In 1998, five Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in the US on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder, and acting as an agent of a foreign government. This week, after 16 years of exhaustive campaigning, all five men are now home. This historic moment may also lead to an end to the 50 years of blockade and tense relations between the United States and Cuba.
Wednesday was a historical day for Cuba and American relations, as both US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a prisoner exchange between the two countries. Cuba agreed to release Alan Gross, a government subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, who had been imprisoned for five years, in exchange for the release by the US of the three remaining members of the agents arrested in 1998 — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino — who with two others came to be know as the Cuban 5.
Rene Gonzalez, a member of the Cuban 5, was released on October 7, 2011, after 13 years imprisonment. He spoke to VICE News about his joy in seeing his friends finally freed this week.
"I am very happy, I am with my brothers and sisters and we are all together in Cuba," he said. "Finally all my three brothers have returned home."
Fernando González was released on February 27, 2014.
Rene González has campaigned for the release of the rest of the Cuban 5 since his own release from prison. Along with the Cuban government, he has protested claiming their innocence and fought against the perceived injustice they faced during the trial, as well as the sentencing and subsequent treatment they and their families received from the US.
González, who was born in Chicago in 1956 to Cuban immigrants, returned to Cuba with his family shortly after the start of the revolution in 1961. He witnessed first-hand the struggle that Cubans faced during the revolution, and decided that he would fight for them and the country.
"The Cuba I saw was the one I built my life around, and I wanted justice," Rene said.
Since the revolution, Cuba had been subjected to numerous terror attacks. According to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, for more than 40 years, right-wing Cuban exile groups based in Miami had killed almost 3,500 people in terrorist attacks against Cuba — some claim with the complicity of the CIA and the US government.
These groups were violently anti-Castro and had benefited from the dictatorship before the revolution. They have been blamed for the deaths of dozens of people by blowing up Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 in 1976 and for a bombing campaign against Cuban tourist hotels throughout the 1990s.
As a result, Cuba sent the five men to the US as a "Wasp Network," and to become part of the community and report back to Havana about what the groups were doing.
"In 1990, I returned to the US to try and prevent these terrorist actions and protect those who were being targeted from the society that had shaped me," Gonzalez explained. "We infiltrated several groups in Florida, with the complicity of the American government."
The information that González and the other four men uncovered was sent back to Cuban officials, who in turn sent this over to the US government. But the FBI eventually arrested the five men.
The trial of the Cuban 5 was considered by many to be unjust — as was the sentencing, where one of the men, Gerardo Hernadez Nardelo, received two life sentences. Compared to the typical sentencing of a foreign agent, this was considered extreme.
Rob Miller, Director of the Cuban Solidarity campaign in the UK, campaigned for the release of the Cuban 5 for over 12 years. His team had noted several injustices within the trial — on top of what he considered the extreme sentencing, he argued against the trial being held in Miami.
"This was one of the longest trials in US history, and it has been a travesty of injustice from the moment of the arrest right up to the trial, sentencing, and subsequently the treatment, with two of the wives unable to visit their husbands," he said.
Elizabeth Palmiero, the wife of Ramón Labañino, also spent years petitioned for the release of her husband and the rest of the Cuban 5. Palmiero said she was pleased with the outpouring of sympathy for their campaign.
"We feel proud because we have seen how many people here have supported our campaign and understand our sorrow and pain," she told VICE News.
Adriana Perez, wife of Cuban 5 detainee Gerado Hernández, was denied visitation rights to see her husband, even though he was received two life sentences. Regardless of this restriction, while speaking at the International Commission of Inquiry meeting in London she said that there was no time for nostalgia or sadness — just time to fight for his return.
Perez was unavailable for comment this week, but she is reportedly elated that her husband is home.
Tessa Murphy, who is part of the North American research team at Amnesty International, took on the case of the Cuban 5. Amnesty realized that their case was far from straightforward, and that there were issues with fairness and how the appeal process progressed in their case.
"We had to review the case with care and impartiality, including how the case developed on appeal. Amnesty takes no position on whether they were innocent or guilty of the charges," she told VICE News. "However, having reviewed the case extensively, we concluded there were serious concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the trial which were not resolved on appeal."
Now that all of the men have been released, the campaign work that Amnesty has carried out alongside the Cuban Solidarity Campaign feels like the result of a tremendous international effort, Murphy said.
"It is an amazing week for the men and their families. We have campaigned for many years not only for a just resolution to this case but also about the treatment of the men in custody, including denials of visas for the Cuban wives of two of the men [Gonzalez and Hernadez] to visit them in prison — restrictions we found to be unnecessarily punitive and contrary to standards for the humane treatment of prisoners," she said.
For González and his wife, the struggle for freedom was not one they fought alone. It was shared among the Cuban people and beyond.
"More than 13 years ago Fidel said: 'I only say one thing: the five will return!' he told VICE News. "Today that call became a reality, but it has been thanks to the struggle of many people, who were able to turn the words of Fidel into movement."
Acclimating to the new sense of freedom since the release of Hernández, Guerrero, and Labañino has been unique for González, after years of struggle.
"I have to get used to the new situation of the other men being free," he said. "It felt like I was in prison for the last few years. Until they were freed from prison, I was not free. At last now they are out, back home. We can live normally now."
Raul Castro meets with members of the Cuban 5.
For González and the other four men, getting their freedom back was a joint effort, involving people who had never even met the group campaigning on their behalf.
"We thank them for helping us all these years. For not having fainted. By having multiple voices added to our cause," he said. "We owe the people who helped us our gratitude."
The developments over the past few days are seen as a huge step forward in easing the relations between Cuba and America, with some even saying that the release of the Cuban 5 will certainly lead to an end of the blockade — which still must be approved by US Congress.
"The two go hand in hand," Miller said. "Once the five are released, we may see an end to the Cuban embargo."
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