The so-called “Cuban Five” are agents and officers of Cuba’s foreign intelligence service convicted in 2001 of having committed crimes in the United States as part of a spy group that Cuban intelligence called the “Wasp Network.”
Cuban propaganda describes the “Cuban Five” as victims of American injustice who merely were compiling public information on U.S. nongovernmental organizations hostile to Cuba. The facts show a very different story.
In September 1988, 10 members of the Wasp Network, including the “Cuban Five,” were arrested and accused of crimes under U.S. law in connection with their covert activity in the United States in the service of Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence. Five of the accused pleaded guilty, while the “Cuban Five” fought the charges.
Three of the “Cuban Five” were living in the United States under false identities, with fraudulent identity documents, and had explicit escape instructions provided by Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence, including backup false identities and documentation.
The open, public seven-month-long trial of the five conclusively established that three of them (Gerardo Hernandez and two men who now claim their true identities are Ramon Labaniño and Fernando Gonzalez) were “illegal officers” of Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence. The three were career intelligence officers who came to the United States under false identities, using fraudulent documentation and “legends” – elaborate, false life stories ascribed to those identities. They lived in the United States, secretly implementing Directorate of Intelligence operations while pretending to be ordinary U.S. citizens. The three “illegal officers” supervised the covert work of other U.S.-based agents of the Directorate of Intelligence – including the other two members of the “Cuban Five,” Antonio Guerrero and René Gonzalez, who are U.S. citizens.
During the trial, U.S. federal prosecutors submitted more than 1,200 pages of detailed communications and reports between Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence and the “Cuban Five,” which were obtained from their computers in accordance with U.S. court orders and decrypted. These instructions included directives to covertly penetrate military installations, governmental agencies including the FBI, a congressional election campaign, domestic political groups and other nongovernmental groups. The instructions also included detailed directives on measures to harass and discredit some of these groups.
At their trial, the defense did not deny the “Cuban Five’s” covert service to Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence, but rather tried to depict their conduct as one of fighting terrorism and protecting Cuba against Miami-based “counter-revolutionaries.” Nearly three months of the seven-month trial were dedicated to the defense’s presentation of evidence. The jury rejected the defense arguments and convicted the defendants on every charge lodged against them.
Two of the three “illegal officers” and one U.S.-based agent (Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and the man claiming to be Ramon Labaniño) were convicted of conspiring to commit espionage against the United States. One of the “illegal officers” (Gerardo Hernandez) was convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder based on his role concerning the February 24, 1996, shoot-down of two unarmed civilian aircraft in international airspace by Cuban Air Force jet fighters, which resulted in the deaths of four people, three of them U.S. citizens. All of the “Cuban Five” were convicted of conspiracy to act in the United States as agents of a foreign government without notification to the attorney general, and to defraud the United States. Their sentences ranged from 15 years to life imprisonment.
The “Cuban Five” now are serving their sentences in federal penitentiaries. They are held among, and have the same privileges available to, the general prison population. They are allowed visits by families, Cuban government officials and their lawyers. They have received numerous, lengthy visits from family members, to whom the U.S. government has issued more than 60 visas, and from Cuban government officials.
Consistent with the right of the United States to protect itself from covert spies, the U.S. government has not granted visas to the wives of two prisoners. One of these women was a member of the Wasp Network who was deported for engaging in activity related to espionage and is ineligible to return to the United States. The other was a candidate for training as a Directorate of Intelligence U.S.-based spy when U.S. authorities broke up the network.
“CUBAN FIVE” OPERATIONS
The U.S. government court filings in the case recount the various operations planned by Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence as proved at trial, several of which are outlined below.
The DI sent illegal officer Ramon Labaniño to Miami to oversee efforts to penetrate the U.S. military’s Southern Command (SouthCom), which had its headquarters in Miami. In October 1997, Labaniño told two Wasp Network agents, who later pled guilty, that penetrating SouthCom was the DI’s top priority. Labaniño exhorted them to “EXPLOIT ALL MEANS TO PENETRATE THIS TARGET. THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE TASK OF THE DIRECTORATE AND OF OUR COUNTRY AT THE PRESENT TIME ….” [The DI required that reports be written in capital letters, to facilitate future study from microfilm archives.] This operation was known as Operation Surco.
The goal of another Wasp Network operation, Operation Aeropuerto, was to penetrate the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Key West, Florida, which is the closest U.S. military installation to Cuba. DI agent Antonio Guerrero penetrated the military facility, working in its public works department since 1993. His annual DI evaluations reported 107 pieces of information sent in 1996-1997, 104 reports sent in 1995-1996, and 184 reports in 1994-1995. He reported on the quantity and types of aircraft arriving and departing the base, troop activity and exercises, new communications installations, base radio frequencies, physical security procedures, NAS personnel who might be recruited as spies, and other subjects of interest to Cuban intelligence.
The DI also planned for two Wasp Network agents to penetrate the re-election campaign of U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and to forward derogatory information to discredit, harass or neutralize Cuban-American members of Congress.
The Miami-based DI illegal officers were responsible for operations against the U.S. nongovernmental organization Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). Brothers to the Rescue was formed in 1991 to help rescue Cubans trying to flee the island by raft. It flew small planes looking for Cuban refugees on rafts. In January 1996, BTTR dropped leaflets in international airspace, which winds carried over Cuba. The leaflets cited the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and exhorted Cubans to fight for their rights.
Also in January 1996, the DI launched Operation Scorpion against Brothers to the Rescue, utilizing illegal officer Hernandez, who gave directives to Rene Gonzalez and another member of the Wasp Network, Jose Pablo Roque.
On February 18, 1996, the DI sent a secret, encrypted broadcast with a message from the head of the DI, personally instructing that under no circumstances were Gonzalez or Roque to fly with BTTR from February 24 to February 27. Previously, the DI had sent secret, encrypted instructions prescribing code phrases for Gonzalez and Roque to say over BTTR’s radio should they be unable to evade last-minute requests to join a BTTR flight.
On February 24, 1996, three BTTR planes were flying in the Florida Straits. Shortly after they crossed the 24th parallel into international airspace within the Havana Flight Information Region, two Cuban military MiG jet fighter aircraft were launched. With directions from ground command, they pursued and shot down two BTTR planes, killing the four men aboard. Both BTTR planes were small, unarmed civil aircraft, in international airspace, heading away from Cuba when they were shot down. Neither had entered Cuban airspace. The third plane, piloted by BTTR founder Jose Basulto, escaped.
Shortly after the shoot-down, DI agent Roque held a press conference in Havana. Pretending to be a disillusioned member of BTTR, he denounced the organization.
In July 1996, by a vote of 13-0, the United Nations Security Council condemned Cuba for shooting down the two civilian planes. An investigation by the International Civil Aviation Authority determined that both planes had been in international waters when they were shot down.