WHAT LIES ACROSS THE WATER
The Real Story of the Cuban Five
By Stephen Kimber
Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2013, 284 pp.
Review by Jane Franklin
[Originally published in a shorter version in the November 2013 issue of Z Magazine]
Stephen Kimber was planning to write a novel, a love story set partly in Cuba. What he ended up writing is indeed set partly in Cuba but takes place mostly in Florida, where, as we all know from novels and movies and real life, anything can happen. And here it does. Who would believe this story if it were not real?
What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five is an historical narrative, an expose, a political thriller, a romance, entwined in a maze of endless twists and turns involving terrorists and foreign agents, with the FBI’s surveillance and perfidy leading inexorably to tragedy.
By weaving the story of the Cuban Five into the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, Kimber highlights the grotesque patterns of both the history and the story. Take, for example, what he does with the figure of Orlando Bosch.
Those who have studied the war of terror that the United States has been waging on Cuba ever since 1959 are of course aware of Bosch’s central role. Partially educated in the United States, Bosch led a failed rebellion against the Cuban revolutionary government and then fled back to Miami with his wife and children in 1960. No sooner had Bosch settled in Florida than he launched his career of terrorism, joining the CIA’s Operation 40, running the Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR), firing a bazooka at a Polish freighter in the Port of Miami, violating parole, fleeing to Venezuela.
In June 1976 Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, an equally notorious terrorist, were leaders in the formation of the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), an umbrella group for attacks not only against Cuba itself but against countries and individuals considered friendly to Cuba.
CORU immediately went on a rampage of terrorist attacks in several countries. In October Bosch and Posada masterminded the bombing of a Cubana Airlines passenger jet, blowing it out of the sky as it was leaving Barbados, killing all 73 people aboard — the first time a passenger jet was used as a terrorist weapon (that didn’t happen again until 9/11).
After years under Venezuelan arrest for that crime, Bosch returned to Florida in 1988 and was released from detention (for parole violation) in 1990 even though the Department of Justice had earlier ordered that he be deported as a terrorist. Thus a mass killer was released to walk free in Miami, where he was celebrated as a heroic freedom fighter.
The Cuban government, of course, wasn’t amused. “We cannot calmly take the news of the release of Orlando Bosch, who is a terrorist,” explained a spokesperson for the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. Havana had no intention of waiting quietly for [Bosch’s] next trick. (19)
What Kimber adds to this familiar history is a startling revelation: the connection between the release of this terrorist and Cuba’s quick decision to establish a new network of intelligence agents in Florida to foil the plots of Bosch and his fellow terrorists. This marked the birth of what Havana code-named La Red Avispa, the Wasp Network:
Although the group that would become known as the Cuban Five consists of the five men – Gerardo Hernández, René González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero – who stood in the prisoners’ dock in Miami when their trial finally began in 2000, there were, initially, many more than five of them. . . .When FBI agents initially swooped in on September 12, 1998, they arrested 10 people. Five of them quickly struck deals, pleading guilty in exchange for lesser sentences and a promise to testify against their compatriots. (8)
Kimber points out that, in the end, of the five who copped a deal, only one, Joseph Santos, testified in the trial and his testimony was mostly about how Cuba recruited, trained and deployed their agents.
At the time of the arrests, the FBI publicly identified four other Avispa agents it claimed had left the country before they could be arrested. That makes 14. Kimber concludes that there were at least 22 agents in La Red Avispa. (Therein lies, across the water, one of the mysteries that remain – the stories of the other eight.)
The first agent who became part of the Cuban Five arrived in December 1990, only five months after Orlando Bosch was released in July. René González flew away from Cuba in a stolen crop duster, landed in Key West, and became an instant celebrity. Here the political thriller begins, for he, like all the other Cuban intelligence agents, was risking his life to protect a country under siege by the United States.
René immediately became two different heroes. In Florida the anti-Cubans mistakenly thought he was their hero. In Cuba he was actually a hero but only a very few Cubans could know that. Other Cubans considered him a defector (a traitor and a thief who stole a plane) until after the arrests eight years later.
Stephen Kimber succeeds in making the difficulties of this painful double identity palpable for all the agents he describes. Right away we are shown how much this agent, his wife, and their daughter sacrificed in exchange for the agent’s job of trying to stop terrorist attacks against Cuba.
