task was to infiltrate the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami, who were believed to be engaged in acts of sabotage against Cuba.
They took on different jobs, some lowly, and joined the groups, passing themselves off as part of the disgruntled diaspora anxious to remove Castro. In 1998, they were discovered, arrested, accused of being unregistered agents of the Cuban government and charged with espionage, then convicted in 2001 and given sentences ranging from 15 years to life, which they are now serving in jails in five different states. The US authorities accused them of being spies and, in one case, of conspiring to murder members of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, some of whose members had been in two planes shot down after illegally entering Cuba's airspace.
The Cubans argued that they had not had any access to classified information and that their motive had been to prevent attacks on Cuba. One of their attorneys, Leonard Weinglass, the veteran American civil rights lawyer, said: "This is the first conspiracy to commit espionage trial in our history where not a single page of classified information was involved." In the continuing war of words between the US and Cuba, the five are cited as political prisoners in response to US claims of political prisoners in Cuba.
Last year, a regional appeal court in Atlanta ruled that the men had not had a fair trial because the anti-Castro atmosphere in Miami made it impossible for the jury to reach an unbiased decision. That decision itself was appealed by the US federal authorities and not until there has been a decision on that will the men know if a retrial, probably outside Florida, will be granted.
"Everyone knows about the trial of Michael Jackson but no one knows that eight years ago a man was condemned to two life sentences plus 15 years for fighting against terrorism," said Roberto Gonzalez, a lawyer and the brother of Rene Gonzalez, one of the five. "That is one of the main problems we are facing."
Rene and Roberto were born in Chicago and the family moved back to Cuba after the revolution. Rene, a US citizen, studied aviation while Roberto studied law. Along with the other four, he agreed to go and try to penetrate Cuban exile groups that had been involved in sabotage or assassination plots against Cuba and Castro.
"What they were doing was trying to stop terrorism, which the US says it is against," said Roberto. "They even passed on information to the FBI if they knew about plans for terrorism." He said that the US offered them a chance to remain there if they cooperated. "At the very beginning, they tried to buy them with money, with houses, with a new identity...They wanted to present Cuba as a menace to the US."
Elizabeth, the wife of Ramon Labanino, said that the US's concentration on Cuba had meant that they had missed a real threat. "At the time that the FBI was trying to prosecute the five in Florida, the people who flew the planes into the twin towers on September 11 were in flying schools there," she said. "They forgot to see what was really going on there at the time."
She said that the decision to hold the trial in Miami meant that the verdict was a forgone conclusion. "Miami was the last place in the United States to have a fair trial for Cubans," she said. "The lawyers asked for a change of venue ... It was a surprise when they reversed the decision. We believe that justice in the end will prevail but we don't know when."
Meanwhile, the case of the Miami Five has taken on the same national significance in Cuba as did that of Elian Gonzalez, the boy shipwrecked off the Florida coast who became involved in a dispute between his Cuba-based father and the Miami-based relatives of his mother, who drowned during their attempt to reach the US. Elian is back in Cuba, but the fate of the five remains unclear.
Carrying the torch:
Interview with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's parliament
The man tipped to fill the void left by Fidel Castro's decision to stand down as president of Cuba speaks to Duncan Campbell about the challenges ahead
Thursday August 3, 2006
In the wake of Fidel Castro's decision to stand down, at least temporarily, as the president of Cuba, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban national assembly, is likely to have an even greater role than the one he currently occupies. It has been his voice that has been most heard since the surprise announcement was made this week.
While Raul Castro is the temporary head of state, Alarcón will have a vital part to play in the immediate future of the country. Jailed as a student leader in the 1950s before the revolution, Mr Alarcón, now 69, is currently regarded by foreign diplomats as a major player within the government. Attention has focused on him and two other government ministers, vice-president Carlos Lage and foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque, as the men who hold the key to the country's political future.
The US has just raised the stakes in its policy towards Cuba by publishing a report from their Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which provides for an initial $80m with a view to removing the current government. It refers to a "secret annexe" attached to the report which Mr Alarcón, in an interview with the Guardian, said he considered significant.
"The most important part is the very first paragraph, and the reference to a secret annexe, classified for national security reasons," he said. "You may assume that what is there - or they want you to assume is there - has to do with military intervention.
"The American government has said that they do not accept the Cuban laws about succession. Now, the only way you can substitute yourself as the sovereign of another country is by war. When they first drafted the plan, in 2003, they were happily promenading in Iraq. Even although that has changed, they keep insisting that they will not accept the succession strategy here. That proposition in itself is a threat. The only way any government can oppose the evolution of another country is by war.
"At this moment, I'm sure many people would laugh at the idea that the US would get involved in another foreign military adventure. At the same time, they haven't changed their plans one iota, so if you apply logic to that classic question - what will happen in Cuba after Castro dies? - my answer would be that US troops will land because they said they will not accept Castro being substituted.
