Stinging Back 

Antonio Guerrero claims he fought terrorism. John Ashcroft says he's a dangerous spy.

Maggie Becker had no clue that Antonio Guerrero was a secret Cuban agent until FBI agents burst into her Key West apartment at 6 a.m., rousing the two from their sleep and forcing Guerrero to the floor at gunpoint.

She had met Guerrero four years earlier through her friends. The 36-year-old was teaching them how to dance salsa.

"I noticed him, and he seemed very intelligent and nice," recalled Becker, a massage therapist.

The two struck up a conversation, the beginning of a romantic relationship that grew deeper over time. She got to know him as a sensitive, divorced father of two, a poet employed as a sheet-metal worker at Key West's Boca Chica Naval Air Station.

Then eight armed FBI agents stormed into her apartment on Sept. 12, 1998. "I had no idea what was going on," Becker said. "We thought we were being robbed."

Becker recognized one FBI agent as one of her massage clients. She later figured out he had posed as a client to spy on her.

As she would learn over the next several months, Guerrero, who was born in Miami but raised in Cuba, had lived a double life as an intelligence agent of the Cuban government. But his purpose, he claimed, was not to commit hostile espionage against the United States. It was to stop acts of terrorism against Cuba, being carried out by Florida-based Cuban exiles aiming to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Almost three years later, however, after a yearlong trial, a federal jury in Miami would convict Guerrero and four other Cubans -- Ramón Labaino, Gerardo Hernández, René Gonázlez and Fernando González -- of sweeping criminal charges.

Today, Becker sees Guerrero only during visits to the maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, 40 miles south of Colorado Springs, where he began serving a life sentence in 2001.

Though Guerrero kept his mission secret from her, Becker stands by him and believes his claims that he was trying to protect his homeland. "I support him as a human being," she said. "I understand that his cause was just."

A cause célèbre

Though Guerrero's name is virtually unknown in Colorado, he and his four compañeros -- scattered in separate prisons across the United States -- are household names in Cuba, where Castro has made them a cause célèbre in a propaganda effort to rally his nation.

Cuba's government has declared the Cuban Five as "heroes of the revolution" and "political prisoners of the U.S. empire," and has named a public park after them. A book of poems that Guerrero wrote in prison has been published. Mass rallies are held in honor of the men and the state-controlled media cover their case almost daily.

But awareness of the "Cuban Five" is also on the rise in the United States and overseas, where a growing number of voices are questioning whether their conviction was just.

Last fall, legendary U.S. criminal-defense lawyer Leonard Weinglass, who defended the Chicago Seven and Black Panther Angela Davis, agreed to represent Guerrero in an appeal of the Five's convictions. The appeal, to be filed next month, is based in part on the argument that the men couldn't get a fair trial in Miami, due to overwhelming anti-Castro sentiment in that city. Two prominent legal organizations, The National Lawyers Guild and the National Jury Project, have filed briefs in support of a new trial.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Five have begun organizing a global grass-roots campaign to build public support for the appeal. A group called the National Committee to Free the Five, based in San Francisco, has set up a Web site, issues e-mail updates, organizes letter-writing campaigns and holds protest rallies. Abroad, 89 members of the British Parliament have signed a resolution calling for a new trial.

Recent treatment of the five Cubans in prison could also become a launch pad for challenges against controversial measures that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been using since Sept. 11, 2001, to crack down on certain politically high-profile inmates.

Last month, Ashcroft suddenly ordered the men thrown into solitary confinement for a year, providing no explanation other than to cite "special administrative measures" intended to protect "national security."

The move drew protests from members of the U.S. Congress who threatened to hold hearings on the matter. The pressure seemed to work; less than two weeks ago, the men were removed from solitary confinement, again without explanation.

Weinglass now says he's talking to fellow attorneys about filing a civil suit challenging the special administrative measures, claiming that he hasn't been given adequate access to his client, and that Guerrero has experienced cruel and unusual punishment.

The growing interest in the Five is also drawing attention to what many describe as a glaring hypocrisy: While the Bush administration is using the fear of terrorism to justify crackdowns on the Cubans and other prisoners, members of the Bush family have close ties to U.S.-based, anti-Castro Cuban exiles who are accused of waging terror against Cuba with impunity -- from shooting down civilian airliners to setting off bombs in Havana tourist destinations.