Of course when René left home, his wife Irma Salanueva soon found out he had defected. She could not believe it. Suddenly she was a single mom. In his first letter to her he told her he had come to “a wonderful country” with opportunities for all of them. He was even investigating a school for their daughter, Irmita. In response, she wrote that she wanted nothing to do with him. “`I wish you luck in your new future but it will not be with me.’” (23) Through all the years since 1990, Kimber unfolds this love story that transcended more than two decades of heartache and separation until René, having completed his sentence, was released from prison in 2011 under “supervised release” and allowed to stay in Cuba in 2013.
The lives of the Cuban Five are heartrending stories of families living through years of uncertainty and separation. In 1994 Gerardo Hernandez left his wife Adriana Pérez to arrive in Miami as a Puerto Rican named Manuel Viramóntez. “Adriana didn’t – but did – know what her husband did.” (89) His Cuban friends and relatives thought he was a diplomat posted at the embassy in Buenos Aires, but his assignment was to supervise the agents of La Red Avispa.
At the time of the arrests, Gerardo was continuing to try to bring Adriana to Miami. They wanted to have children. After the arrests, with Gerardo sentenced to two lifetimes plus 15 years, the U.S. Justice Department’s refusal to grant a visa to Adriana prevents them from having children.
Kimber intricately weaves the individual stories of the agents into the intrigue and dangers of their political work. Notice how he introduces Juan Pablo Roque into the murderous world of José Basulto, another major terrorist who had organized Brothers to the Rescue:
Perhaps it was because they’d both fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba by swimming to freedom across Guantanamo Bay: José Basulto in 1961 in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle; Juan Pablo Roque more than 30 years later after he’d become so disillusioned with his life under communism he “pulled on some scuba gear and flippered his way to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo,” where he demanded asylum. Or perhaps, Basulto thought, he liked the young defector so much simply because his story seemed so compelling, and he told it so well.” (44)
Roque had studied in the Soviet Union and returned to Cuba as an Air Force MiG pilot, just the sort to fly for Brothers to the Rescue, or so thought Basulto, who took a special liking to the dashing MiG pilot. Basulto did not know that two of his pilots were Cuban agents. René González and Juan Pablo Roque did not know either, because members of La Red Avispa did not generally know each other; only their supervisor knew who was who.
Thanks to Roque, Cuban State Security knew all about José Basulto’s “interest in acquiring long-range weapons for attempts on the Commander-in-Chief’s life [and] his money-gathering for attempts on some people’s lives in Cuba.” Roque had also told his bosses about instructions he’d received from Brothers on ways to “interfere” with the air traffic control towers at Cuban airports. (87)
What would have happened if Basulto had found out who these agents really were? He obviously had no qualms about killing people.
Nor did the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the wealthiest and therefore the most influential of all the anti-Cuban groups in the United States. Until a former board member angrily exposed their covert military arm in 2006, CANF insisted that it was a nonviolent organization. Because of its intelligence agents, Cuba told the truth that Washington pretended not to believe even though of course the FBI also knew the truth.
Even Roque’s autobiography had produced positive, if unexpected intelligence: the Cuban American National Foundation, which had underwritten its publication, asked Roque to provide a “technical assessment of using arrow-rockets to [make an] attempt on the Commander-in-Chief’s life.” (87)
Meanwhile, CANF peacefully lobbied Congress and financed Cuban émigrés who became members of Congress, contributing money to both Democrats and Republicans, creating and orchestrating the passage of the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 – legal terrorism aimed, from the beginning, at starving the whole Cuban people into submission. The Real Story of the Cuban Five is a continuing part of that constant U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Kimber knew next to nothing about the Cuban Five as he started investigating the story, but his prodigious research, including his study of the entire trial transcript, and his interviews, along with his correspondence with the Cuban Five in their prisons around the United States, revealed to him the tremendous dimensions of what he, as a Canadian, was exposing:
So 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 – spies, terrorists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, cops, mercenaries, politicians, heroes, villains, journalists, innocents – whose personal ambitions, actions, loyalties, vanities, secrets, strengths and foibles collectively weave larger narratives about Cuban-American relations, about the war on terror, about hypocrisy, about truth and fiction, about right and wrong. (9)
Kimber describes the build-up in 1997 and 1998 to the arrests of the Cuban Five, rife with mysteries and surprises found in fiction. More than once Kimber remarks that nothing is as it seems.
