- René Gonzálezformer Cuban intelligence agent and freed member of the Cuban Five.
As the United States opens talks with Cuba aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations and has released the remaining members of the Cuban Five, we feature a Democracy Now! exclusive interview with the first freed member of the group. In this October 2013 interview René González, speaks out after a 13-year imprisonment in the United States. Scroll down to read the complete transcript of the interview.
Today Cuba released Alan Gross, a subcontractor for U.S. Agency for International Development, after five years in prison, while the United States freed the three remaining members of the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labañino. See all of our coverage of the Cuban Five.
The five Cuban intelligence agents were arrested in the United States in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. They say they were not spying on the United States, but rather trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups responsible for attacks inside Cuba. In Cuba, the five are seen as national heroes. González was released in October 2011 and returned to Cuba in April. Joining us from Havana, González discusses why he came to the United States to spy on Cuban exiles, his arrest, and the four other members of the Cuban Five who remain in jail.
Click here to watch our October 2013 interview with Ricardo Alarcón, Cuba’s former foreign minister and former president of the Cuban National Assembly. He joined us from Havana to discuss the meetings between Cuban authorities and the FBI in Cuba and the threat posed by militant exiles.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a Democracy Now! exclusive.
DANNY GLOVER: Excuse me, sir. Do you know who the Cuban Five are?
CALIFORNIA MAN 1: Weren’t they those guys that—that played the U.S. in the semi-finals of the Pan American Games in the basketball tournament?
DANNY GLOVER: Do you know who the Cuban Five are? The Cuban Five are five men who were defending their country against terrorism.
CALIFORNIA MAN 2: Oh, yeah, the Cuban Five. Aren’t they that salsa band?
CALIFORNIA MAN 3: Americans?
DANNY GLOVER: No, they’re Cuban.
CALIFORNIA MAN 3: Cubans.
CALIFORNIA MAN 2: Why haven’t I ever heard about that?
CALIFORNIA WOMAN 1: The Cuban Five? They’re that rock band, right?
CALIFORNIA MAN 4: Hey, Danny.
DANNY GLOVER: Hey.
CALIFORNIA MAN 4: What are you doing out here, man?
DANNY GLOVER: I—man, you know who the Cuban Five are?
CALIFORNIA MAN 4: Not really.
DANNY GLOVER: Well, you want to find out?
CALIFORNIA MAN 4: No, no, no, no. Don’t take a picture of me, please. OK.
DANNY GLOVER: Alright. The police looking for you?
What they did was they infiltrated terrorist groups in Miami, of exiles, which had been planning attacks on the Cuban people and foreign citizens inside Cuba. The Cuban Five have a right to defend the Cuban revolution.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the acclaimed actor and activist, Danny Glover, in a clip from the documentary, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, by the late filmmaker Saul Landau. Danny Glover was asking people in California about the Cuban Five, the subject of our show today.
Fifteen years ago, five Cuban intelligence agents were arrested in the United States. Four remain locked up. The fifth will join us today from Havana. They say they were not spying on the United States but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups here responsible for attacks inside Cuba.
NELSON VALDÉS: The Berlin Wall comes to an end in the fall of 1989. The Soviet Union comes to an end in November 1991. The Cuban economy is going into a free fall. And the Cuban exiles decide that they have to enhance the attacks that they’re going to carry out on Cuba.
FABIÁN ESCALANTE: [translated] We had to send our men in order to know what plots they were hatching. And where were they hatching those plots? In Miami.
SAUL LANDAU: In 1990, René González hijacked a plane in Cuba and flew it to Miami. Shortly afterwards, he joined Brothers to the Rescue. He was followed by Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Gerardo Hernández and Fernando González. Years later, these men would be known as the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence agents whose job was to penetrate violent exile groups.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the late filmmaker Saul Landau narrating his film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. Today we’ll be joined by René González from Havana in his first extended U.S. television interview since his release from jail. He returned to Cuba earlier this year after spending 13 years in U.S. prison.
In Cuba, the five are seen as national heroes. They were spying on a group of exiles in Florida that had carried out a string of deadly attacks, including the 1976 bombing of Cubana Flight 455, killing all 73 people on board, and the 1997 hotel bombings in Havana.
One of the groups in Florida the men infiltrated was called Brothers to the Rescue, founded by a CIA-trained exile named José Basulto, who flew planes from Florida and Cuba to provoke the Cuban government. In 1996, Cuba shot down two of the group’s planes after they flew into or near Cuban airspace. Four people died. The Cuban Five also infiltrated Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos and the Cuban American National Foundation.
