The Battle Over the Cuban Five

A group of refugees, known as balseros, leaving Cuba by raft, September 1994
Antonio Ribeiro/Getty Images
A group of refugees, known as balseros, leaving Cuba by raft, September 1994

On September 12, 1998, ten alleged Cuban spies from the group known as La Red Avispa (the Wasp Network) were arrested in South Florida by the FBI during an early-morning raid. They were charged with conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States, conspiracy to commit espionage, and acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. Half of the accused cooperated with the district attorney’s office and received reduced sentences. The others—Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González, who came to be known as the Cuban Five—denied the accusations. The saga of their imprisonment, trial, and release is the subject of North of Havana by Martin Garbus, the renowned civil rights attorney who joined the case in 2012, after the death of the Cuban Five’s lawyer, Garbus’s longtime friend Leonard Weinglass.

Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Communist president, had sent the Wasp Network to the US in the early 1990s for two purposes: to monitor US Southern Command in order to warn Cuba if the US were planning an aerial invasion of the island, and to infiltrate the exile community in Miami, which was led by anti-Communists who had fled Cuba after Castro came to power in 1959. This Miami community had a history of bellicosity against the Cuban government, including participating in the US-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported the Communist regime in its first three decades, Cuba experienced its greatest economic crisis, the so-called Special Period. Some Cuban exiles saw an opportunity to hasten the regime’s collapse, attempting to inspire a revolution through infiltrations, bombings, and other subversive activities on the island. Castro, Garbus writes, felt he “was under threat from right-wing Cuban exiles.” Cuban intelligence shared “much of what they learned with American intelligence agents” in the hope that conspirators “could be identified—and then, if the Americans would intervene—arrested, tried, and jailed.” In view of the tense diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, as well as the US’s previous support of Cuban anti-Communists, there is little reason to believe the FBI would have diligently followed up on threats against the Castro government.

During the Special Period, Cubans began leaving the island in ever greater numbers on balsas, or homemade rafts, with hopes of reaching the United States, where they would be guaranteed a legal path to residency thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. In 1991 José Basulto—a participant in the Bay of Pigs invasion who, two decades after the failed coup, declared himself a supporter of Gandhi-style pacificism—founded a group called Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate). The Brothers flew small Cessna planes over…

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