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Does the Release of the Cuban Five Prove the U.S. Failed to Destroy Cuba After Decades of Trying?

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As a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations begins, we host a roundtable discussion about the prisoners released as part of the new deal. Cuba freed USAID contractor Alan Gross and a former Cuban intelligence officer who who worked secretly for the CIA, and the United States released the remaining members of the Cuban Five: Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino. We speak with attorney Martin Garbus of the Cuban Five legal team and broadcast an excerpt from our 2013 interview with the first freed member of the Cuban Five, René González, who describes why he came to the United States to investigate militant Cuban exile groups. We also discuss the significance of the new relationship between the two countries. “Our government has been trying to destroy the Cuban Revolution since day one … and essentially this is an admission that it didn’t succeed,” says guest Michael Ratner, co-author of “Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder.” We are also joined by Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, who met twice with Gross while he was detained.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, on this historic day after the announcement of both President Obama as well as President Raúl Castro on the beginning of normalizations of relations between the United States and Cuba. But not everyone was happy. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida blasted President Obama’s new Cuba policy, calling it a, quote, “concession to a tyranny.” Rubio is Cuban-American. This is part of what he said.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: The White House has conceded everything and gained little. They gained no commitment on the part of the Cuban regime to freedom of press or freedom of speech or elections. No binding commitment was made to truly open up the Internet. No commitment was made to allowing the establishment of political parties or to even begin the semblance of a transition to democracy. And in exchange for all of these concessions, the only thing the Cuban government agreed to do is free 53 political prisoners, who could wind up in jail tomorrow morning if they once again take up the cause of freedom. …

These changes will lead to legitimacy for a government that shamelessly, continuously abuses human rights, but it will not lead to assistance for those whose rights are being abused. It is just another concession to a tyranny by the Obama administration, rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Florida Senator—that was Florida Senator Rubio.

We are joined right now by a roundtable of people. In Havana, Peter Kornbluh is with us, head of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. In Washington, D.C., Robert Muse is with us, who is a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, an expert relating to U.S. laws with Cuba. Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And we’re joined by Martin Garbus, who is part of the Cuban Five legal team. Time magazine calls him one of the best trial lawyers in the United States, while the National Law Journal has named him one of the country’s top 10 litigators. Your response to what has taken place this week?

MARTIN GARBUS: I mean, it’s extraordinary. It’s marvelous. I saw Gerardo about three weeks ago in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Gerardo is one of the three remaining Cuban Five.

MARTIN GARBUS: Gerardo Hernández, who had a double life sentence. And it’s hard to believe he ever would have gotten out under the American legal system. He was unjustly convicted, as you mentioned before. And it’s just extraordinary to—I was looking at a guy over the last many years who—an extraordinary human being who was languishing in a jail, sometimes under solitary confinement. And the idea that he’s now out, will be able to build a family with he and his wife, is just wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, what was it like when the three remaining jailed members of the Cuban Five arrived in Havana?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, it certainly was a big moment for quite a few Cubans. Raúl Castro, in his presentation on television yesterday at noon, really led with the story that the counterterrorism heroes, as they’re called here in Cuba, were coming home, that Cuba had released a Cuban CIA asset in return and also an American citizen, Alan Gross. And that was essentially his beginning. The normalization of relations with the United States kind of came second, and I wouldn’t say it was secondary, but certainly was burying the lede, if you will.

And for Cubans, of course, there’s been this campaign here in Cuba, also in the United States and around the world, a solidarity campaign, which Martin has been such a part of, to free these last remaining agents. And just like any other country that I think has people abroad in prison who have represented the government, these men have been away from their families for 16 years. The television last night was filled with images of them reuniting with their families, meeting with Raúl Castro, going to see their old friends. So, it certainly was an important event for Cuba. Certainly, it was. A lot of images on the television, a lot of discussion in the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to one of the—the first of the Cuban Five who were released, René González, who I interviewed when he returned to Cuba, Martin Garbus, if you could talk about these five men, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in the United States, and yet they said they were here, yes, spying, but spying on violent anti-Cuba groups?

MARTIN GARBUS: They were here working with the United States government to try and stop the right-wing groups in Florida from continuing to invade Cuba, through the—sending arms down to Cuba, from flying over the island, and from actually killing people on the island. There was an explosion at a hotel, and many people were killed. So they were working with the cooperation of the American government.

Let me just say one thing before I get into that. There’s a lawyer whose name hasn’t been mentioned—Lenny Weinglass—who you know very well. And before me, Lenny worked for 10 years on the Cuban Five case, one of the great American lawyers. And whatever the result here is, he certainly is owed something for it, at least an acknowledgment.

AMY GOODMAN: He died a few years ago.

MARTIN GARBUS: He died a few years ago. Wonderful lawyer.

