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Cuban Political Prisoners ... in the United States

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  • Walter Lippmann
    This is an excellent summary of the issues and facts in the case of the Miami Five. It would be a fine piece of literature for reproduction and to be
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2002
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      This is an excellent summary of the
      issues and facts in the case of the
      Miami Five. It would be a fine piece
      of literature for reproduction and to
      be distributed on literature tables.

      Anyone can access it at the FILES
      section of the CubaNews list at the
      following URL. It is four pages long:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/files/
      ====================================

      Cuban Political Prisoners
      ... in the United States
      by William Blum, BBlum6@...
      August 31, 2002

      The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers gave the
      defense team its "Against All Odds" award, named for a
      deceased public defender who championed hopeless causes.{1}

      Defending pro-Castro Cubans in Miami, in a criminal case
      utterly suffused with political overtones, with the US
      government wholly determined to nail a bunch of commies, is
      a task on a par with conducting a ground war with Russia in
      the wintertime.

      Even in the absence of known anti-Castro Cuban exiles on the
      jury, the huge influence the exiles have on the rest of the
      community is an inescapable fact of life in Miami, a place
      where the sound of the word "pro-Castro" does what the word
      "bomb" does at an airport.

      President Bush has assured the world repeatedly that he will
      not heed the many calls to lift the Cuban trade embargo
      unless Fidel Castro releases what Washington calls
      "political prisoners". Bush tells us this while ten Cubans
      sit in US prisons, guilty essentially of not being the kind
      of Cubans George W. loves. If a political prisoner can be
      defined as one kept in custody who, if not for his or her
      political beliefs and/or associations would be a free
      person, then the ten Cubans can be regarded as political
      prisoners.

      It all began in September 1998 when the Justice Department
      accused 14 Cubans in southern Florida of "conspiracy to
      gather and deliver defense information to aid a foreign
      government, that is, the Republic of Cuba" and failing to
      register as agents of a foreign government.{2} Four of the
      accused were never apprehended and are believed to be living
      in Cuba.

      Five of the 10 arrested, having less than true-believer
      faith in the American-judicial-system, copped plea bargains
      to avoid harsher penalties and were sentenced to between
      three and seven years in prison.

      The US Attorney said the actions of the accused -- who had
      been under surveillance since 1995 -- were an attempt "to
      strike at the very heart of our national security system and
      our very democratic process".{3} Their actions, added a
      judge, "place this nation and its inhabitants in great
      peril".{4}

      Such language would appear more suitable for describing the
      attacks of September 11, 2001 than the wholly innocuous
      behavior of the accused. To add further to the level of
      melodrama: in the Criminal Complaint, in the Indictment, in
      public statements, and in the courtroom, the federal
      government continuously squeezed out as much mileage as it
      could from the fact that the Cubans had gone to meetings and
      taken part in activities of anti-Castro organizations --
      "duplicitous participation in and manipulation of" these
      organizations is how it was put.{5} But this was all for the
      benefit of media and jury, for there is obviously no law
      against taking part in an organization you are unsympathetic
      with; and in the end, after all the propaganda hoopla, the
      arrestees were never charged with any such offense.

      The Cubans did not deny their activities. Their mission in
      the United States was to act as an early warning system for
      their homeland because over the years anti-Castro Cuban
      exiles in the US have carried out literally hundreds of
      terrorist actions against the island nation, including as
      recently as 1997 when they planted bombs in Havana hotels.
      One of the exile groups, Omega 7, headquartered in Union
      City, New Jersey, was characterized by the FBI in 1980 as
      "the most dangerous terrorist organization in the United
      States".{6}

      Some exiles were subpoenaed to testify at the trial, which
      began in December 2000, and defense attorneys threw
      questions at them about their activities. One witness told
      of attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and of setting Cuban
      buses and vans on fire. Based on their answers, federal
      prosecutors threatened to bring organized crime charges
      against any group whose members gave incriminating testimony
      and the Assistant US Attorney warned that if additional
      evidence emerged against members of Alpha 66, considered a
      paramilitary organization, the group would be prosecuted for
      a "long-standing pattern of attacks on the Cuban
      government."{7}

      Cuba has complained for many years that US authorities
      ignore information Havana makes available about those in the
      US it claims are financing and plotting violence.{8} None of
      the exiles who testified at the trial about terrorist
      actions or the groups they belonged to were in fact
      prosecuted.

