Miami-Area Cuban-Americans Press for U.S. Indictment of Raúl Castro

As discussed in an earlier post, on May 22, 2018. two Cuban-American politicians—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL)–asked President Trump to have the U.S. Department of Justice investigate whether the U.S. could and should indict Raul Castro, Cuba’s former President, for the deaths of four Americans in Cuba’s 1996 shooting down close to Cuban air space of  two U.S. private planes engaged in the private mission of Brothers To The Rescue (“BTTR”).

Now, according to the Miami Herald, some Cuban exile groups and their political allies have begun to intensify a campaign for such an indictment. Such groups include Inspire American Foundation, the Assembly of Cuban Resistance (Asamblea de la Resistencia Cubana) and Directorio Democrático Cubano[1]

 Congressional Hearing on Possible Indictment[2]

One step in this direction was a June 20 hearing on “Holding Cuba Leaders Accountable” by the House Oversight Committee’s National Security Subcommittee, which is chaired by Representative Ron DeSantis (Rep., FL), who has been endorsed by President Trump for the Republican nomination for Florida governor and who has made free Cuba one of his major campaign causes.

Four of the witnesses were supportive of such an indictment:  Roger F. Noriega, a Visiting Fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute; Jason L. Poblete, a private-practice attorney in Alexandria, Virginia; and two relatives of two of the Americans killed in the 1996 plane crash (Ms. Ana Alejandre Ciereszko and Miriam de la Peńa). Disagreeing with this position was the other witness, William LeoGrande, an American University professor and a student of U.S.-Cuba relations.

After the hearing, Representative DeSantis said he supported such an indictment.[3]

Noriega Testimony[4]

Although Noriega did not directly endorse an indictment of Raúl Castro, he laid out what he thought were facts that would be a predicate for such an indictment: Fidel Castro admitted that he and Raúl orchestrated the attack on the two U.S. private planes and that Raúl personally ordered the attack.

Poblete Testimony[5]

 Attorney Poblete urged the Departments of Justice and State “to move swiftly by indicting Raúl Castro” for the shooting down of the BTTR planes in 1996. His other recommendations: (a) “declassify all records that can be declassified related to the [BTTR] Shoot down;” (b) indict “other international outlaws who have harmed American citizens;” (c) “create an Inter-Agency Task Force to track Down international outlaws in the Americas;” (d) “seek International cooperation to hold Cuban criminals accountable;” (e) “known violators of fundamental rights must not be allowed access to the [U.S.];” (f) “conduct and publish a bottom-up review of Obama and Bush Administration Cuba policy:” (g) consider establishing a Special International Criminal Tribunal for Cuba and the Americas for “atrocity crimes and other gross violations of human rights:” and (h) “take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of American citizens posted at the U.S. Embassy in Havana” and “cooperate with defense teams representing victims.”

 LeoGrande Testimony[6]

 “With regard to seeking criminal indictments against Cuban officials for human rights abuses, even if there were legal grounds for securing such indictments, the accused could not be brought to trial because Cuban law prohibits the extradition of Cuban nationals. In 1982, four Cuban officials were indicted in Florida for narcotics trafficking, and the only effect of those indictments was to delay the establishment of counter-narcotic cooperation between the [U.S.] and Cuba until the late 1990s. In 2003, the two Cuban pilots responsible for shooting down the [BTTR]  planes were indicted in Florida, along with their commanding general, on a variety of charges, including murder. That case had not progressed either.”

“Pursuing human rights indictments today might be symbolically satisfying to some, but it would only serve to poison the atmosphere of bilateral relations and impede existing law enforcement cooperation, which has been improving. That would endanger our ability to secure the extradition of U.S. nationals who commit crimes here and then flee to Cuba, and our ability to pursue the prosecution in Cuba of Cuban nationals for crimes committed in the United States. These are areas in which there has been significant progress since 2014, progress that has continued despite the Trump administration’s decision to back away from the normalization of relations.”

“Cuba today is going through a process of change, both in its leadership and in its economy. The old generation that founded the regime is leaving the political stage—most are already gone. At the same time, Cuba is trying to move from the old Soviet-style economic system to some version of market socialism like Vietnam and China. Economic reform is providing Cubans greater economic freedom and, if it succeeds, it could raise their standard of living significantly. U.S. policy ought to facilitate that change, not impede it. Ultimately the people of Cuba will determine their nation’s future and decide issues of accountability. If the United States wants to have a positive influence on these developing changes, it has to be engaged, not sitting on the sidelines.”

