First of the 'Cuban Five' spies set to be released from prison Friday
A Castro agent who was convicted a decade ago as part of the so-called
Cuban Five will be the first to be released from prison, but he won't be
allowed to leave the United States for Cuba.
BY JAY WEAVER
René González, an airplane pilot imprisoned for 13 years for spying on
anti-Castro groups in Miami, will be a free man Friday -- but the first
of the so-called Cuban Five agents to be released from prison won't be
going home to Cuba anytime soon.
González, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, must serve his three years of
probation in the United States, a judge has ruled, possibly in South
Florida where he and four colleagues were found guilty of conspiring to
infiltrate Cuban exile groups and a U.S. military complex.
As soon as the 55-year-old González is released from a federal prison in
North Florida, his lawyer said he will renew his client's request to
serve the supervised release in Cuba so he can be reunited with his wife
and two daughters -- a bid that prosecutors in Miami strongly oppose.
"He has no family in the United States," said attorney Philip Horowitz,
who represented González at the Cuban Five federal trial in Miami in
2000-01. "His goal is to return home to Cuba -- home to [wife] Olga,
home to [daughters] Irma and Ivette."
"Unbelievably, [prosecutors] want René to remain in the United States to
serve his three years of supervised release," Horowitz said in a recent
telephone press conference sponsored by a San Francisco-based group
seeking his and the other defendants' freedom. "Our contention is that
it's three years of additional punishment away from his family."
Horowitz would not disclose where his client plans to live, citing
González and the other Cuban Five convicts are considered heros in Cuba
-- in the government-run media, on billboards and murals across the
island, and among everyday citizens. The men also are the subject of
widespread international campaigns of support.
Cuban newspapers and airwaves continually demand the agents' release.
Former President Fidel Castro chimed in this week, calling U.S. District
Judge Joan Lenard's recent decision blocking González's return to Cuba
"brutal, blundering and expected."
"This is how the empire responds to the increasing demand around the
world for their freedom," Castro wrote. "If it weren't so, the empire
would cease to be an empire and [President] Obama would cease to be stupid."
The five defendants stood trial after being charged as part of a
14-member ring called La Red Avispa, the Wasp Network, at the conclusion
of a major FBI counterespionage operation. Five others reached plea
bargains requiring them to cooperate, and four are fugitives believed to
be in Cuba.
González was convicted of conspiring and acting as a Castro agent. The
spy ring's links to the Cuban government's 1996 shoot-down of two
exile-group planes in international waters over the Florida Straits --
killing four Brothers to the Rescue members -- rendered the case all the
The Cuban Five went to trial against the bitter backdrop of young Cuban
rafter Elian González's return to Cuba and other lingering tensions from
the shoot-down incident.
González and the other four spies -- Gerardo Hernández, Antonio
Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Fernando González (no relation) --
maintained a simple defense: They collaborated on a righteous mission to
thwart the Miami exile community's militant plots against Castro and his
González, like his convicted colleagues, remained defiant when he stood
before Judge Lenard at his sentencing in December 2001. She gave him 15
years. The other men got terms ranging from 18 years to life in prison.
But a Miami Herald story noted that his speech to the judge, in a
courtroom packed with opponents and supporters including his daughter
Irma, had a sharper tone than the others'.
He attacked prosecutors as "hypocrites" for going after Cuban agents but
not militant exiles. He also said that he enjoyed seeing the prosecutors
"squirm" in court.
González was "resolutely and expressly unrepentant during and following
his trial," according to prosecutors. In recently filed court papers,
Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller quoted his words at the
sentencing to bolster their contention that he should be required to
serve his probation in the United States so he can actually be
"supervised" after his release from prison.
According to a court transcript, González said: "The manner in which I
acted fits perfectly with the conduct described in the statutes under
which I was charged. ... Thus, I don't even have the right to ask for
clemency for myself. ... I would like to believe you will understand why
I have no reason to be remorseful. ... [My co-defendants] were convicted
for having committed the crime of being men of honor."
But the judge condemned his speech, saying his "personal beliefs do not
justify his criminal conduct." She also said that "the terrorist acts by
others cannot excuse the wrongful or illegal acts by this defendant or
Lenard also chastised the Chicago-born González, who lived most of his
early life in Cuba, for using his U.S. citizenship as a means to
re-enter and live in the United States to serve a Communist regime.
"But his reclamation of that status was not for the pursuit of liberty
or even the unalienable right of the pursuit of happiness," the judge
said. "His purpose in asserting his United States citizenship to
re-enter and live in the United States was to serve a different master."
Lenard sentenced González to the maximum of five years for the
conspiracy conviction and the maximum of 10 years for acting as a Cuban
agent unregistered in the United States. He was allowed to serve 13 of
those years primarily in a medium-security federal prison in Marianna,
gaining credit for good behavior and other factors.
González reclaimed his citizenship after a daring defection in a stolen
Cuban crop duster in 1990. In Miami, he posed as an ardent anti-Castro
activist at the same time he was on Castro's payroll as an intelligence
He joined the inner circles of and flew planes for two key exile groups
-- Brothers to the Rescue and the Democracy Movement -- while reporting
back to Havana on both organizations and working to cause internal dissent.
According to trial evidence, Hernández, the network's spymaster,
received encrypted radio messages from his Havana intelligence handlers
directing him to warn Rene González and another agent, Juan Pablo Roque,
not to fly on any Brothers to the Rescue's missions from Feb. 24-27, 1996.
Roque returned to Cuba one day before the Feb. 24 shoot-down and was
subsequently revealed to be a double agent. Hernández was the only Cuban
Five member convicted of the murder conspiracy.
Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto, who was in a separate plane
on the day of the deadly shoot-down, was a close friend of González's.
At the time of his sentencing, Basulto said his courtroom speech told
him all he needed to know about the man he once trusted.
"I wanted to see what was inside of him, and he provided us with an
X-ray of his feelings: hate and resentment," Basulto said in 2001.
On Friday, Basulto said that González was the most ideologically driven
of the Cuban Five, and that his contempt for this country probably
helped him get through years of prison.
"I don't think the guy has changed at all," Basulto said. "He's the same
resentful person he has always been."
As for his fate, Basulto said the "best thing" for González would be for
the judge to let him go back to Cuba. "He has no place here," he said.
"I don't think we on this side of the Florida Straits have any use for a
person like him."
González's attorney, Horowitz, recently argued in court papers that his
client should be allowed to return to Cuba to serve probation just like
other foreign nationals who are deported after serving their sentences.
But Miller, the prosecutor, disagreed, saying González should not be
allowed to seek modification of his probation until he is released from
prison. The prosecutor also flatly opposed any changes, asserting that
González could not be supervised by the U.S. probation office if he were
living in Cuba.
Miller also cited a "special condition" that the judge imposed on his
three-year probation: González "is prohibited from associating with or
visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists,
members of organizations advocating violence, and organized-crime
figures are known to be or frequent."
In September, Lenard, the judge, denied González's request to modify his
probation, saying it was "premature." She said he can resubmit it after
his release, but noted several other factors would come into play,
including the nature of his offense and criminal history, among others.
The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, the San Francisco-based
advocacy group, has decried Lenard's decision. The group has posted a
petition addressed to President Barack Obama on its web page to rally
support for González.
"González's wife, Olga Salanueva, has continually been denied visas to
enter the U.S. to visit him in prison, and as a result the two have not
seen each other since August 2000 -- more than eleven years," the
"The U.S. government now wants to add three more years to this
punishment, something which surely qualifies as 'cruel and unsual,' not
to mention a violation of all standards of human rights."