In 1998, the five were arrested. Charges included conspiracy to commit espionage, acting as an agent of a foreign government and, in one case, conspiracy to commit murder. Instead of deporting the spies back to Cuba, the U.S. put them on trial in Miami, a move widely criticized. Robert Pastor, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America, said, quote, “Holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran.”
This is another clip from the documentary, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. It begins with retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Look at the draconian sentences that they got. Two life sentences plus 15 years? And this is supposed to be because of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown and so forth, which I have absolutely no way of knowing the truth about, because our government, the Cuban-American community and others have so clouded the facts and so obfuscated all of the available material on it.
LOCAL 10 REPORTER: Speaking on his own behalf, Gerardo Hernández said, “It is necessary for some countries to send their sons and daughters to defend themselves, to carry out dangerous missions, be they in Afghanistan or in South Florida.”
NINOSKA PÉREZ CASTELLÓN: It’s not whether they were sent here because acts of terrorism were being—were happening in Cuba. You do not send people to spy in other countries because you think that they are committing or you say they’re committing acts. Those five that are—you know, try to be painted as heroes, are murderers.
FOX NEWS REPORTER: All the men were given maximum sentences, kept in solitary confinement for more than a year, barred from seeing certain family members, and what they believe was the most prejudicial, they were not granted a change of venue out of Miami.
LEONARD WEINGLASS: Well, there was ample evidence of intimidation of the jury. And, in fact, some of the jurors, during the voir dire process, when they were being selected, specifically said that they were afraid for their families if they reached a verdict in this case that was not acceptable to the exile community in Miami.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I do not understand why the trial proceeded in Dade County, Florida. A change of venue, to me as a layman, is something that is demanded when there is absolutely no chance of the defendant or defendants getting a fair trial in the area where they’re going to be tried.
REP. GEORGE MILLER: Not all terrorists are treated the same. Clearly, those that are favored by the administration can operate with impunity inside the United States. People who went to partake in violent acts against Cuba are protected. And yet you see individuals who were trying to stop those acts of terrorists, to try to make American law enforcement aware of these activities, are the people who end up being prosecuted—I mean, people who end up in jail. And those who blow up airliners, those who blow up hotels, those who conduct acts of violence are free—they’re the toast of the town—because the administration is paralyzed by their own policy with respect to Cuba, with their own policy with respect to the war on terror. And what you see is a level of duplicity that is incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic Congressmember George Miller of California. Before him, Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, as well as the late Cuban Five attorney Leonard Weinglass and Cuban exile Ninoska Pérez Castellón. That was all from an excerpt of the film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up.
When we come back, we go to Havana, Cuba, to speak with René González, the only freed member of the Cuban Five, about why he came to the United States to spy on Cuban militant exiles. He’ll talk about his arrest and the four other members of the Cuban Five who remain in jail in this country. We’ll also speak with Ricardo Alarcón. Up until earlier this year, he was the president of the Cuban National Assembly. He was also Cuba’s former foreign minister. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez during a concert in honor of the Cuban Five in Havana in September. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with a Democracy Now! exclusive. We turn now to René González, the only freed member of the Cuban Five. He was released in October of 2011. He returned to Cuba in April of this year after being jailed in the United States for 13 years. I recently spoke to him from Havana via Democracy Now! video stream. I began by asking him why he came to the United States to investigate militant Cuban exile groups.
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, for my generation Cubans, it was part of our development or common experience to have seen people coming from Miami raiding our shores, shooting at hotels, killing people here in Cuba, blowing up airplanes. So, we were really familiar with the terrorist activities that the Cuban people had been suffering for almost four years back then. So it wasn’t hard for me to accept the mission of going there and monitor the activities of some of those people, who had been trained by the CIA in the '60s. Some of them had participated in Bay of Pigs. Some of them had gone then—after that, had gone to South America as part of the Operation Condor. And if you look at the history of those people, you can see their link to the worst actions of the U.S. government, be they Iran-Contras—even the Kennedy assassination plot was linked to them. So, it wasn't hard for me to accept the mission and to go there to protect the Cuban people’s lives, and that’s what I did.
AMY GOODMAN: What were some of the groups that you and your colleagues came to infiltrate? What were their names, and what specifically did you know they were doing in Miami?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, if we are talking about that, we should start by Luis Posada Carriles, who’s still in Miami. He’s living there under the protection of the U.S. government. Posada Carriles has a long story of terrorism against not only Cuba, but also even in the United States. He was responsible for the blowing up of the Cubana airliner in 1976 in Venezuela. And later on, when we were in Miami, he was also organizing the bombs which were placed on the hotels in Havana. But it’s not only him. I mean, he doesn’t work alone. The sad part is that he was being paid for by the Cuban American National Foundation, which is a legal organization linked to the Washington establishment, an organization which has a lobby in Washington, which has paid for the election campaigns of guys like Ileana Ros or Lincoln Diaz-Balart. And those people were paying these terrorists—that terrorist to put bombs in Havana in 1997. So that’s an example of the whole scheme that we were facing there.