The Wasp Network

The Florence inmate in the middle of it all, Guerrero, couldn't be interviewed for this story either in person or over the telephone, because prison authorities refused several interview requests. In fact, they wouldn't even allow a tour of the prison facility, saying it would "negatively affect the security and operation" of the institution despite a Bureau of Prisons policy requiring that news media be accommodated.

Though his parents were from Cuba, Guerrero was born in the United States in 1958, his father a minor-league baseball player in Texas. The family moved back to Cuba later the same year, shortly before Castro seized power.

Guerrero played soccer as a child and is a deft chess player, according to Becker. He earned an engineering degree in the Ukraine and worked on a major airport expansion in Santiago de Cuba. He has two sons from former marriages -- Antonio, 18, who visited him in Florence in February; and Gabriel, 10, who lives in Panama.

In 1993, Guerrero was recruited by the Cuban government and moved to Florida to join a clandestine group called La Red Avispa -- the Wasp Network. The network's purpose, according to its members and the Cuban government, was to infiltrate and monitor the Florida-based exile groups carrying out violence and terrorism against Cuba.

Becker says she believes Guerrero felt obliged to help protect his country.

"I think Antonio must have felt he had this opportunity to protect his family and the people that he knew," she said. "He was a serious young man and very dedicated."

The Cuban government even informed the FBI of some of the Wasp Network's findings, handing over in March of 1998 volumes of evidence of what it claimed was a network of anti-Castro terrorists operating out of Florida. The Cubans asked the FBI to arrest the terrorists.

Instead, six months later, the FBI swooped down on the Wasp Network and arrested 10 of its members, including Guerrero.

The U.S. government charged the Cubans with crimes ranging from the use of fake identities to conspiracy to commit espionage -- and in the case of Hernández, conspiracy to commit murder. Some of the Cubans struck deals and pleaded guilty to the lesser charges, and one testified for the prosecution.

But Guerrero, Labañino, Hernández, René González and Fernando González pleaded innocent, saying all they had done was try to prevent terrorism against Cuba, and that they had never sought or obtained any classified U.S. government information.

The jurors who sat through the trial in U.S. District Court in Miami didn't buy it. They convicted the Five on all counts, and the judge, Joan Lenard, handed down the maximum allowable sentences: two life terms for Hernández, life for Guerrero and Labañino, 19 years for Fernando González and 15 years for René González .

Another kind of


The terrorist activities that the Five claim they were fighting against are documented both in government records and in accounts by scholars and investigative journalists.

In one of the more high-profile cases, infamous exile Orlando Bosch, who now lives in Miami, was accused but never convicted of blowing up a civilian Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all 73 people aboard. Though he denies responsibility for the airliner bombing, he had been convicted of firing a bazooka at a Cuba-bound ship in Miami's harbor eight years earlier.

Another exile, Luis Posada Carriles, told The New York Times in 1998 that he had masterminded a series of bombings in Havana the previous year, targeting tourist destinations. A veteran of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Posada was trained in the use of explosives by the CIA and has also been cited as a suspect in the 1976 airliner bombing.

One of the bombs in Havana killed Fabio Di Celmo, a 32-year-old Italian-Canadian tourist, as he was sitting in the lobby of the Copacabana Hotel.

"A bomb had been placed in an ashtray next to the sofa where he was sitting," said his brother, Livio Di Celmo, speaking by phone from Montreal. "The bomb exploded, and a piece of shrapnel hit him in the jugular, and he bled to death within a few minutes."

Livio Di Celmo is now involved in the campaign to free the Five.

"They had to defend themselves," he said of the Cubans. If the American people knew about the terrorism waged from their own soil, he said, "they'd be outraged."

Countless other plots and attacks have taken place over the years. And though perpetrators have occasionally been arrested by U.S. authorities, few have been convicted. "Anti-Castro plots seldom lead to jail in [the] U.S.," concluded The Miami Herald in a 1998 article.

Scholars and reporters who have examined the phenomenon cite the fact that to many anti-Castro Cuban exiles, who dominate public life in Miami, the violent plotters are not terrorists but heroic freedom fighters. Even Miami's most influential exile organization, the Cuban American National Foundation, refuses to condemn terrorist attacks against Cuba.

"We do not condone acts of terrorism, but we are not the ones who will criticize the methods that other Cubans may use or may deem to use in order to free Cuba from a bloody dictator," said Mariela Ferretti, a Foundation spokeswoman.