“Whether your principal concern is human rights, or compensation for nationalized U.S. property, or the return of U.S. fugitives, or Cuba’s support for the failing regime in Venezuela, there is no chance of making progress on any of those issues with a policy of hostility that relies exclusively on sanctions—especially when no other country in the world observes those sanctions. The historical record is clear that sanctions only work when they are multilateral. Moreover, our current economic sanctions targeting the whole Cuban economy, rather than specific individuals, harms the living standards of ordinary Cubans. That is why the last three Popes, including John Paul II, who was no friend of communism, opposed the embargo.”

“Moreover, as we back away from engagement with Cuba, China and Russia are rushing in to fill the vacuum.”

After the hearing, LeoGrande said he had been contacted by a Democratic staff member to testify and was told his testimony should center on the value of engagement with Cuba. “I didn’t realize the sole purpose of the subcommittee hearing was to launch a campaign to indict Raúl Castro,” he said. “The hearing was political theater.”[7]

Conclusion

Nothing happened at this congressional hearing to change this blogger’s assessment of the issue of whether the U.S. should indict Raúl Castro for his alleged involvement in the 1996 crash of two private U.S. planes.[8] The U.S. should not do so for the following reasons:

  1. The BTTR was not “a humanitarian organization,” at least with respect to the private planes it had flown to Cuba.
  2. The BTTR did not “operate rescue missions to search for Cubans who fled the island by sea.”
  3. Instead the BTTR, at least from 1994 through early 1996, operated to harass the government of Cuba by dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Cuba itself.
  4. On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force was provoked by the BTTR flights that day and previously.
  5. Prior to July 24, 1996, the Cuban Government repeatedly sought the assistance of the U.S. Government to stop the BTTR flights to Cuba.
  6. The U.S. Government, however, did not adequately attempt to stop BTTF flights to Cuba.
  7. Yes, the U.S. in 2003 indicted the head of the Cuban Air Force and the two Cuban pilots of the jet fighter planes that shot down the two private planes flown by BTTR pilots on February 24, 1996, but nothing has happened in that case because the Cuban defendants have not been in the U.S.
  8. Yes, the U.S. in 1998 indicted the Cuban Five for various crimes, even though they were not personally involved in the shooting down of the two BTTR planes on February 24, 1996, and they were convicted and sentenced to U.S. prison for long periods of time. By December 2014, two of them had completed their sentences, been released from U.S. prisons and returned to Cuba, and on December 17, 2014, the remaining three’s sentences were commuted to time served (16 years including pretrial detention) by President Obama and they also were released from U.S. prison and returned to Cuba while Cuba simultaneously released U.S. citizen Alan Gross and another man who had spied for the U.S. from a Cuban prison and returned them to the U.S.
  9. The release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17, 2014, was part of the praiseworthy overall U.S.-Cuba agreement to embark on the path of normalization of relations. It was not, as the Rubio/Diaz-Balart letter states, part of the shameful “appeasement policy.”[8]
  10. There never has been any contention that Raúl Castro was involved in any way in the downing of the two BTTR planes in February 1996. Instead Rubio and Diaz-Balart allege that at the time Raúl was Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and thus presumably in overall charge of everything involving the Cuban Air Force.
  11. now nearly 87 years old and no longer Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro is still Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and has retired to Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island. Presumably he will not be coming to the U.S. in the future, especially if he were to be indicted as Rubio and Diaz-Balart suggest.

In short, the suggestion that Castro be indicted is a cheap, unfounded political trick only designed to continue to stroke the egos of the Cuban-Americans in Florida who cannot forget and forgive the past. The U.S. should not waste time and money on such a wild-goose chase.

======================================

[1]  Whitefield, Campaign intensifies to indict Raúl Castro for deadly 1996 shoot-down of exile planes, Miami Herald (June 27, 2018).

[2]   House Comm. on Oversight & Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Hearing: Holding Cuban Leaders Accountable (June 20, 2018).

[3] After the hearing. Representative DeSantis announced that he supported an indictment of Raúl Castro. (Crabtree, DeSantis joins call for Trump to indict Raul Castro, FoxNews (June 25, 2018).

[4] Noriega, Time  to Confront Cuba’s International Crime Spree  (June 20, 2018)   In the George W. Bush Administration, Noriega was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and then Ambassador to the Organization of American States.