And then, after Elián González in Florida, and at the same time as you had the Bush-Gore vote in Florida, it became necessary to find someone to blame for some killings which occurred in 1996. My client was ultimately arrested and then convicted. He was arrested three-and-a-half years, for allegedly the killings, after the incident occurred, although the American government had all this information for some three-and-a-half years prior to that. And then, ultimately, he’s charged. And the first time there’s a conviction, the appellate court reverses the conviction, because the jury was unfairly composed of people hostile to the Cuban government. And—excuse me.

AMY GOODMAN: You said that they worked with the U.S. government. Explain.

MARTIN GARBUS: They worked with the U.S. government. They were turning information over to the U.S. government of terrorist activities done by the right wing. And that information was being spread, and there was in fact meetings in Havana between the American government and representatives of the Wasp group who were exchanging information.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama said in his address, about the release of these three men, that the release—well, he didn’t name Trujillo, the Cuban agent working for the CIA who was held by Cuba for something like 20 years—

MARTIN GARBUS: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —who was just released yesterday, but he said that that spy for the U.S. had helped give them information that led to the imprisonment of the Cuban Five.

MARTIN GARBUS: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a moment to René González, to this Democracy Now! exclusive. He was the first of the men to be freed, the Cuban Five, in October 2011, returned to Cuba last year. He joined us on Democracy Now! from Havana, Cuba. And I began by asking him why he did come 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: That was René González. He has been now living back in Cuba for a few years, one of the Cuban Five. Now all five are back in Cuba. Less is well known in this country, or certainly in the last 24 hours there’s almost no real discussion of who these men are, much more attention paid to Alan Gross, who was the USAID subcontractor who went down to Cuba and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served five of those years and was released yesterday. Martin Garbus?

MARTIN GARBUS: Robert Gross was a—

AMY GOODMAN: Alan Gross.

MARTIN GARBUS: Pardon me. Alan Gross was a USAID employee. He was sent down with satellite equipment, consistently. He made about six trips down there, sometimes using other people to send equipment. And the equipment was used to break—to allow people on the island to directly communicate with the United States so that the Cuban security networks or the Cuban Internet lines would not pick it up. So it was the setting up of a spy operation within Cuba.

He was supported, because he was Jewish, by Jewish groups. He originally claimed that he was down there working on behalf of Jewish groups to spread information to other Jewish groups in Miami. He ultimately admitted that that wasn’t true. He ultimately sued the American government for sending him down there without warning him specifically about what was going to happen to him. So there’s very little question any longer that he was sent down by the government. He said he was sent down by the government; the government admitted it. And in America, he’s portrayed as something other than that, but that portrayal is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, you met with Alan Gross in prison in Cuba, is that right?

PETER KORNBLUH: Yes, I met with Alan Gross twice over a one-year period for a total of seven hours. He was in a military hospital, a wing of a military hospital that had been converted to a prison. We talked a lot about what he was doing, what he was feeling. He became very angry at his own government for abandoning him here for all these years. It is clear, for the last year, through back channel means, the Obama White House has been negotiating to get him out. My sense of talking to him was that his mental state was so fragile that he might actually go on a hunger strike and die, attempt some type of suicide escape plan and be hurt or killed, or attack a guard.

And all of that would have—anything that happened to him here in a Cuban military prison would have certainly compromised any possibility of the Obama administration moving forward, as it did yesterday, on completely changing—reversing course 180 percent the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, burying the perpetual antagonism of the past and moving forward to a normal relation in the future. So, getting Alan Gross out through this prisoner exchange was extremely important. It really was the first step. And what we saw yesterday is the Obama White House deciding to do an entire package all at the same time, not doing one step at a time to change U.S.-Cuban relations, but getting Alan Gross out, returning the Cuban spies to Cuba, and then essentially ending, to the degree that the president can, the hostility and the aggression in U.S. policy towards Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Upon returning home from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, USAID subcontractor Alan Gross addressed reporters in Washington, D.C.

ALAN GROSS: What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country. And thank you, President Obama, for everything that you have done today and leading up to today. … But ultimately—ultimately, the decision to arrange—to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office. To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you.

In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my five-year tenure in captivity, I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly wouldn’t want to trade places with him on this glorious day. Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community.

I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba. In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected. To me, Cubanos—or at least most of them—are incredibly kind, generous and talented. It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies. Five-and-a-half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right. I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies. And I was very happy to hear what the president had to say today.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alan Gross speaking in his lawyers’ offices yesterday in Washington, D.C. We’re also joined by Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who co-authored two books on Cuba, one, Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder, and, as well, another book on the FBI and Che Guevara. Michael, actually, technically, it wasn’t a prisoner exchange between Alan Gross and the three remaining members of the Cuban Five. Cuba released Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds?