And, of course, there were some other people, like José Basulto, who founded Brothers to the Rescue, but before that he had a long history of terrorism against Cuba. We had Orlando Bosch, who together with Luis Posada Carriles, was involved in the plot in Venezuela to blow up the Cubana airliner. And we have, for example, the Novo Sampoll brothers, who were linked to the assassination of Orlando Letelier in Washington with a car bomb. So the list is long, but those are the—those were the people we were watching on, and that was our mission there.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you make it from Cuba to Miami? Explain how you came up.
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, I was a pilot here in Cuba. So I was flying with the skydiving operations here for sports operations. And, well, I took a chance and stole a plane, and I landed in Key West. Of course, I had been born in the United States, so when I landed there, I showed my birth certificate, and then they allowed me to go back to my family’s house. And then I ended up with Brothers to the Rescue, which was the first organization that I infiltrated there. And the rest was just linking up with all those people and, you know, going from one group to another to find out their plots against the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And what most surprised you about what you found in the linkages of these groups, from Brothers to the Rescue? Talk about what Brothers to the Rescue was doing and who was supporting them and what you were reporting back to Cuba.
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, as I told you, Brothers to the Rescue was founded by—I mean, he’s a main celebrity, I would say he was—José Basulto, was a young guy trained by the CIA during the Bay of Pigs invasion. But he was part of what was called back then the infiltration teams. So it wasn’t only him, but a bunch of guys from the infiltration teams, they were the ones who created Brothers to the Rescue. Initially, it was—I would say it was more of a psych-op operation. They tried to incite people to leave Cuba by boats or rafts, and then they would pretend that—let’s say, they would rescue some of them and, you know, make propaganda out of that rescue operations. It was a very intelligent operation, because, you know, it was premised on a—on a team that appeals to humanitarian feelings of the people—rescuing rafters, saving lives.
And at the beginning, they grew up, you know, out of the support from the people in Miami. But then, after 1995, when the immigration agreements were signed off between Cuba and the United States, they resorted to invading the Cuban airspace, going—or, flying Havana, launching things. And they started to develop some other plans, which even included the use of some explosive to plant in Cuba. So, they began really dangerous. By 1995, they were already trying to do some different things than the ones they had done at the beginning. And, you know, those were the activities I was reporting on.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Basulto talking about a weapon they had to test in the Everglades?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, that was presented as evidence on the trial. He devised a weapon which would be like a flare. Let’s go back to the beginning, because even when he was saving lives, he—he called me once, and he asked for my advice to introduce some explosives in Cuba. It was in 1994—I mean, 1992, sorry. His idea back then was to blow up some power lines. You know, back then, in 1992, the economic situation in Cuba was really hard, and we had blackouts every day. So, maybe he decided that he could do something to make those blackouts more common. And he was already devising a scheme to introduce in Cuba with his airplanes some explosive to be planted on the power lines. But that was back in 1992.
Then, after that, he was involved in some plots to buy some leftover military Russian planes. I remember he was trying to buy an L-39, which was a Czechoslovakian military training plane. He was trying to buy a MiG-23, which was a Soviet-built plane.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you came to be arrested in the United States?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s a long process, but I’m going to make it short. By the middle of 1998, there was an opportunity for the two governments, Cuba and the United States, to work together against terrorism. An FBI delegation had visited Havana for some days in June of that year. And before they left Cuba for the United States, they assured the Cuban government that they would do something about the voluminous information that had been given to them on terrorist activities against Cuba, based mainly in Florida. And three months after that meeting, all of a sudden things changed, and the FBI raided our homes, and we all were arrested on September 12th, 1998. They put us in solitary confinement for a year and a half. And then, the whole story started to develop.
AMY GOODMAN: What was your time in jail like, in prison for 15 years? How were you treated?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, I would say there were two stages. In Miami, they did everything in their power to break us down. They put us in solitary confinement. They kept us in a hole for a year and a half. They used the conditions of confinement to prevent our access to the evidence of the trial, which is one of the grounds why the United Nations group on arbitrary detentions rejected the trial, by the way, and also Amnesty International. They used my family also to punish me. They didn’t allow me to see my daughters, for some reason they came up with. And it applied only to me, because nobody else in that building had that limitation. So, I could say—I will like to say, but they were very brutal during our time in Miami.