[5] Poblete, Prepared Remarks for House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security (June 20, 2018).

[6] LeoGrande, Testimony Before the Subcomm. on National Security, Comm. on Oversight and Government Reform (June 20, 2018).

[7]  Whitefield, Campaign intensifies to indict Raúl Castro for deadly 1996 shoot-down of exile planes, Miami Herald (June 27, 2018).

[8] Should U.S. Indict Raúl Castro for 1996 Downing of Cuban-American Planes?, dwkcommentaries.com (May 27, 2018).

 

Should U.S. Indict Raúl Castro for 1996 Downing of Cuban-American Planes?

In 1996 in the midst of U.S. private aircraft flights near and over Cuba by Cuban-Americans opposed to the Cuban Revolution, two such planes were shot down by Cuban military planes, and three U.S. citizens and one U..S. resident were killed in the crash.

Now , on May 22, 2018, two Cuban-American politicians—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL)—have asked President Trump to have the U.S. Department of Justice investigate whether the U.S. could and should indict Raul Castro, Cuba’s former President, for the deaths of the four Americans.

After looking at this request, we will examine what happened in 1966 and in two U.S. criminal cases about this incident. We conclude with an evaluation of the merits of this request

Rubio and Diaz-Balart’s Letter to President Trump[1]

The letter urged the President “to direct the Department of Justice to review whether Raúl Castro should be indicted for the illegal and heinous act of shooting down in international waters two American civilian aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue [“BTTR”] on February 24, 1996.”

BTTR, according to Rubio and Diaz-Balart,, was “a humanitarian organization that operated rescue missions to search for Cubans who fled the island by sea.The journey from Cuba is treacherous, and many have perished in the attempt.”

This letter continued, “On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force—unprovoked and without warning—shot-down two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue [“BTTR”] planes in international waters, murdering three American citizens, Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., and Mario de la Peña, as well as one United States legal permanent resident, Pablo Morales.”

Thereafter, the letter says, “a U.S. federal court [in Miami] indicted the head of the Cuban Air Force, General Rubén Martínez Puente, and the two MiG pilots, Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez and Francisco Pérez-Pérez, on charges of murder.”

The letter also says, “a member of the WASP spy ring ultimately was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder for his role in planning the shoot-down, and was sentenced to life in federal prison.  Shamefully, the previous administration, as part of its appeasement policy, commuted his sentence and let him return to a hero’s welcome in Cuba.  However, the Cuban operative ultimately responsible, then-Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Raúl Castro, was never indicted.”

The letter concludes, “Taking these bold actions would demonstrate to our adversaries that they cannot act with impunity against Americans, and that human rights abusers and criminals will be held accountable for their crimes.  Most importantly, it would send a signal to the Cuban people that the United States will not permit their oppressors to operate without consequences.”

Cuba’s Downing of Two U.S. Civilian Planes[2]

According to the trial evidence in one of the criminal cases mentioned by Rubio and Diaz-Balart, BTTR, an anti-Castro Cuban exile group in Miami, repeatedly and knowingly had violated Cuban airspace since 1994 with the following details:

  • In 1994 a BTTR flight flew near the Cuban coast with a television reporter who filmed Cuban military fighter jets circling, but not firing at the BTTR plane.
  • Later in 1994, another BTTR plane flew over Cuba near Guantanamo Bay and dropped BTTR bumper stickers, and again Cuba did not fire at the plane.
  • In 1995 BTTR announced that it would commit civil disobedience in Cuban waters, and in response the U.S. State Department issued a public warning that no one should violate Cuban waters and airspace. Nevertheless BTTR proceeded to send a boat into Cuban waters and a plane flew over Havana for 13 minutes dropping anti-Castro leaflets and religious medals. Again the Cuban military did not attack the BTTR plane.
  • Immediately afterwards the Cuban Government complained to the U.S. FAA and requested action to prevent violations of Cuban sovereignty and stated, “Any craft proceeding from the exterior that invades by force our sovereign waters could be sunk and any aircraft downed.” In response the U.S. State Department reiterated its warning that U.S. planes should not violate Cuban airspace and quoted the Cuban warning.
  • Nevertheless in January 1996 BTTR flew twice to Cuba and presumably over international waters dropped anti-Castro leaflets that landed in Havana. Again Cuba requested the U.S. to stop these flights.