In his Times interview, Posada claimed the 1997 bombing campaign was paid for by the Foundation's founder, the late Jorge Mas Canosa. The Foundation denies the allegation, however, and Posada later retracted the statement.

Posada is now in jail in Panama, accused of plotting to assassinate Castro during a political summit three years ago. Anti-Castro exiles in Miami are reportedly holding fund-raisers to pay for Posada's legal defense.

Loyal supporters

Even in the post-Sept. 11 world, with George W. Bush declaring that "we will make no distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them," there is little hope that anti-Castro terrorists will be held accountable, predicts Saul Landau, an author and filmmaker who has followed Cuban-American issues since the 1960s. The Bush family, he notes, has close ties to the Cuban exile community, including its more militant members.

The Cuban American National Foundation helped fund the campaigns of both Presidents Bush the elder and Bush the younger, and of the current president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Cuban-Americans were also credited with helping George W. Bush win Florida's electoral votes that determined the outcome the last presidential election.

The Bushes have been loyal in return, Landau says. In 1989, the Justice Department ordered Bosch deported, citing his suspected role in the 1976 airliner bombing and stating that Bosch "has repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." But the first President Bush overrode the order. Today, Bosch walks free in Miami.

In 2001, the younger Bush also stopped the deportation of Cubans Virgilio Paz and Jose Dionisio Suarez, who had served prison time for a 1976 car-bombing that killed a Chilean ex-diplomat and an American on Washington's Embassy Row.

And last year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a lawyer named Raoul Cantero to Florida's Supreme Court. Cantero is the grandson of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by Castro. Cantero also served as a lawyer and spokesman for Bosch during the 1989 deportation effort.

That's not all. According to Landau, when George W. Bush gave a speech in Miami last year, he invited Bosch to sit on the platform behind him, along with another Cuban known as "El Chino" Aquit. An FBI anti-terrorism squad in 1994 caught Aquit trying to firebomb a Miami warehouse belonging to Pastors for Peace, which arranged humanitarian shipments to Cuba.

The Bushes' message, Landau says, is that while it's wrong to commit terrorism against the United States, "it's OK to do terrorism against Cuba."


foreign agents

But the bloody history of attacks on Cuba did not justify the crimes of the Cuban Five, the U.S. attorney's office argued in the trial that began in 2000. Three of the five defendants were in the United States illegally, using false identities. (Guerrero and René González are U.S. citizens.) All five admitted they had violated requirements to register as foreign agents.

Representatives for the U.S. attorney's office would not comment for this story, citing the pending appeal.

At the trial, prosecutors introduced thousands of pages of evidence, much of it downloaded from the defendants' own computers by the FBI, which had known about and surveilled the Wasp Network for years before the arrests.

The Five didn't just spy on Cuban exile groups; they also gathered intelligence on U.S. military installations, the prosecutors pointed out. Guerrero used his job at Boca Chica to observe activities there and warn Cuban authorities about any military buildup that might signal a U.S. invasion.

None of the agents actually obtained any classified information, the prosecutors admitted. But they weren't charged with actually spying only with conspiring to commit espionage. In other words, the prosecution argued it only needed to prove that the defendants had agreed to try to get classified information.

The most serious accusation, though, was leveled against Gerardo Hernández, who was charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

A pilot, Hernández had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, which had begun as a humanitarian organization that sent planes over the Florida Straits to assist people fleeing Cuba on rafts. Over the years, Brothers' mission changed, and its leader, Jose Basulto -- who in 1962 had fired a cannon at a Havana hotel -- began violating Cuban airspace to drop anti-Castro leaflets.

The Cuban government repeatedly asked U.S. authorities stop the illegal flights, appealing to the Federal Aviation Administration and warning the U.S. government that it might shoot down Basulto's planes if he continued the violations.

On Feb. 24, 1996, the pilots of two Cuban fighter jets made good on the threat by downing two of Brothers' air crafts, killing the four men on board. A third plane, piloted by Basulto himself, made it back to Florida.

Though Basulto violated Cuban airspace that day, the United States maintains that the other two planes were shot down over international waters -- making it an act of murder.

Hernández, the prosecutors said, had informed the Cuban government of Brothers' flight plans as part of a calculated plot to down the planes.

Crimes committed elsewhere

While the Five admitted they hadn't registered as foreign agents, they said they didn't realize they needed to do so. And the three who used false identities argued they did so out of necessity.