      The arrested Cubans were involved in anti-terrorist
      activities -- so cherished by the government of the United
      States in word -- but were acting against the wrong kind of
      terrorists. Some of what they uncovered about possible
      terrorist and drug activities of Cuban exiles -- including
      information concerning the 1997 hotel bombings -- they
      actually passed to the FBI, usually delivered via diplomats
      in Havana. This presumably is what lay behind the statement
      in the Criminal Complaint that the defendants "attempted
      manipulation of United States political institutions and
      government entities through disinformation and pretended
      cooperation"{9} -- i.e., putting every action of the Cuban
      defendants in the worst possible light.

      One of the Cubans, Antonio Guerrero, was employed as a
      manual laborer (ditch digger, sheet-metal worker, etc.) at
      the US naval base in Boca Chica, Florida, near Key West. The
      prosecution stated that Guerrero had been ordered by Cuba to
      track the comings and goings of military aircraft in order
      to detect "unusual exercises, maneuvers, and other activity
      related to combat readiness".{10} Guerrero's attorney, to
      emphasize the non-secret nature of such information, pointed
      out that anyone sitting in a car on US 1 could easily see
      planes flying in and out of the base.{11}

      This particular operation of the Cuban agents is difficult
      to comprehend, for it is hard to say which was the more
      improbable: that the US government would undertake another
      attack against Cuba, or that these Cubans could get timely
      wind of it in this manner, or any other manner.

      The FBI admitted that the Cubans had not penetrated any
      military bases and that activities at the bases were "never
      compromised". "They had no successes," declared an FBI
      spokesperson. The Pentagon added that "there are no
      indications that they had access to classified information
      or access to sensitive areas".{12}

      These statements did not of course rise from a desire to aid
      the Cubans' defense, but rather to assure one and all that
      the various security systems were impenetrable. But, in
      short, the government was admitting that nothing that could
      be termed "espionage" had been committed, or even intended.
      Nevertheless, three of the defendants were charged with
      communicating to Cuba "information relating to the national
      defense of the United States ... intending and having reason
      to believe that the same would be used to the injury of the
      United States."{13}

      The FBI agents who closely surveilled the Cubans for several
      years did not seem worried about the reports the "espionage
      agents" were sending to Havana and made no attempt to thwart
      their transmission. Indeed, the FBI reportedly arrested the
      Cubans only because they feared that the group would flee
      the country following the theft of a computer and disks used
      by one of them, which contained information about their
      activities, and that all the FBI surveillance would then
      have been for nought.{14}

      Somewhat more plausibly, those arrested were each charged
      with "acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign
      government, Cuba." Yet, in at least the previous five years,
      no one in the United States had been charged with any such
      offense{15}, although, given the broad definition in the law
      of "foreign agent", the Justice Department could have
      undoubtedly done so with numerous individuals if it had had
      a political motivation as in this case.

      In addition to the unregistered foreign agent charge, which
      was imposed against all five defendants, there was the
      ritual laundry list of other charges that is usually facile
      for a prosecutor to come up with: passport fraud, false
      passport application, fraudulent identification, conspiracy
      to defraud the United States, aiding and abetting one or
      more of the other defendants (sic), conspiracy to commit
      espionage, and furthermore tacked onto all five --
      conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent.

      There was one serious charge, which was levied eight months
      after the arrests against the alleged leader of the Cuban
      group, Gerardo Hernández: conspiring to commit murder, a
      reference to the February 24, 1996 shootdown by a Cuban
      warplane of two planes (of a total of three), which took the
      lives of four Miami-based civilian pilots, members of
      Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). In actuality, the Cuban
      government may have done no more than any other government
      in the world would have done under the same circumstances.
      The planes were determined to be within Cuban airspace, of
      serious hostile intent, and Cuban authorities gave the
      pilots explicit warning: "You are taking a risk." Indeed,
      both Cuban and US authorities had for some time been giving
      BTTR -- which patrolled the sea between Florida and Cuba
      looking for refugees -- similar warnings about intruding
      into Cuban airspace.{16}