On February 24, 1996, three light-civilian U.S. planes that were operated by BTTR flew from Miami to Havana. All three at one time were in international airspace close to Cuba’s territorial waters. One of them clearly flew into Cuban airspace, but was not shot down. The other two civilian planes were shot down by Cuban MIG fighters, killing three Cuban-American citizens and one non-U.S. citizen. Cuba defended its actions by contending that the planes were shot down within the territorial limits of Cuba whereas the U.S alleged that the downings had occurred over international airspace. According to one of the courts in the Cuban Five case, these two planes did not enter Cuban airspace and were shot down in international airspace, 4.8 and 9.5 miles (land miles or nautical miles?] from Cuban airspace.

The concept of national and international airspace is complicated. National airspace is the area or portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory that is controlled by that country and above a country’s territorial waters, which generally is considered to be 12 nautical miles [or about 13.8 land miles] out from the coastline of the nation. All other airspace is known as ‘international airspace.’

In any event, the two planes that were shot down were at least very close to Cuban airspace after a history of such planes entering Cuban airspace and dropping leaflets and medals and potentially dropping bombs.

Cuban Spy Network in U.S.[3]

In September 1998 five Cuban men (“The Cuban Five”) were arrested in Miami and indicted for conspiracy to commit murder (of the four men killed on February 24, 1996); conspiracy to commit espionage; conspiracy to commit crimes against the U.S.; use of false identity and documentation; and being unregistered agents of a foreign government.

The Cuban Five, however,  were not directly involved in any of the above BTTR incidents. They did not shoot down the private planes on February 24, 1996. They were not in any of the Cuban MIG fighter jets that were involved in that incident.

Instead, according to one of the court opinions in their criminal case, they were in the U.S. as agents of the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence and members of its Wasp Network that was organized for espionage in southern Florida. The Network was to gather and report information regarding operations of U.S. military facilities, U.S. political and law enforcement agencies and U.S. nongovernmental organizations supporting regime change in Cuba, including BTTR. To that end, the Five attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of the U.S. Military’s Southern Command while one of the Five obtained employment at the Key West U.S. Naval Air Station and reported information about the Station to the Cuban Government. Their mission also was to stop flights to Cuba by BTRR.

In November 2000, the trial of the Cuban Five started in federal court in Miami and ended in June 2001 with a jury verdict of the Cuban Five’s being guilty on all counts. As none of the Cuban Five had been directly involved in shooting down the airplane in 1996, the key legal issue on the conspiracy to commit murder charge was the U.S. legal principle of conspiracy. Under U.S. law (U.S.C. sec. 1117), “If two or more persons conspire to [murder], and one or more of such persons do any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life.” In simple terms, the overt act of shooting down the plane is attributed or imputed to all members of the conspiracy even though some were not directly involved in that act.

In December 2001 (three months after 9/11), the Miami federal court sentenced the Cuban Five to lengthy sentences. In later 2009, after extensive appellate proceedings, the district court reduced the sentence of Guerrero from life to 262 months, of Labanino from life to 30 years and of Gonzalez from 19 years to 18 years.

Two of the Cuban Five  subsequently completed their sentences and were returned to Cuba in 2013 and 2014. On December 17, 2014, as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to pursue normalization of relations,  President Obama commuted the sentences of the other three Cubans to time served and released and returned them to Cuba. They are Antonio Guerrero, 56, a U.S. citizen; Ramón Labañino, 51; and Gerardo Hernández, 49.

Criminal Case Against General Martinez Puente and the Cuban Pilots[4]

On August 21, 2003, Cuban General Rueben Martinez Puente, the head in 1996 of the Revolutionary Air Force of the Republic of Cuba, and the two Cuban jet-fighter pilots who shot down the two planes operated by BTTR (Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez) were indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami for conspiracy to kill the U.S. nationals in the February 1996 crash, four counts of murder and two counts of destruction of aircraft.

The three defendants in this case were and are Cuban citizens and apparently were in Cuba at the time of the indictment and have remained there. Thus, on Nov. 10, 2003, the district court entered an order transferring them to its Fugitive File “until such time as the defendants are apprehended.” That is the last entry in this case’s file.