They also denied seeking any classified information. Guerrero never applied for security clearance at Boca Chica, and his observations of military aircraft could have been made by anyone standing outside the base, the defense argued.

It's not a crime, Weinglass notes, to report publicly available information to another country.

As for the murder charge against Hernández, Weinglass labels it "unique in the annals of American jurisprudence."

"For the first time, an individual is being charged with a crime that's committed by an air force of another country, in a defensive posture," Weinglass said in an interview. "How can anyone be tried for what is a state action by another country? I mean, that hasn't happened before."

Hernández denied plotting to shoot down the plane, and his attorneys argued that the shoot-down took place in Cuban, not international, airspace.

Getting a fair deal

The five Cubans began serving their sentences in 2001, scattered in prisons located in Colorado, California, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

Last fall, their attorneys announced they would ask the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta for a new trial. A central argument in the pending appeal is the contention that the Five couldn't have gotten a fair trial in Miami.

During the original trial, defense attorneys asked that the proceedings be moved to Fort Lauderdale, 25 miles away, which has a much smaller Cuban exile population. They cited a 1968 case, Pamplin vs. Mason, in which a judge ruled that a black civil-rights activist couldn't get a fair trial in the Southern town where he was being prosecuted, because of pervasive community hostility toward the civil-rights movement.

Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, backs the defense's contention.

"On the Cuba issue, you sort of don't contradict the Cuban-American community here," Perez told the Independent. Exiles "have shown themselves to be very emotional about it and not likely to tolerate views that are, let's say, favorable to the Cuban government."

The concern is still valid even though the jury that convicted the Five didn't contain a single Cuban-American, Perez contends. "Even among non-Cubans, there would be tremendous pressures" to convict, he said.

For decades, people in Miami who express views perceived as sympathetic to Castro have been subjected to intimidation and violence, according to a 1994 report by the human-rights group Americas Watch. In a particularly infamous example, radio personality Emilio Milian had his legs blown off by a car bomb in Miami in 1976, after publicly condemning exile violence.

During jury selection in the Cuban Five case, several prospective jurors expressed fear of what might happen to them if they were to acquit.

Nonetheless, prosecutors argued that the community biases cited in Pamplin apply only in small towns, and not in a large, diverse city such as Miami. Judge Lenard agreed and rejected the request to move the trial.

But just a year after the Five were convicted, U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, who had overseen their prosecution, did a 180-degree turn. Lewis was now defending Attorney General John Ashcroft in a civil suit, Ramirez vs. Ashcroft, that was connected to the Elian Gonzalez custody drama that drew headlines around the world. Suddenly, Lewis himself was citing Pamplin and arguing that because the case had a Cuban aspect, it was "virtually impossible" for Ashcroft to receive a fair trial in Miami. His request to change the venue was granted.

The Five's attorneys have jumped on the case, saying Lewis' office had been disingenuous in its arguments that the trial of the Five should stay in Miami.

Lewis, whom Ashcroft has since promoted to assistant U.S. attorney general, refused to comment.

Thrown in the hole

Lawyers for the Five submitted a motion last fall asking Judge Lenard for a new trial in a different venue, citing Lewis' arguments in Ramirez as new evidence. Lenard, however, rejected the motion, saying the cases were not parallel.

The attorneys then prepared to file their appeal in the 11th Circuit Court, which was originally due this week.

But just as Weinglass was preparing to visit Guerrero in Florence, he learned that suddenly, all of the Five had been placed in solitary confinement. Guerrero, who teaches mathematics to fellow inmates, was pulled from his class and thrown "in the hole" on March 3.

Solitary confinement is normally used to discipline inmates who violate rules inside prison, or to protect them against other inmates. The Five, however, were known as model prisoners, Weinglass said.

As he was to learn, the Five had been confined under so-called "special administrative measures," ostensibly used to prevent inmates from disclosing "classified information" that could endanger national security.

Under the measures, which are authorized directly by the U.S. attorney general for a year at a time, inmates are locked in small, windowless cells 23 hours a day. Visits, correspondence, telephone calls and all contact with other inmates are suspended.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Ashcroft had used special administrative measures to throw many politically high-profile inmates in the hole, including Phil Berrigan -- a priest turned pacifist anti-nuclear protester who died earlier this year -- and several Black Panthers who had been in prison for many years. No one ever explained how these inmates were connected to the events of Sept. 11.

Though special administrative measures had been at the attorney general's disposal since 1996, Ashcroft expanded them in October of 2001 as part of sweeping new anti-terrorist measures that included the USA PATRIOT Act.

