Cuban Exiles Wage War of Terror
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It wasn't Libya, Afghanistan, or any other Arab-based group that first blew up a commercial airplane. Al Qaida had nothing to do with it. That first attack, on Oct. 6, 1976, came when Cuban-American terrorists and mercenaries blew up a Cuban civilian airliner. All 73 on board went down to a fiery and gruesome death, including the teenage members of the Cuban fencing team returning from a competition in Venezuela.
This tacitly U.S.-supported terrorist crime never appears on the "history" list of incidents involving civilian airliners, at least not in the U.S. media. Why? Cognitive dissonance is one explanation. The syllogism goes like this: The United States is a good country. Terrorism is bad. The United States funds and protects terrorists. Uh-oh -- we certainly can't talk about that.
In Barbados, where the bomb was placed on the Cuban airliner, the mercenaries were tried and convicted for the crime and served time. But the planners and instigators of the plot, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, got away clean. Posada is today being protected by the U.S. government from an extradition demand by Venezuela, where the crime was planned. (In a delicious irony, the U.S. government's position is that he can't be extradited to Venezuela because he would be tortured there.) Over the objections of his own justice department, George H. W. Bush in effect pardoned Orlando Bosch. He is today a free man living in Miami where he gives gloating TV interviews about his role in blowing up the plane.
The Cuban airline bombing was anything but an isolated incident. On Sept. 4, 1997, as on other occasions, U.S.-sponsored terrorists set off bombs in Havana hotels and restaurants. This time, one killed a tourist from Italy, Fabio de Celmo. Over the years death and injury to civilians has come from thousands of other attacks carried out in Cuba and elsewhere by land, air and sea against villagers, fisherman, children, tourists and diplomats by terrorists based in Florida.
The Al Qaida-like network -- which includes Alpha 66, Omega 7, Brothers To The Rescue, and Commandos L and others -- is as active today as ever. Just last month, Commandos F-4 held a press conference in Miami to announce they had successfully carried out sabotage raids in Cuba in four different provinces. A few weeks earlier police raided the California home of Robert Ferro, a self-proclaimed member of Alpha 66. Police and federal agents seized 35 machine guns, 13 silencers, two short-barreled rifles, a live hand grenade, a rocket launcher tube and 89,000 rounds of ammunition. Santiago Alvarez and Osvaldo Mitat were busted about a year ago with a similar stash in Fort Lauderdale. The defense claimed by all three is that they were acting as members of organizations working with the full knowledge and support of the U.S. government.
These arrests, by the way, do not mean that the U.S. government is aggressively trying to contain these terrorists. The raids are about window-dressing and deniability. They are not about a genuine effort to stop the Cuban exile terrorists. On July 10 of this year the "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba," headed by Condoleezza Rice, issued a long-promised report. It sets out U.S. plans to increase and intensify support for those trying to overthrow the government of Cuba. The version posted on the website is 93 pages long; the entire report is 450 pages. Most of it is "classified." The secrecy is not about protecting aid to dissidents in Cuba -- it's about protecting terrorists in Florida.
Enter the Cuban Five
Someone should make a movie about the Cuban Five -- Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerro, Fernando Gonzalez, Gerrardo Hernandez and Ramon Labinino. They are poets, pilots, engineers, artists, college graduates, husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, Cubans, Americans. But that's not why the movie.
The movie is about why they are in five different maximum security prisons in the United States. Two of them are American citizens by virtue of having been born in the United States. Their parents were refugees from a Cuban dictator: Fulgencio Batista. When Batista was deposed by the Castro-led Cuban revolution, they returned to Cuba to live and raise their children.
The Cuban Five volunteered to come to Florida in the mid-'90s for the purpose of becoming "eyes and ears" into the plans and activities of the Florida-based terrorist groups. The escalation of efforts by groups like Alpha 66 and Commandos L drove the timing of their mission. The terrorists were openly targeting Cuba's growing tourism industry, which was being expanded to offset the loss of aid to the Cuban economy from the former Soviet Union.
The Five succeeded in infiltrating some of the most dangerous groups, but in September of 1998 they were arrested by the FBI. In a harbinger of post-9/11 civil liberties erosions to come, they were denied bail. They were placed in solitary confinement, separated from each other and their families. Their attorneys were prevented from gaining access to the evidence to be used against them at their trial. They were charged with a raft of crimes, including allegations of "conspiracy."