"The direct logical consequence is that when the president of Cuba dies, there will be a foreign military intervention. It is like going back to the middle ages, when you had wars that lasted centuries."
He believes that although the US had considered earlier this year that Mr Castro could still be in power in four or five years, they are not prepared to wait.
"President Bush has said 'We are not waiting, we are acting to hasten the end of the Castro regime'. This document is to hasten the end of this government, it has nothing to do with what happens after."
Mr Alarcón said that the report, with its recommendations for tightening of the embargo and enforcement of stricter punishments for breaches of it, was an acknowledgement that it was not working in the way the US would like.
He described the $80m assigned to changing Cuba as "80m arguments in favour of the Cuban government" and claimed US-funded moles were working against the regime. "There are people here being organised, trained and directed by the US government," he said. "As long as a foreign power has such a programme regarding another country, you should expect some success for their part in finding some person who agrees to be trained in exchange for those dollars. They will find some people, very few. They haven't found millions of Cubans. If that happened in any other country, the concept would be exactly the same.
"People were sent to the electric chair in the US [for these kind of activities] and expelled from their jobs and sentenced to longer periods than Cubans. Since the very beginning, the substance of US policy was the creation of such groups. You have to be crazy to think that the Labour party or the Tory party was created by somebody from outside, they sprung from British life. These groups [of opposition] are the creation of the US."
Of jailings of those opposed to the government, he said: "I know we are criticised for that. I can say we are the only country regarding which a foreign power has established such a policy [of intervention]. Those right-wing [exile] Cubans believe that Cuba does not have the right to determine who is in charge of Cuba."
Even strong opponents of Mr Castro have acknowledged that he would have won elections, as Hugo Chávez has done in Venezuela. In which case, why not have such elections?
Mr Alarcón said that when the US policy towards Cuba was first formed in the wake of the revolution, there was little interest in promoting democracy in Latin America, where many countries were run by military dictatorships.
"They did say, as early as 1959, that Mr Castro had the support of the vast majority of people, and they had to undermine that support by denying money and exports to cause hunger and unemployment and massive suffering," he said.
"At some moment, US rhetoric changed to talk of democracy. With due respect to Europeans, the problem is that their perspective is Eurocentrist, they believe that the world should be interpreted through a European lens, a colonial mentality that the world should fit into that pattern, as if the rest of the world was living in Switzerland or Scandinavia. Bush pretends to transform Afghanistan into Kansas.
"For me, the starting-point is the recognition that democracy should begin with Pericles's definition - that society is for the benefit of the majority - and should not be imposed from outside. I love Pericles's definition - he was a Greek, a European, an Athenian. When he was speaking at one of the famous battles, he defended the system - according to Thucydides [that is], I wasn't there!
"We are a democracy. The kind of organisation that works for the interests of the majority. Two thousand five hundred years later I can say that works pretty well, except in our case there are no slaves and no barbarians excluded from the system. How can we accept [what the US has] as a dogma that has to be introduced everywhere?"
Why are people wary about talking to the foreign media? "You are probably right that people here are more suspicious about foreign journalists," he admitted. "Unfortunately, they have not had a very good experience, but the so-called dissidents are not shy in talking to the press. I lived in New York for 14-and-a-half years - I love New York - but there, if you try to stop anyone on the street, ask them what the time is the answer was 'Go to hell, don't bother me' because they were very pressed."
One of the long-festering grievances between Cuba and the US is the status of Guantánamo, and its use for holding suspects without charge or trial. "Cuba has been denouncing the military occupation of that bay for years but millions of people now know that in Cuba there is this place, because of the torture," he said. "I believe that this should move towards the real solution, the end of the illegal occupation of a foreign land.
"The first demand should be to put an end to the torture and close down the facility, and when we reach that moment we should not say, 'Oh, fine, the torture chambers are closed down', because at any other moment they could decide to put some people there."
He said that he remained optimistic about the future, that commercial pressure would be generated inside American society for an end to the embargo which has now been in existence since 1961, and that what had happened in Iraq would mean that the US approach would be "less unilateralist, less crusaders".
"Bush said that when he was young the enemy was clear, it was the Soviet Union," he said. "Now he says we cannot identify the enemy. So you end up fighting everybody and you end up fighting yourself - like a scorpion."
The Guardian: 638 ways to kill Castro
The CIA's outlandish plots to bump off the Cuban dictator would put 007 to shame reports Duncan Campbell
Thursday August 3, 2006
For nearly half a century, the CIA and Cuban exiles have been trying to devise ways to assassinate Fidel Castro, who is currently laid low in Cuba following an operation for intestinal bleeding. None of the plots, of course, succeeded, but, then, many of them would probably be rejected as too fanciful for a James Bond novel.