      Jose Basulto, the head of BTTR, and the pilot of the plane
      that got away, testified at the trial that he had received
      warnings that Cuba would shoot down planes violating its
      airspace.{17} In 1995, he had taken an NBC cameraman on a
      rooftop-level flight over downtown Havana and rained
      propaganda and religious medals on the streets below,{18}
      the medals capable of injuring people they struck.
      Basulto -- a long-time CIA collaborator who once fired
      powerful cannonballs into a Cuban hotel filled with
      people{19} -- described one BTTR flight over Havana as "an
      act of civil disobedience".{20} His organization's planes
      had gone into Cuban territory on nine occasions during the
      previous two years with the pilots being warned repeatedly
      by Cuba not to return, that they would be shot down if they
      persisted in carrying out "provocative" flights. A former US
      federal aviation investigator testified at the trial that in
      the 1996 incident the planes had ignored warnings and
      entered an area that was activated as a "danger area".{21}

      Also testifying was a retired US Air Force colonel and
      former regional commander of the North American Air Defense
      Command (NORAD), George Buchner. Citing National Security
      Agency transcripts of conversations between a Cuban battle
      commander on the ground and the Cuban MiG pilots in the air,
      he stated that the two planes were "well within Cuban
      airspace" and that a Cuban pilot "showed restraint" by
      breaking off his pursuit of the third plane as the chase
      headed toward international airspace.

      Buchner's conclusion was at odds with earlier analyses
      conducted by the United States and the International Civil
      Aviation Organization (which relied heavily on intelligence
      data provided by the US). However, he added that the three
      planes were acting as one and that Cuba was within its
      sovereign rights to attack them -- even in international
      airspace -- because the plane that got away had entered
      Cuban airspace, a fact not disputed by the prosecution or
      other investigators.

      "The trigger," said Buchner, "was when the first aircraft
      crossed the 12-mile territorial limit. That allowed the
      government of Cuba to exercise their sovereign right to
      protect its airspace." He stated, moreover, that the BTTR
      planes had given up their civilian status because they still
      carried the markings of the US Air Force and had been used
      to drop leaflets condemning the Cuban government.{22}

      Two days after the incident, the New York Times reported
      that "United States intelligence officials said that at
      least one of the American aircraft -- the lead plane, which
      returned safely to Florida -- and perhaps all three had
      violated Cuban airspace." United States officials agreed
      with the Cuban government that "the pilots had ignored a
      direct warning from the air traffic control tower in
      Havana".{23}

      Hernández was charged with murder for allegedly giving Cuban
      authorities the flight plan of the planes flown by Brothers
      to the Rescue.{24} Even if true, the claim appears to be
      rather meaningless, for the Federal Aviation Administration
      (FAA) stated after the incident that after BTTR had filed
      its flight plan with their agency, it was then transmitted
      electronically to the air tower in Havana.{25} In any event,
      on that fateful day in February, when the three planes
      crossed the 24th parallel -- the beginning of the area
      before entering Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit which the
      Cuban government defines as an air-defense identification
      zone -- Basulto radioed his presence to the Havana Air
      Control Center and his intention to continue further south.
      Havana, which was already monitoring the planes' flight,
      replied: "We inform you that the area north of Havana is
      activated [air defense readied]. You are taking a risk by
      flying south of twenty-four."{26}

      Hernández was also accused of informing Havana, in response
      to a request, that none of the Cuban agents would be aboard
      the BTTR planes during the time period in question; one of
      them had flown with BTTR earlier. This too was equated in
      the indictment with "knowingly ... to perpetrate murder,
      that is, the unlawful killing of human beings with malice
      aforethought".{27}

      In the final analysis, the planes were shot down for
      entering Cuban airspace, for purposes hostile, after
      ignoring many warnings from two governments. After a January
      13, 1996 BTTR overflight, Castro had issued orders to his
      Air Force to shoot down any plane that entered Cuban
      airspace illegally.{28} And just two weeks prior to the
      shootdown, a delegation of retired US officials had returned
      from Havana warning that Cuba seemed prepared to blow the
      Brothers' Cessnas out of the sky.{29} Gerardo Hernández was
      not responsible for any of this, and there was, moreover, a
      long history of planes departing from the United States for
      Cuba to carry out bombing, strafing, invasion,
      assassination, subversion, weapon drops, agricultural and
      industrial sabotage, and other belligerent missions.{30}
      According to a former member of BTTR -- who redefected to
      Cuba and may have been a Cuban agent all along -- Basulto
      discussed with him ways to bring explosives into Cuba to
      blow up high tension wires critical to the country's
      electrical system and plans to smuggle weapons into Cuba to
      use in attacks against leaders, including Fidel Castro.{31}

      At the time of the shootdown, Cuba had been under a 37-year
      state of siege and could never be sure what such enemy
      pilots intended to do.

      Yet Hernández was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in
      prison. Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, the manual
      worker at the US naval base, were also sentenced to life
      terms; they and Hernández were all found guilty of
      conspiracy to commit espionage. Fernando González was put
      away for 19 1/2 years, and René González received 15 years.
      All five were convicted of acting as an unregistered agent
      of a foreign government as well as conspiracy -- that great
      redundancy tool that is the lifeblood of American
      prosecutors -- to do the same. All except René González --
      who is an American citizen -- had the laundry list of
      identification frauds thrown at them.

      For most of their detention since being arrested, the five
      men have been kept in solitary confinement. After their
      convictions, they were placed in five different prisons
      spread around the country -- Pennsylvania, California,
      Texas, Wisconsin and Colorado -- making it difficult for
      supporters and attorneys to visit more than one. The wife
      and five-year-old daughter of René González were denied
      visas to enter the United States from Cuba to visit him.
      Hernández's wife was already at the Houston airport with all
      her papers in hand when she was turned back, although not
      before undergoing several hours of FBI humiliation.

      The United States is currently engaged in a world-wide,
      open-ended, supra-legal campaign to destroy the rights of
      any individuals who -- on the most questionable of evidence
      or literally none at all -- might conceivably represent any
      kind of terrorist threat.

      But if the Cubans -- with a much longer history of serious
      terrorist attacks against them by well known perpetrators --
      take the most reasonable steps to protect themselves from
      further attacks, they find that Washington has forbidden
      them from taking part in the War Against Terrorism. This is
      particularly ironic given that the same anti-Castro exiles
      have committed numerous terrorist acts in the United States
      itself.

      NOTES
      1. Associated Press (AP), May 11, 2001
      2. US District Court, Southern District of Florida, case
      #98-3493, Criminal
      Complaint, September 14, 1998, "Conclusion" paragraph.
      Hereafter, "Criminal
      Complaint".
      3. EFE News Service (based in Madrid, with branches in the
      US), March 28,
      2001
      4. Miami Herald, September 18, 1998
      5. Criminal Complaint, paragraph 7
      6. New York Times, 3 March 1980, p. 1
      7. EFE News Service, March 28, 2001
      8. See for example Miami Herald, March 28, 2001, p.1B
      9. Criminal Complaint, paragraph 7; see also paragraph 26.
      10. Ibid., paragraph 19
      11. Miami Herald, September 23, 1998
      12. Washington Post, September 15, 1998, Miami Herald,
      September 16, 1998
      13. US District Court, Southern District of Florida, Case
      No. 98-721, Second
      Superseding Indictment, May 7, 1999, Count 2, Section D
      14. Miami Herald, September 16, 1998
      15. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
      reported to author
      by John Scalia, statistician
      16. Associated Press, May 8, 2001
      17. EFE News Service, March 28, 2001
      18. Carl Nagin, "Backfire", The New Yorker, January 26,
      1998, p.32
      19. Jefferson Morley, "Shootdown", Washington Post Magazine,
      May 25, 1997,
      p.120.
      20. EFE News Service, February 1, 2001
      21. Ibid., March 1, 2001
      22. Associated Press, March 21, 2001, Miami Herald, March
      22, 2001
      23. New York Times, February 26, 1996, p.1
      24. Associated Press, December 5, 2000
      25. New York Times, February 26, 1996, p.1. It is not clear
      from the article
      whether the transmission was made by the FAA or by BTTR.
      26. The New Yorker, op. cit., p.34
      27. Second Superseding Indictment, see op. cit., Count 3,
      Section A
      28. The New Yorker, op. cit., p.33
      29. Newsweek, March 11, 1996, p.48
      30. Jane Franklin, Cuba and the United States: A
      Chronological History (Ocean
      Press, Australia, 1997), see index under "Planes used
      against Cuba"; William
      Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since
      World War II
      (Common Courage Press, Maine, 1995), Cuba chapter.
      31. Washington Post, February 27, 1996

      William Blum is the author of "Rogue State: A Guide to the
      World's Only Superpower"
      (http://members.aol.com/superogue/homepage.htm )



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