One surprise to lots of us at the time, in November 1997, was the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard in Puerto Rican waters actually arrested multimillionaire members of CANF who had been on their way to assassinate President Fidel Castro on Venezuela’s Margarita Island where he was to attend an Ibero-American Summit meeting. Their trial was pending when the Cuban Five were arrested a year later. Some analysts have speculated that one factor in the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to arrest the Cuban Five in September 1998 was to deflect attention from CANF’s would-be assassins. The media predictably focused on the “Cuban terrorists” rather than CANF’s terrorists who were acquitted of all charges while the Cuban Five were awaiting trial in December 1999. Héctor Pesquera, the FBI director in Puerto Rico at the time of the arrests of the CANF members, was transferred to Miami and became the FBI director in charge of the arrests of the Cuban Five.
Kimber’s coverage of the inexorable path to the arrests of the Cuban Five zig-zags through the bombing campaign that Luis Posada orchestrated in Havana in 1997 and 1998; Gabriel García Márquez’s effort to persuade the Clinton Administration to stop U.S.-based terrorism, followed by the FBI’s delegation to Havana in June 1998 to receive information from Cuban authorities about the terrorist network in Miami; the front-page exposure of Luis Posada boasting of terrorism in the July 1998 New York Times; and the role of FBI agent George Kisynzski, the “very good friend” of Luis Posada, in the handling of a tip about a boat loaded with explosives in Miami.
FBI agents are always colluding with anti-Cuban elements because the FBI’s job is to enforce the law of our land – the U.S. policy, codified in the Helms-Burton Law, aimed at overthrowing the Cuban Government. Kimber includes an explanation of “the yellow light” (208) used by the FBI to warn terrorism suspects to “lay low” for a while.
My own favorite example of such a “yellow light” occurred during the so-called “FBI investigation” of the 1997 plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Aboard the boat searched by the Coast Guard were two .50-caliber ultra-long-range super powerful sniper rifles. One belonged to CANF President Francisco (Pepe) Hernandez. When I learned that FBI agents “interviewed” Pepe, I could hear the message: “lay low until this blows over.” Pepe was never charged and remains the president of CANF as of this writing.
The FBI knows who is who in the anti-Cuban groups and, as the evidence presented in the trial of the Cuban Five reveals, they also knew who was who in La Red Avispa. They had been watching the Cuban Five for years, implanting listening devices in their homes, following them to meetings, watching and waiting. The story of how Juan Pablo Roque serendipitously escaped is one of the most exciting in the book.
What Lies Across the Water shows that the most egregious charge, verdict, and sentence in the trial of the Cuban Five were based on a blatantly egregious lie: that Gerardo Hernández had something to do with the famous 1996 “shootdown” of two Brothers to the Rescue planes. The charge against him of conspiracy to commit murder led to his receiving a life sentence and to his other life sentence not being reduced so that he has two life sentences plus 15 years. First, that charge was added seven months after the initial indictment. Then, at the conclusion of the trial, the prosecutors themselves filed a last-minute emergency petition to prevent the jurors from voting on the murder count against Gerardo. They had decided that there was not sufficient evidence and that this would “`likely result in the failure of the prosecution.’” (232-33) The Appeals Court rejected their petition.
Kimber connects the story of the Cuban Five not just to the preceding history but also to events during and after the trial. Each question he explores adds more significance to the story. How did such seemingly extraneous issues as the attempt to keep Elián González in Miami impact opinion in Miami, the venue of the trial? How was Posada’s plot to kill President Fidel Castro in the year 2000 thwarted? (I see startled expressions whenever I point out that if that plan had succeeded, plastic explosive would have blown up an auditorium with about 2,000 people inside. Imagine the carnage if Cuban agents had not been doing their job.)
How did the trial of the Cuban Five relate to the trial of Luis Posada in El Paso, Texas, in 2011? And what about the case of Alan Gross? Cuba has its own stories of watching and waiting. Kimber follows Alan Gross from his first visit to Cuba in 2004 until his arrest in 2009. Cuban officials were aware of exactly what he was doing during all those five years. Gross, working for the State Department, was, like the FBI agents, doing his job. Does the U.S. Government care enough about its agent to exchange him for the four members of the Cuban Five who remain in prison?
Jane Franklin is one of the world’s leading experts on Cuba-U.S. relations. She is the author of Cuban Foreign Relations: A Chronology, 1959-1982 (New York: Center for Cuban Studies, 1984) and Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History (New York and Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1997). She is co-author of Vietnam and America (New York: Grove Press, 1995). Her chronology of the history of Panama is in The U.S. Invasion of Panama (Boston: South End Press, 1991). Some of her work may be accessed at janefranklin.info.