But, well, after that, you go, you know, to the normal—when you go to Pennsylvania, you’re not anymore. And that’s one of the reasons that we say the trial couldn’t be held in Miami, because once you leave Miami, then you are a normal person again.
AMY GOODMAN: And where are the other members of the Cuban Five, the four who are still in prison? One about to be released—is that right?—in February.
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Fernando, he should finish his sentence in February next year. And I hope he comes right away to Cuba, because he’s not a U.S. citizen, so he should be deported from the U.S. And then is Antonio, who is still four years away. Ramón is already—is still 11 years away, which is—it would be a crime to keep him in jail. And then Gerardo, who is still dealing with one life sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: And where are they all in prison?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, they’re scattered all over the United States. Antonio, he went to the prison where I’m at now, Marianna. Fernando is in Arizona in a prison, in an immigration prison, I believe low-level prison. Ramón is in Ashland in Kentucky, I believe it is. And Fernando is in—Gerardo is in Victorville in California.
AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope that they will be released before their term? I mean, for example, Gerardo is in prison—what is it—right now on two life sentences?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, my main hope is that the nature of the trial is too murky, is too perverse, to withstand the pressure of the best people in the world. I believe that this injustice, this trial, is going to go down in history as one of the worst example of what they call U.S. justice. And I hope that the U.S. government, little by little, is going to feel that the weight of this injustice is costing them more than the solving the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: You were already jailed, because it was in June of 2001 that you were convicted. You were in jail at the time of the 9/11 attacks, right? September 11, 2001. And I’m wondering about your thoughts at the time. I mean, before that, the deadliest airline terrorism in the hemisphere was 1976, was the downing of the Cubana airliner in Venezuela that took out the entire Cuban Olympic—that took out the Cuban Olympic fencing team, killed 73 people on board. Ultimately, Posada Carriles was convicted in absentia by Panama, who lives in Miami. Your thoughts on what happened then, that kind of what is called terrorism, and where you were, in prison?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, my first reaction was shock. Of course, nobody can forget that day. I was in my cell, and all of a sudden somebody called me: “Look at this!” And, you know, I just walked out of the cell, and there was a TV set, and the first plane had already hit the first tower. So I was—you know, I thought that it was an accident at first. So we were talking about that accident, how it happened, whatever. And then, all of a sudden I saw the second hit, and I just couldn’t believe it. And, of course, it was—it was shocking. I was moved by all those—I can never forget those people having to jump from buildings. It’s something that you don’t wish would happen to anybody. And, you know, the first reaction was just the shock of—at something so horrible.
And then you have to think a little more about that. And, well, I believe—on my elocution to the judge, I talk about it a little bit. I believe that as long as somebody believe that there are some good terrorists and some bad terrorists, terrorism is going to be there. And it’s a pity because, as I said to the judge, and you can be a capitalist, you can be Jew, you can be a Catholic or a Muslim, and be a good person. But a terrorist is a sick person; it’s not a good person. And for me, the fact that some people, like my prosecutors, for example, believe that some terrorists deserve to be protected and some don’t, I mean, is a—I can’t believe that in the 21st century this is happening yet.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was your reaction to those who said that Cuba shooting down the Brothers to the Rescue plane, February 24th, 1996, killing four members of Brothers to the Rescue, was a terroristic act?
RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: I don’t see—I mean, the definition of “terrorism” doesn’t go that far. Terrorism, although I know—I acknowledge the definition is too politically sometimes, politically motivated, but my definition is that it is a—it’s the imposition of violence indiscriminately to instill fear among the surviving people. And I don’t see how it fits what happens on February 1996. We are talking about a guy who was trying to be a terrorist, who all of a sudden discovered that he’s a humanitarian, and he creates an organization. He’s flying for years in front of the Cuban coast without any incident at all, while he is saving rafters. Cuba doesn’t interfere on his activities. And all of a sudden he decides that he can break into the Cuban airspace, do whatever he wants in Cuba, and he even starts devising plans to introduce explosives in Cuba and to introduce weapons in Cuba using those planes. And, I mean, anybody would accept that defending the country against those actions is an act of sovereignty.
AMY GOODMAN: René González, the only freed member of the Cuban Five. He was released October 2011, returned to Cuba last April after being jailed in the United States for 13 years. We were speaking to him in Havana. When we come back, Ricardo Alarcón, former president of the Cuban National Assembly, also Cuba’s former foreign minister. We’ll talk about his meetings with the FBI, why Cuba called the FBI to Havana to meet. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.