Cubans Jailed in U.S. as Spies Are Hailed at Home as Heroes

Images of the five accused Cuban spies are seen everywhere in Havana. This massive poster says,
Images of the five accused Cuban spies are seen everywhere in Havana. This massive poster says, "They will return." (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 3, 2006

HAVANA -- European tourists here send home postcards with stamps bearing the images of five faces, known simply as los muchachos (the young men) or los cinco (the five). The faces, usually surrounded by billowing Cuban flags, stare out, larger than life, from factory walls, apartment buildings, billboards.

The five are heroes in Cuba, but villains to exiles in the United States, where they are serving long prison terms for espionage-related convictions in 2001.

Their case, once cheekily cast in the Miami news media as a "spy-vs.-spy," Cold War-era throwback, illuminates the resilience of the complicated, decades-long standoff entangling Cuba, the U.S. government and Cuban exile groups based in Florida. It is now also raising nettlesome questions about the nuances of terrorism and international espionage.

American officials tend to paint Cuban agents as infiltrators bent on undermining U.S. national security. But the Cuban government asserts they are men of courage, sent to the United States to ferret out terrorism plots by Cuban exile groups waging war against President Fidel Castro.

Since the Cuban Five were convicted, the reach of Havana's information-gathering machine -- described by a former CIA Cuba analyst, Brian Latell, as "among the four or five best anywhere in the world" -- has become even more apparent. In 2002, Ana Belen Montes, a senior analyst on Cuban affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Cubans; the year before, a high-ranking U.S. immigration official in Miami was convicted of disclosing classified information to Cuba. In January, a longtime professor at Florida International University and his wife, a mental health counselor at the college, pleaded not guilty to charges that they acted as spies for Castro.

But none of those cases has generated as much debate as that of the Cuban Five. There has been a groundswell of support for the five acknowledged agents among some American liberal groups and celebrities, including Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple," actor Danny Glover and author Noam Chomsky. A San Francisco group maintains a Web site called "National Committee to Free the Cuban Five." The Detroit City Council even passed a resolution in March calling for their release, saying the agents were attempting to prevent terrorism against Cuba.

The calls for their release gained momentum last August when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial, because of a "perfect storm" of bias in the Cuban exile bastion of Miami. The decision is now being reviewed by the full court.

In a recent interview, Ricardo Alarcon -- president of Cuba's National Assembly and the third-most-powerful political figure on the island after Castro and his brother, Raul -- described the work of secret agents as the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself. He called Cuba an object of terrorism, a nation under threat of violence.

Alarcon said hundreds of Cuban citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks since Castro came to power in 1959 and recalled banners saying "Iraq now, Cuba later" at demonstrations in Miami before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Asked whether Cuba would continue to send agents to the United States, Alarcon shifted from Spanish to English and said emphatically: "Yes, with a capital Y."

The Wasp Network

José Basulto, founder of an anti-Castro group in Miami, remembers a young man named Ruben Campa hanging around the airport where Basulto kept his planes in the mid-1990s. The planes were being used to save Cuban refugees stranded in the ocean between Florida and Cuba, and to drop anti-Castro leaflets in Havana, a tactic that infuriated the Cuban government.

Campa was quick to make friends and "eager to jump on the bandwagon," Basulto recalled, and soon he was flying missions for the group, Brothers to the Rescue.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company