By Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Fernwood Publishing of Canada has just released “What Lies Across the Water – The Real Story of the Cuban Five”, so far the most complete book available in English on a subject that Americans have had little access to: the case of Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando and René, the Cuban patriots incarcerated in the United States for fighting against terrorism
This story has been buried for fifteen years. The efforts of author Stephen Kimber to publish his book in the United States were fruitless. “How hard a sell this book turned out to be for mainstream North American publishers. We heard all sorts of explanations, of course, but the key one seemed to be belief that there wasn’t an audience in America for a book that might present a sympathetic portrait of a bunch of “Cuban spies”. I hope this book proves them wrong.”
The book is the result of thorough and deep research. The author reviewed more than twenty thousand pages of court records (U.S. vs. Gerardo Hernandez, et al) and thousands of legal pages of the longest case in American history. He also read books and newspapers about Cuba and its long confrontation with the United States, and interviewed many persons on both sides of the Florida Strait who favored one of the two sides or none.
This is not a book about the complicated and endless legal process, but its essential aspects are covered. Nor is it a biography of the Five, but its pages shows them for what they are: human beings close to the reader. The book goes far beyond that and helps the reader to understand the conflict between the two countries.
It is not a lengthy work, difficult to read; quite the opposite. Its light and clear language allows readers to move along the episodes of the conflict, and to finish in a few hours a story which captured them from the first page. It is the work of a master journalist, a great writer, and, above all, an honest intellectual committed only to what he could verify on his own.
Already in the first paragraph he tells us, “This is not the book I intended to write. That book was to be a novel, a love story set partly in Cuba.” And, of course, it was not to be a novel about the Five because, “I had only vaguely heard of them”. In his prologue, Kimber tells us how it was that he decided to abandon his initial project and give us instead a non-fiction book, an example of rigorous, unbiased and objective truth.
In the words of its author, “the story of the Cuban Five isn’t really the story of the Five at all. Or, at least, it’s not just their story. And it isn’t a simple linear narrative. It’s a cascading accumulation of incident and irritant, of connivance and consequence, a parallel, converging, diverging narrative featuring an ensemble cast of eclectic characters on both sides of the Straits of Florida.”
“Perhaps it was the quicksand complexity of it all that ultimately convinced me this story needed to be told, and needed to be told by someone who didn’t already know which versions of which stories were true.”
Here lies the real importance of this book. It is fruit of research carried out by someone who, at the start, was not a defender or sympathizer with the cause of the Five. Kimber, like many of the thousand Canadians who visit Cuba, probably bumped more than once into a propaganda poster written with naiveté or linguistic clumsiness; or heard someone speak with admiration of the Five Heroes. But he knew almost nothing when he started his research.
The author asks a question that holds the key for understanding the problem: Why did the FBI decide to arrest them and take them to public trial? Why, if it had them under surveillance for years, and knew everything they had done and were doing? By acting in this way, deviating from its normal practice, the FBI lost an important and safe source of information. It could not accuse them of anything serious and therefore the two main charges against them were not of substantive crimes. The charges were of “conspiracy” for which they did not need to produce concrete evidence that never existed.
The only explanation is political. In the summer of 1998, the first steps had been taken for what could have been collaboration between the two countries to put an end to the terrorist actions against Cuba that originated in Miami. A delegation of high ranking FBI officials, sent by decision of President Bill Clinton, were given, in Cuba, abundant information on such terrorist activities and had promised to act.
When news of the contacts reached Miami, Mr. Hector Pesquera, the local FBI chief who had close links with the terrorists, arrested the Five with methods that revealed his motivation and the political nature of the operation. “If the espionage charges against the Cubans seemed thin – and they did, even then – why had the FBI decided to make such a big deal of that part of their case? “We have done this publicly,” Hector Pesquera explained in Spanish, in a message that was broadcast frequently on Hispanic radio stations for the next several days, “to gather information from the public.” Huh?
Intentional or not, news of the arrests and the allegations against the Cubans did serve to ratchet up hysteria levels in the always-teetering-on-the-brink Miami exile community. WQBA-1140 AM commentator – not to forget Cuban American National Foundation spokesperson – Ninoska Perez Castellon – announced the FBI switchboard’s number on air and invited people to call the Bureau (and her program) to report “suspicious characters.”
It turned out there were plenty of them. One caller said he could “die in peace” if the police charged all those involved with business promoting travel to Cuba or anyone who called for better relations with Cuba. “Let them shake down every place,” declared another caller, “because there are many, many spies here.”
Exile groups like the Cuban American National Foundation jumped on the news of the arrests, “which we now see has been threatening vital security interests of the United States,” to lobby for even tougher measures against Cuba. The day after Pesquera’s press conference, CANF’s chairman Alberto “Pepe” Hernández and vice chair Jorge Mas Santos, would fire off a letter to Florida Senator Bob Graham, a supportive member of the Senate’s intelligence committee, to ask him to stage a public hearing in Miami about Cuban espionage.”
While all this was happening, right there in Miami, under the nose of Mr. Pesquera and completely undisturbed, the terrorists who would carry out the brutal attack on September 11, 2001, were training.
The environment of hatred created by Miami local media, characterized in 2005 by the Court of Appeals as “a perfect storm created when the surge of pervasive community sentiment, and extensive publicity both before and during the trial, merged with the improper prosecutorial references” , led to the unanimous decision of the judges to rescind the trial. It was much later, in 2006, that it was known that those who unleashed the “storm” received generous and covert payment from the Federal Government.
Kimber’s book appears when the case has reached a crucial moment waiting for the Miami court to rule on the collateral appeals (habeas corpus) whose main ground is the government conspiracy which financed and organized the media campaign that poisoned the environment in Miami and that was initiated by none other than the FBI. Let us hope the Judge reads this book before making her ruling.