The “Cuban Five” refers to intelligence agents whose so-called “Wasp Network” operated in Florida in the 1990s. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted on charges including conspiracy and failing to register as foreign agents.
Cuba insists they were not acting against U.S. sovereignty, only keeping tabs on militant exile groups that Havana blames for terror attacks on the island, including a string of hotel bombings. However, prosecutors argued they also tried to penetrate military bases, including the U.S. Southern Command and facilities in the Florida Keys.
The three who remained imprisoned in the United States arrived to a heroes’ welcome in Cuba on Wednesday. State TV broadcast images of them being embraced by President Raul Castro and having emotional reunions with family members, friends and neighbors. They were released in an exchange for a Cuban spy who had spent nearly 20 years in prison after working for the United States.
For years, Havana has made them an official cause celebre, rivaling the case of Elian Gonzalez, the boy rafter who in 2000 was caught in a tug-of-war between his Cuban father and family in Miami.
The “Five Heroes,” as they are known in Cuba, are fixtures in state media and their faces grace billboards across the island. Schoolchildren are taught their names and take part in public acts demanding their release. However the five are reviled as spies by many exiles in South Florida.
One, Gerardo Hernandez, had been serving two life sentences plus 15 years on a murder conspiracy conviction stemming from the Cuban air force’s 1996 shoot-down of two planes flown by Brothers to the Rescue, an exile organization that sought to aid migrants at sea and also dropped propaganda leaflets.
Hernandez was convicted of providing Cuban authorities with information about the flight, which he has always denied, maintaining it was public knowledge. Marlene Alejandre Triana, whose father Armando Alejandre Jr. was killed, said relatives of the pilots were dismayed that Hernandez was released.
“My three daughters will never meet my father,” said Triana, whose father came to the U.S. as a child and volunteered for the Marines when he turned 18. “For the only person that we had responsible for what happened to be let go, it’s a slap in the face to my dad,” she said during a news conference in Coral Gables.
Rene Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban national, became the first of the agents to walk free in October 2011 after completing about 13 years behind bars. He was initially ordered to serve three years of supervised parole and remain in the United States, but in 2013 a judge allowed him to return to Cuba and renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Fernando Gonzalez, who is not related to Rene Gonzalez, was released in February 2014 after serving more than 15 years, and quickly deported to Cuba. The last three still in American lockups were Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino.