Fernando González, the second of the Cuban Five to be released from prison, has been in Masaya as part of the campaign on behalf of the other three, who have been incarcerated since 1998. On Saturday afternoon a small room packed with about 300 people saw him receive the freedom of the city from the mayor, Orlando Noguera. For a man who’s spent 17 years in various US penitentiaries (he left the last one in February), he’s remarkably composed and gentle, obviously sincere in campaigning for the release of his colleagues.
That the Five should have been imprisoned at all is the product of a bizarre sequence of events in which justice was turned on its head. While the anti-Castro politics of many Miami Cubans are well known, there is less knowledge of the terrorist acts they’ve carried out, the worst of which was the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 78 people. Frustrated at the unwillingness of the US authorities to prevent these crimes, in the 1990s the Castro government recruited five agents to infiltrate the worst of the Miami-based cells, the ‘Brothers to the Rescue’. They succeeded, and the Cuban government presented the evidence of what they were planning to the FBI in June 1998.
Instead of acting on the evidence, however, the FBI arrested the Five for conspiring to commit espionage and ‘related offences’ against the US. After being held for 17 months in solitary confinement, their seven-month trial was held (against their petitions) in the hostile atmosphere of Miami. They were sentenced to lengthy periods in prison including – in the case of Gerardo Hernández – two life sentences. For much of the time the Cuban Five haven’t even had the freedom to receive prison visits from family members. For example, Olga, the wife of René González who was released first in 2011, was only allowed to see him once in 13 years.
Appeals in 2005 briefly resulted in the verdicts against the Five being overturned, before that decision was itself reversed following a government appeal. Some of the sentences were reduced, but Gerardo’s was confirmed. He and the other two remaining prisoners, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, still have pending appeals.
Hernández’s life sentences result from the accusation, never properly proved, that he was engaged in helping the Cuban air force shoot down aircraft in international waters. This relates to an incident in 1996, when two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down, ignoring warnings from the Cubans and from the Federal Aviation Administration. Whether they were in international waters or in Cuban airspace is still disputed, but the history of prior attacks by members of Brothers is not. In the 1960s, their leader José Basulto, who escaped in a third plane, began his terrorist career by firing a 20mm cannon at a beachside hotel in the Cuban resort of Miramar, from a vessel offshore.
Fernando’s visit takes place at a time when there is a new opportunity for the release of the Five. Calls for warmer relationships between the USA and Cuba have grown, exemplified by two extraordinary editorials in the New York Times. One called for recognition of Cuba’s role in tackling Ebola, and another only this month called for a prisoner swap for the Five. This links the Five to the case of US citizen Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba in 2011 on spying charges. The Times even published a timeline to remind readers of the key events in the two cases. Gross, now 65, has failing health yet faces 12 more years in prison. Rightly, his family have been urging the Obama government, who financed his clandestine activities, to do more to get him out.
The key to progress must lie in Obama’s remaining period in office, since neither a new Republican president nor a Democratic successor such as Hillary Clinton would likely be disposed towards warmer relations with Cuba. Obama, however, has it in his power to take a huge step to improve relations not just with Cuba but with the rest of Latin America. Doing so would also be a genuine humanitarian gesture to rescue four men who are festering in jail.