Fabian Escalante, who, for a time, had the job of keeping El Commandante alive, has calculated that there have been a total of 638 attempts on Castro's life. That may sound like a staggeringly high figure, but then the CIA were pretty keen on killing him. As Wayne Smith, former head of the US interests section in Havana, pointed out recently, Cuba had the effect on the US that a full moon has on a werewolf. It seems highly likely that if the CIA had had access to a werewolf, it would have tried smuggling it into the Sierra Maestra at some point over the past 40-odd years.
The most spectacular of the plots against Castro will be examined in a Channel 4 documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro, as well as in a companion book of the same name written by the now-retired Escalante - a man who, while in his post as head of the Cuban secret service, played a personal part in heading off a number of the plots. While the exploding cigar that was intended to blow up in Castro's face is perhaps the best-known of the attempts on his life, others have been equally bizarre.
Knowing his fascination for scuba-diving off the coast of Cuba, the CIA at one time invested in a large volume of Caribbean molluscs. The idea was to find a shell big enough to contain a lethal quantity of explosives, which would then be painted in colours lurid and bright enough to attract Castro's attention when he was underwater. Documents released under the Clinton administration confirm that this plan was considered but, like many others, did not make it far from the drawing-board. Another aborted plot related to Castro's underwater activities was for a diving-suit to be prepared for him that would be infected with a fungus that would cause a chronic and debilitating skin disease.
One of the reasons there have been so many attempts on his life is that he has been in power for so long. Attempts to kill Castro began almost immediately after the 1959 revolution, which brought him to power. In 1961, when Cuban exiles with the backing of the US government tried to overthrow him in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the aim was to assassinate Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara. Two years later, on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, an agent who had been given a pen-syringe in Paris was sent to kill Castro, but failed.
On one occasion, a former lover was recruited to kill him, according to Peter Moore, producer of the new film. The woman was given poison pills by the CIA, and she hid them in her cold cream jar. But the pills melted and she decided that, all things considered, putting cold cream in Castro's mouth while he slept was a bad idea. According to this woman, Castro had already guessed that she was aiming to kill him and he duly offered her his own pistol. "I can't do it, Fidel," she told him.
No one apparently could. This former lover is far from the only person to have failed to poison Castro: at one point the CIA prepared bacterial poisons to be placed in Castro's hand-kerchief or in his tea and coffee, but nothing came of it. A CIA poison pill had to be abandoned when it failed to disintegrate in water during tests.
The most recent serious assassination attempt that we know of came in 2000 when Castro was due to visit Panama. A plot was hatched to put 200lb (90kg) of high explosives under the podium where he was due to speak. That time, Castro's personal security team carried out their own checks on the scene, and helped to abort the plot. Four men, including Luis Posada, a veteran Cuban exile and former CIA operative, were jailed as a result, but they were later given a pardon and released from jail.
As it happens, Posada is the most dedicated of those who have tried and failed to get rid of the Cuban president. He is currently in jail in El Paso, Texas, in connection with extradition attempts by Venezuela and Cuba to get him to stand trial for allegedly blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976. His case is due to come back before the courts later this month but few imagine that he will be sent to stand trial, and he appears confident that he will be allowed to resume his retirement in Florida, a place where many of the unsuccessful would-be assassins have made their homes.
Not all the attempts on Castro's life have been fancifully complicated: many have been far simpler and owe more to the methods of the mafia who used to hang out in the casinos and hotels of Havana in the 40s and 50s, than they do to James Bond. At one time the CIA even approached underworld figures to try to carry out the killing. One of Castro's old classmates planned to shoot him dead in the street in broad daylight much in the manner of a mafia hit. One would-be sniper at the University of Havana was caught by security men. But the shooters were no more successful than the poisoners and bombers.
Officially, the US has abandoned its attempt to kill its arch-enemy, but Cuban security are not taking any chances. Any gifts sent to the ailing leader as he lies ill this week will be carefully scrutinised, just as they were when those famous exploding cigars were being constructed by the CIA's technical services department in the early 60s. (They never got to him, by the way, those cigars contaminated with botulinum toxin, but they are understood to have been made using his favourite brand. Castro gave up smoking in 1985.)
All these plots inevitably changed the way Castro lived his life. While in his early years in office, he often walked alone in the street, but that practice had to change. Since then doubles have been used, and over the decades Castro has moved between around 20 different addresses in Cuba to make it harder for any potential hitmen to reach him.
Meanwhile, jokes about Castro's apparent indestructibility have become commonplace in Cuba. One, recounted in the New Yorker this week, tells of him being given a present of a Galapagos turtle. Castro declines it after he learns that it is likely to live only 100 years. "That's the problem with pets," he says. "You get attached to them and then they die on you".