Cuba-U.S. Negotiations and the Case of the Cuban Five
by Patricia Grogg
May 14, 2009
Reprinted from IPS
The case of the five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States will figure high among the priorities of the Cuban government in any eventual agenda of talks with Washington. Nonetheless, Havana seems to trust the pressure of the international community most of all to achieve their release.
Roberto Gonzalez, a lawyer for the defense and the brother of René Gonzalez, one of the operatives who received a severe prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage—which Cuba rejects— told IPS, “The release of the Cuban Five does not depend so much on the American government as the political struggle and the support movement with the cause.”
The lawyer believes one viable option would be the exchange of the Cuban Five for opponents [of the Cuban government] who are imprisoned in Cuba [accused of serving the interests of the US government]; in accordance with the initiative of “gesture for gesture” proposed by President Raul Castro in Brazil this past December. The suggestion was later endorsed by his older brother, Fidel, in one of his opinion articles known as “Reflections.”
“I believe it (the prisoner swap) is possible; everything depends on if there is the will to do it,” on the part of President Barack Obama, said Gonzalez. Likewise, Adriana Perez (the wife of Gerardo Hernandez, sentenced to life imprisonment) said it is a decision of the government of her country to look for alternatives in a case that the US administration should have solved a long time ago.
“We, the relatives, will always be first in line for the return of the five. We believe that another trail, another law or Supreme Court verdict is not necessary. It was an illegal and arbitrary trial and we believe that they have served their time with great dignity. Now it’s time that they return home,” she added.
Wives Denied Visits to Their Husbands
On April 10, Perez presented her tenth application for a visa to travel to United States, the first submitted under the Obama administration. “I am requesting a temporary visa to be able to visit Gerardo, and they have systematically refused that humanitarian right. We have not seen each other in more than 10 years,” the 39-year-old woman protested.
According to Perez, Olga Salanueva (the wife of René Gonzalez) was told last July that she should not submit new visa applications because she was ineligible, and that her only remaining option would be to obtain a humanitarian visa, because she had been deported from the United States. Salanueva hasn’t seen her husband since 2000.
Gerardo Hernandez, René Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Fernando Gonzalez were arrested on September 12, 1998 and accused of conspiracy to commit espionage; in addition, Hernandez was convicted of conspiring to commit murder.
A Miami jury found them guilty on all counts. Havana decided to appeal to the United States Supreme Court following the failure of the Court of Appeals of Atlanta, which ratified the rulings against Hernandez, sentenced to double life imprisonment and 15 years; and that against René Gonzalez, for 15 years.
At the same time, that same court returned to the federal court of Miami, for review of their sentences, the cases of Labañino (sentenced to life imprisonment plus 18 years), Fernando Gonzalez (19 years) and Guerrero (life imprisonment plus 10 years). The review of the sentence is to be carried out by Judge Joan Lenard, the very same judge that imposed the initial sentences in 2001 following a seven month trial.
Realism vs. Hope
Lawyer Roberto Gonzalez affirmed that the United States justice system has demonstrated itself “ineffective” in this case. “It is not that we don’t have hope, it’s that you have to be realistic,” he said, adding that the Supreme Court reviews only between one and two percent of the cases that it receives.
The legal expert recalled that 12 amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs were introduced in March requesting the review of the trail on the basis of defending true justice, taking into account the partial jury in the first trial and the many legal violations committed over the years.
Those statements, made by third parties not involved in the trial, were added to those presented by the defense lawyers in their January 30, 2009 appeal. On May 22nd, the US government must present its response to the Supreme Court, whose decision whether to accept the case would be made known around the end of June, Gonzalez explained.
“The problem is that the Supreme Court does not resolve injustices, instead it resolves conflicts between the decisions of circuit courts,” Gonzalez affirmed, who foresees that—if accepting the case—the highest judicial body would not issue its final ruling until 2010.
Obama’s Signature Could End the Injustice
During an international youth day in solidarity with the five prisoners, the president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, challenged Obama to solve the case like he did last week for two individuals accused of spying for Israel. “With the president’s signature this struggle concludes… He can put an end to this injustice,” he said.
Alarcon mentioned as a precedent that the United States Department of Justice dropped charges against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, leaders of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); they had been accused of passing secret defense information to a diplomat with the Israeli embassy.
One of the charges against the Cubans is conspiracy to commit espionage, “The difference is that Rosen and Weissman were collecting truly secret information,” commented Alarcon, who insisted on the falsity of the accusations made against his countrymen.
In a brief discussion with journalists, Alarcon confirmed that he maintains the idea put forward by President Castro of freeing the Cuban dissidents in exchange for the release of the five agents. “But, independently of that, it also remains possible for Obama to solve the case with his signature”, the legislator insisted.
After admitting that the two countries—distanced by a half-century conflict—have made “preliminary” contacts, Alarcon emphasized that “the day we sit down to speak seriously, that point (the Cuban Five) will be at the top of the agenda.”
The trial against the Cubans was held in the southeastern US city of Miami, which—according to American lawyer Leonard Weinglass, a member of the defense team—is the only place in the United States where “they could, in fact, not receive a fair trial,” given the pressure that is exerted there by the large community of exiled Cubans opposed to Havana.
The lawyer has noted on numerous occasions that these agents were sent to the United States by the Cuban government unarmed and with no plan to hurt that country. “Their only purpose was to monitor the network of terrorist groups that had been attacking Cuba since the victory of the Cuban Revolution,” in 1959, he asserted.