None of the accusations alleged any violent acts on their part. The Five's monitoring activities had nothing to do with threatening the United States in any way. Their mission was to protect Cuba. The only way you could argue otherwise would be to concede that the terrorists were carrying out the official foreign policy of the United States.
In 2001, 33 months after their arrest, their trial began in Miami, Florida. Before and several times during the trial, their court-appointed attorneys requested a change of venue on the grounds that the pro-Cuban defendants could not get a fair trial in Miami. The attorneys proposed Fort Lauderdale, just 25 miles away. Their change of venue motions were repeatedly denied.
The trial lasted six months. It included testimony from Cuban exile terrorists, a high-ranking assistant to the president of the United States, and generals and admirals from the U.S. and Cuba. On numerous occasions there were rowdy demonstrations outside the court room by anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Some of the demonstrations specifically targeted members of the jury. The trial got zero media coverage outside of Miami.
Despite incredible holes and contradictions in the government's case, the Cuban Five were found guilty on every count that had been brought against them. The jury even convicted the Five on charges the judge instructed them did not meet the burden of proof. Rene Gonzalez was sentenced to 15 years. Antonio Guerro to life imprisonment plus 10 years, Fernando Gonzalez was sentenced to 19 years, Gerrardo Hernandez was given two life sentences plus 80 months, and Ramon Labinino was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 18 years.
The conditions of their incarceration have been cruel, unusual and in violation of many rights and privileges accorded to other prisoners. Of the eight years total each has already been incarcerated, much of their jail time has been in solitary confinement -- even though they are model prisoners without a single blemish on their record. Two of the five have never been permitted visits from their wives.
In 2005 the convictions were overturned because a three-judge panel ordered a new trial because Miami was such a demonstrably unfair place to try them. But on Aug. 9, the full Appeals bench overturned that decision. Nine other grounds for reversing the convictions now await decisions by the three-judge panel. It is also possible that lawyers for the Five will appeal the 11th Circuit Court decision on the venue issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Why the Cuban Five matter
Ignore what you think about Cuba, pro, con or indifferent. Consider instead what kind of country you think the United States should be in the 21st century.
As a nation, are we truly against terrorism, or is it just a term we use to demonize those whose goals we oppose? Does not the mistreatment of the Five reveal that the underpinnings of the mindset that has brought us to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo runs deeper than the presidency of George Bush?
And as long as the U.S. government supports the terrorists in Florida, by what moral authority does the United States tell Iran and Syria they have no right to support Hezbollah? If Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorist attack, why doesn't Cuba? Why doesn't the media ever raise these questions?
Doesn't the disproportionate influence of the Cuban exile community have an enormous impact on our political destiny? For all the ruckus about whether the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC has too much influence on U.S. foreign policy -- viewed in proportion to the size of the Cuban exile population, AIPAC's clout would be tiny.
Could Florida play the "super-state" role it does in U.S. politics without the part played by the Cuban exiles whose first loyalty is not to the United States? All of the Bushes -- George I, George II, Jeb -- are up to their eyeballs in these activities. In addition to his terrorist activities against Cuba, Cuban-American Luis Posada Carriles was also a major player in the Iran-Contra affair. As some may recall, that whole operation was run out of George Herbert Walker Bush's office when he was Ronald Reagan's vice president. Jeb Bush recently appointed the son of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista to the Florida Supreme Court. Janet Reno, then U.S. attorney general, was already contemplating her run for the U.S. Senate from Florida when she sanctioned the trial of the Cuban Five in the first place.
Aren't we all at risk if the right to a trial away from a lynch mob atmosphere is diluted, if the most basic rule of evidence can be ignored because "the end justifies the means"? What does that kind of reasoning do to the rule of law?
The Cuban Five have already been in jail for eight years. Even if one were to grant that they committed technical violations of U.S. law, such as failure to register as foreign agents -- something the defense does not concede -- the time they have already served would constitute excessive punishment. Doesn't our own sense of justice argue that they should be released, or at the very least be given a fair trial?
Author's note: Up-to-date information on the Five is available at FreeTheFive.org.
Frank Joyce is a journalist and labor communications consultant.