Comité Nacional por la Libertad de los Cinco Cubanos

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Raul Castro's proposal isn't for classic spy swap

by Carol Rosenberg
Apr. 17, 2009
Reprinted from Miami Herald

Cuban President Rául Castro's offer to free political prisoners in exchange for five Cuban agents envisions no classic Cold War era spy-for-spy swap.

Instead Castro pointedly called for the United States to free the five men serving 15 years to life in American prisons for conducting espionage in Miami.

And in exchange, he vowed to send political prisoners and their families to U.S. shores.

'Release our prisoners and we'll send them over there, with their families and whatever else you want -- those so-called `dissidents' and 'patriots.' ''

Whether and how Obama could actually do it was unclear Friday.

A look back at the Ronald Reagan era showed those famed spy swaps across an East-West bridge involved foreign agents snagged but never tried by the United States.

In one of the best known cases, involving Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky, a former CIA employee named Karl Koecher was traded on Feb. 11, 1985, along with his wife at Berlin's Glienicke Bridge. But Koecher's case had never come to trial. He had been arrested three months before Reagan made the trade.

A federal jury, however, convicted the so-called ''Cuban Five'' in 2001 in downtown Miami, in a trial the Bush administration portrayed as getting justice for the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown. Three of the men are serving life sentences, one for his involvement in the shootdown. Two others got 15- and 19-year sentences.

Lawyers familiar with the case said a U.S president might need to commute the Cubans' sentence -- not actually pardon them -- in order to send them home.

They also note that the Obama administration is facing a May 6 deadline on the Cuban Five case at the U.S. Supreme Court. The convicted spies have asked the justices to hear their case alleging they were unjustly convicted in politically charged Miami, and should have had their trials moved elsewhere.

Convicts do sometimes get sent overseas to finish their terms in a foreign jail, said Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley. Since the U.S. and Cuba have no relations, and Castro says they were wrongly convicted, that formula would not fit.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of Lolita Lebron and three other Americans, sending them home to Puerto Rico after 25 years in prison for shooting up the U.S. Capitol in 1954 in a pro-independence protest.

Carter said he freed the Americans as a humanitarian gesture.

But Fidel Castro had promised for years to free four captured ''CIA agents'' in exchange for the Puerto Ricans; he did.

A former Carter administration official, Robert Pastor, who negotiated Cuban prisoner releases, called it a ``non-trade trade.''

Friday, he drew a comparison to any possible future release of Cuban political prisoners, whom the United States considers innocent, should Obama send home the Cuban spies, whom the Cuban government considers heroes.

'Both sides will say, `This exchange is out of the question!' '' he said. ``They are not equal, that's why you don't call it a trade.''

If past releases are any guide, the trade would mean putting Cuba's jailed political prisoners on aircraft for exile abroad -- the latest wave of political prisoners to reach the United States across the five-decade Cuban exile drama.

Exile Miami considers them freedom fighters, island Cubans who worked for democracy from within. But the Cuban government casts them as ''U.S. paid mercenaries and terrorists'' for allegedly receiving U.S. funds.

Castro even sweetened the spy-trade swap pot by offering prisoners whose release the U.S. had never sought -- some Central Americans whom Cuban courts convicted and sentenced to death in a series of 1997 tourist industry bombings.

Prisoner releases have long been a tool in the Cuban revolution's acrimonious relations with the United States.

In December 1962, Castro sent to the United States the 1,000-plus Brigade 2506 members who had been captured in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier.

A few of the exiles were tried and executed; a handful were jailed for decades.

But the U.S. got most of the men back.

And Cuba got 500 farm tractors -- and several million dollars worth of medicine.


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