MICHAEL RATNER: Right. And in Raúl’s speech, he was very clear on that. He said, “Under our legal system, what we have done is decide to release Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds.” He was not part of the exchange. The exchange was, as Marty has pointed out, for the three Cuban Five members remaining in prison, for freeing this man named Trujillo, who you mentioned, who was the agent that the Cubans had jailed, as well as perhaps what we understand is 53 other, what the U.S. refers to as, political prisoners in Cuba. So, that was the exchange. But Alan Gross was let out on humanitarian grounds. As a broader picture, I mean, you know, when I heard the news first about the Cuban Five, I was just—I almost wept, because that, to me, was the most personal story of outrage.

AMY GOODMAN: They had been held for 15 years, more than.

MICHAEL RATNER: And on a complete—you know, on a case that was not worth anything, as Marty can tell you, as Lenny could have told us before. So I read that, and I found that extraordinary. But I think it should be understood—as Peter said, “finally,” for this, after some 50 years—but in fact it’s a great victory for the Cuban people and for the Cuban government, because this government, our government, has been trying to destroy the Cuban Revolution since day one, since before day one, and essentially this is an admission that it didn’t succeed. Yes, it hurt it. Yes, it made it economically difficult. Yes, it changed it in terms of being an example for the rest of the world, perhaps. But it was unable to destroy it. And in the end, they had to cry uncle, the United States. They tried everything. They tried blowing up airplanes. They tried bombing cafés. And they tried economic—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s actually go back. It was—it started under President Eisenhower in the last few weeks of his administration, the overall embargo against Cuba, that was then just intensified by President Kennedy. This has gone through 10 presidents.

MICHAEL RATNER: Yes, intensified by President Kennedy, but our listeners should not forget—and many of them were not alive when it happened, unlike Marty and myself—the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when the U.S. actually tried to overthrow the government of Cuba by landing on the beach in what we call in English the Bay of Pigs. And they failed. And thousands of people were taken prisoners by the Cubans. And after that is when things got very, very—I mean, they were serious then, but at that point, then the embargo was imposed, starting through 1962, with full force. But military actions, terrorism, that just continued up until, as we pointed out, even with Alan Gross and AID still going in there to undermine the government, both physically, like that, as well as economically, which—that we’ve seen now with the embargo. So, this is really a major, major victory.

Now, the other points I think that are important in Obama’s speech and, of course, Raúl’s speech, as well—Raúl, as you said, started with the Cuban Five, which shows how important that case was. But in Obama’s talk, he talks about diplomatic relations, which we’ll see, and then he talks about the embargo and starting to loosen up some aspects of the embargo, giving us a little wider travel, but of course not opening travel fully, which he could do immediately. He could allow you and I to just get on a plane tomorrow as tourists, Amy, and go to Cuba. He didn’t do that. He could do a lot more on the embargo. In fact, with licensing, he can probably undercut the embargo completely, almost completely. But he said in that speech, “Well, I have to work with Congress to do it.” In fact, he doesn’t. So, in fact, he has still a lot to calibrate with regard to Cuba to continue to put pressure on Cuba through ways, or not ways, of lifting the embargo.

And, you know, you ask yourself, why did this happen now? That’s one of the questions I think I’d like to hear other people talk about, because I’m not sure. I mean, part of it, of course, is the change in Latin America, and he referred to that. You have progressive, left-of-center and even leftist governments in many countries in Latin America, and Cuba is no longer isolated the way it was in the early '60s, when you had military dictatorships. And maybe to get along in that region, they had to do that. What he also said is, “Well, our policy doesn't work. It didn’t work.” And, of course, what he claims the policy was, was to bring democracy to Cuba. In fact, it was to destroy the Communist revolution in Cuba, so it couldn’t be an example. So now, perhaps, he’s buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we’ll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned blowing up an airliner. I want to go to that, to the late Saul Landau’s film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants. This excerpt details in part how Cuban exiles like Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch teamed up in 1976 to bomb a Cuban airliner—something that they deny now. This is that moment that the Cubana Airlines, with 73 passengers on board, is hit.


AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, [inaudible].

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: We have had explosion. We are descending immediately. We have a fire on board.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, are you returning to the field?

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: This is Cubana 455. We are requesting immediately, immediately landing. Close the door! Close the door!

FLIGHT RECORDER: The time is 17:27.

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: It’s getting worse! Crash landing into the sea!

CBS EVENING NEWS: This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Nine days ago, a Cuban passenger jet en route from Barbados to Havana crashed into the sea following an onboard explosion. Seventy-three persons, 57 of them Cuban, were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of the film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion on this day after the historic announcement of the beginning of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Stay with us.

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Can Obama Lift the Embargo on Cuba Without Congress in Effort to Normalize U.S.-Cuba Relations?

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