Despite Cuban Media Blitz, Little Hope for Five Imprisoned Spies

A Cuban girl stands by a mural depicting five men imprisoned in the United States as spies.
A Havana girl stands by a mural depicting five Cuban men imprisoned in the United States as spies (Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP).

They have received scant press coverage in the United States, but in Cuba, their images are everywhere: plastered on billboards, flashing across television screens, haunting the lobbies of hedonistic tourist resorts. Cuban schoolchildren memorize their poems, musicians venerate them in song, and larger than life portraits of their smiling faces are now as ubiquitous in Havana as those of martyred revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Glorified by Cuba’s communist government as anti-terrorist crusaders who sacrificed their freedom for their fellow countrymen, their patriotic apotheosis is nearly complete.

Known across the island as “The Heroes,” “The Patriots,” “The Prisoners of the Empire,” or simply “The Five,” they are five Cuban agents currently serving prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life at five federal penitentiaries scattered around the United States. Their 2000-2001 trial and subsequent imprisonment has prompted the Cuban government to launch a public opinion campaign on a scale not seen since the Miami-Havana tug-of-war over young shipwreck survivor Elián González. Unlike little González, however, it doesn’t appear that the five agents will be coming home anytime soon.

The Cuban government and other “Free the Five” supporters were dealt a setback on Feb. 10, 2003, when U.S. Florida District Judge Joan Lenard denied a motion by the agents’ U.S. attorneys for a new trial. Led by prominent defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, whose former clients include Mumia Abu-Jamal and Daniel Ellsberg, the agents’ defense team had argued that “newly discovered evidence” in the case mandated both a new trial and a change of venue out of Miami-Dade County, where the original trial was held. They cited the “contradictory” position displayed by the court in relation to its June 2002 decision to grant a change of venue in another politically-charged case, Ramírez vs. Ashcroft, in which Mexican-American Immigration and Naturalization Service Special Agent Ricardo Ramírez, who had participated in the Elián González raid, alleged his supervisors were discriminating against him because of his ethnicity.

The Cuban agents’ lawyers had also attempted to have the trial moved outside Miami-Dade County—where hostilities to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s government run high—prior to their original trial in 2000-01. That effort was rejected by the Florida Attorney General’s office, which characterized Miami as an “extremely heterogeneous” urban area of “great diversity” where it would be possible to have a trial “free of external influences.”

One year later, though, when faced with Ramírez’s civil law suit, the same Attorney General’s office requested a change of venue out of Miami-Dade, which it then described as having “deep-rooted feelings and prejudices” that made it “virtually impossible” for a fair and impartial trial to be held. The motion of the Attorney General Office was approved and the change of venue granted.

Defense attorney Weinglass’ new motion argued that the court’s decision in Ramírez vs. Ashcroft constituted “two contradictory positions” and that “the government misrepresented to the court both factually and legally their position when they knew and had to know, as they knew one year later in the Ramírez vs. Ashcroft case, that a fair trial could not be held in the Miami district.” But Judge Lenard denied Weinglass’ motion, citing factual differences between the two cases, and ruled that “the government's arguments in favor of the change of venue in Ramírez do not in any way demonstrate prosecutorial misconduct.”

Weinglass blasted the ruling as “completely ludicrous.” The agents’ attorneys have filed a separate motion which will be heard on April 7 at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Predictably, the Cuban government was furious at Judge Lenard’s decision. “Is this not a blatant example of prevarication, of double standards?” Cuban National Assembly Director Ricardo Alarcón protested at a Havana press conference three days later. Alarcón went on to accuse Judge Lenard of “manipulating” the defense attorneys’ motion and “falsifying the facts” of the two cases the defense sought to compare.

Alarcón also assailed the paucity of U.S. media coverage of the agents’ case, singling out The New York Times for specific criticism. He said that in August 1998 the Cuban government gave Times reporter Timothy Golden classified information, which was also given to the FBI, extensively detailing the terrorist activities of militant anti-Castro groups in Southern Florida. But the Times exposé the Cuban government had hoped Golden would write never materialized and the Cuban authorities felt betrayed. “He knows we know what he knows,” Alarcón said darkly.

In contrast to the lack of media attention in the United States, the five agents’ legal odyssey has been covered by Cuba’s government-owned media in painstaking detail. “Round-table” discussions are held regularly on nightly television to update Cubans on the status of the agents’ appeals process and personal well-being. Stirring accounts of the harsh treatment the agents have received in their separate U.S. prisons, including solitary confinement and denial of visitations, and of their families’ thwarted efforts to obtain U.S. visas in order to visit them, have evoked the sympathy of many Cubans. “Free the Five” solidarity groups have sprouted up in some U.S. cities and in countries around the world, as have websites like and

From the start, the Cuban government’s media blitz has eagerly sought to link the agents’ spy mission to the new international war on terrorism. It claims the agents were sent to the United States to infiltrate dangerous anti-Castro terrorist groups in Southern Florida that U.S. authorities were allowing to operate with impunity. Havana maintains that the agents sought no strategic information, posed no threat to U.S. national security, and by keeping watch on violent militants, were protecting U.S. citizens as well.

But according to hundreds of court documents used as incriminating evidence in the original trial, only one of the five convicted agents, René González, actually gained entry into any anti-Castro exile groups. Ramón Labañino, for example, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison for attempting to infiltrate U.S. Southern Command, which coordinates almost all U.S. military operations in Latin America from a base in west Miami-Dade County. Antonio Guerrero, also currently serving a life sentence, took detailed notes about the comings and goings of U.S. military aircraft at Boca Chica Naval Air Station, in Key West, Florida. Such evidence clearly complicates the agents’ prospects for an eventual acquittal, and has been vigorously rejected by the Cuban government. Perhaps because this evidence would seemingly detract from the hallowed image of anti-terrorist heroes, it has been virtually omitted from the Cuban media’s portrayal of the agents’ mission, too.

This has led some to wonder if the Cuban government hasn’t created an unrealistic sense of hope among the many Cubans who have become emotionally invested in the “Free the Five” campaign, given the unlikelihood that the agents will be freed from prison and allowed to return to Cuba. After nearly two years of a steady barrage by the government media, others have privately complained they’re tired of hearing about the Patriots’ plight. “With Elián, it was like OK, we’re going to bring this kid home,” one 34-year old Havana resident said. “But at this point, I don’t think anybody really believes ‘the five’ are coming back anytime soon. The Commandante [Castro] is just doing it because he feels bad that they’re in jail.”

His friend objected: “Sure, we’re tired of hearing about it, like anything you hear about over and over and over again, but that still doesn’t mean we’ve given up on them.”