Constitutional rights experts interviewed for this story labeled the prison isolation of the Cubans as absurd, given that prosecutors admitted the Five never possessed any secrets about the United States.

"That's outrageous," said Jeff Fogel, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, when told of the situation. "That's incredible. If it's premised on the fear of disclosure of information which would pose a threat to the national security [and] there has never been an intimation that the Cubans had such information, then how do they justify this?"

Defense attorneys say the measures also crippled their ability to prepare their appeal, whose deadline was rapidly approaching.

Weinglass had arranged to visit Guerrero on March 19 to discuss the appeal. But the visit was so restricted, Weinglass says, that it amounted to a "non-meeting."

"Not only did they lock him into a small cubicle after leading him there in chains -- they locked me into a small cubicle, and we could not talk except through a telephone, which of course is not secure," Weinglass said. "I could not pass him documents."

Because he had no guarantee that the phone line was secure, he couldn't have a confidential conversation with Guerrero, as is guaranteed by laws that protect attorney-client communications, Weinglass says.

The attorney says he demanded to speak with the prison warden about the conditions, but was refused.

Weinglass says Guerrero hadn't received a form to appeal his solitary confinement, to which he was legally entitled. And prison authorities hadn't even told Guerrero that Weinglass was coming, the attorney says.

"He walked into the cubicle shocked to see me," Weinglass said. "He walked in without any of his legal papers."

The isolation seemed to have taken a toll on Guerrero, Weinglass says. "He wasn't as quick or as sharp as the last time I met with him."

Guerrero told Weinglass he was let out of his cell for outside recreation for just one hour each day -- though he didn't use the recreation time for two weeks, because it was cold outside and the prison guards wouldn't give him his sweater. When he was moved through the corridors, all other inmates were cleared out so that he would have no contact with them.

"He's been in the population for five years, and all of a sudden he [is accused of having] national security information," Weinglass said. "It's just, it's mind-boggling."

Congress comes calling

As news spread of the Five's solitary confinement, the global network of their supporters flooded the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons with letters of protest. Meanwhile, members of Congress began asking questions.

Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York who met the families of the Five during a recent trip to Cuba, wrote to the director of the Bureau of Prisons and asked that the Five be released from isolation.

"I thought that they were being treated harshly and unfairly and unreasonably," Hinchey said in an interview.

Rep. Hinchey says he also talked with other members of Congress about holding hearings into the use of special administrative measures. He says he doesn't know whether the Cubans are guilty, "but I do know that they had been placed in solitary confinement in spite of the fact that there were no reports of misconduct on their part [and] that they had been subject to various other kinds of personal restrictions which were not in keeping with the American justice system."

Less than two weeks ago, the five were released from solitary and were sent back into the prisons' general population.

Weinglass has since filed a motion asking the court for an extension of the appeal deadline, so that he may have a proper meeting with Guerrero to prepare the case.

He says he may also file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the special administrative measures. And Fogel, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says his organization might join such an effort.

"This is something that we might want to take a look at and see whether or not there is an ability to challenge some of these things," he said.

Representatives for the attorney general's office in Washington refused to comment.

"We don't talk about Special Administrative Measures and why we request those measures and why we might take people off, so I'm not going to talk to you about that," said Drew Wade, a department spokesman. "It's law-enforcement privileged information."

Hopes of freedom

Immediately after getting out of the hole, Guerrero called Becker. He told her he'd spent much of the time writing poems.

"He's very strong, and he basically took advantage of the time," Becker said.

Like the other four defendants, Guerrero is hopeful that they will all get out of prison someday, Becker says. "He feels very good about the appeal."

Gloria La Riva, director of the National Committee to Free the Five, is also optimistic. By simply informing the American public about the Five, she hopes to help free them.

"If people knew their story," she says, "they would support them."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story

More by Terje Langeland

  • The last straw

    The last straw

    Focus and friends pushing Jewish leaders patience
    • Dec 29, 2005
  • Warriors, rescuers, spooks

    Warriors, rescuers, spooks

    The U.S. militarys growing involvement in domestic affairs
    • Dec 8, 2005
  • Unusual suspects

    Unusual suspects

    FBI targeted political protesters in domestic terrorism cases
    • Dec 8, 2005
  • More »

All content © Copyright 2019, The Colorado Springs Independent

Website powered by Foundation