Conclusion

For this blogger, the foregoing objective review of the evidence relating to the letter from Senator Rubio and Representative Diaz-Balart yields the following conclusions:

  1. The BTTR was not “a humanitarian organization,” at least with respect to the private planes it had flown to Cuba.
  2. The BTTR apparently did not “operate rescue missions to search for Cubans who fled the island by sea.”
  3. Instead the BTTR, at least from 1994 through early 1996, operated to harass the government of Cuba by dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Cuba itself.
  4. On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force was provoked by the BTTR flights that day and previously.
  5. Prior to July 24, 1996, the Cuban Government repeatedly sought the assistance of the U.S. Government to stop the BTTR flights to Cuba.
  6. The U.S. Government, however, did not adequately attempt to stop BTTF flights to Cuba.
  7. Yes, the U.S. in 2003 indicted the head of the Cuban Air Force and the two Cuban pilots of the jet fighter planes that shot down the two private planes flown by BTTR pilots on February 24, 1996, but nothing has happened in that case because the Cuban defendants have not been in the U.S.
  8. Yes, the U.S. in 1998 indicted the Cuban Five for various crimes, even though they were not personally involved in the shooting down of the two BTTR planes on February 24, 1996, and they were convicted and sentenced to U.S. prison for long periods of time. By December 2014, two of them had completed their sentences, been released from U.S. prisons and returned to Cuba, and on December 17, 2014, the remaining three’s sentences were commuted to time served (16 years including pretrial detention) by President Obama and they also were released from U.S. prison and returned to Cuba while Cuba simultaneously released U.S. citizen Alan Gross and another man who had spied for the U.S. from a Cuban prison and returned them to the U.S.
  9. The release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17, 2014, was part of the praiseworthy overall U.S.-Cuba agreement to embark on the path of normalization of relations. It was not, as the Rubio/Diaz-Balart letter states, part of the shameful “appeasement policy.”[5]
  10. There never has been any contention that Raúl Castro was involved in any way in the downing of the two BTTR planes in February 1996. Instead Rubio and Diaz-Balart allege that at the time Raúl was Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and thus presumably in overall charge of everything involving the Cuban Air Force.
  11. now nearly 87 years old and no longer Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro is still Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and has retired to Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island. Presumably he will not be coming to the U.S. in the future, especially if he were to be indicted as Rubio and Diaz-Balart suggest.[6]

In short, the suggestion that Castro be indicted is a cheap, unfounded political trick only designed to continue to stroke the egos of the Cuban-Americans in Florida who cannot forget and forgive the past. The U.S. should not waste time and money on such a wild-goose chase.

=================================================

[1]  Press Release, Rubio, Diaz-Balart Call for DOJ to Consider Indicting Raúl Castro for Murder of American Citizens (May 22, 2018); Torres, Rubio, Diaz-Balart want investigation of Raúl Castro in 1996 shoot-down of exile plane, Miami Herald (May 22, 2018).

[2] The BTTR flights and the February 1996 crashes, as established by trial evidence, are covered in  U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Releases from U.S. Prison, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 31, 2014).

[3] The extensive U.S. litigation in the criminal case against the Cuban Five is reviewed in U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Releases from U.S. Prison, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 31, 2014); U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 21, 2014).

[4] Indictment, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL Aug, 22, 2003) Notice to Transfer to Fugitive Status, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL Nov. 10,, 2003); Criminal Docket, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL ) [searched on May 26, 2018].

[5] U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 21, 2014).

[6] The retirement of Raúl Castro: a luxurious estate in Santiago de Cuba, CiberCuba (May 2018).

 

 

 

 

Additional Reactions to End of U.S. Immigration Benefits for Cubans

There have been extensive White House comments as well as others’ reactions to the January 12 end of special U.S. immigration benefits for Cubans–“dry foot/wet foot” and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—that was discussed in a prior post. Now we look at additional White House comments and the extensive reactions—positive and negative—regarding this change.

White House Comments[1]

There were two additional sets of White House comments about the change. On the early evening of January 12 and hours after the announcement of the change, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, an unidentified senior DHS official and Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, conducted a lengthy conference call with the press on the subject. At the next day’s press briefing White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made comments on the subject. Here is a summary of new points that were made at these events.

Press Conference Call

Johnson: “Going forward, if a Cuban migrants arrives here illegally, the Cuban government has agreed to accept that person back . . . if . . . the time [between] a Cuban migrant leaves Cuba . . . and the time that we commence a deportation proceeding against the individual is less than four years.”

The “reason for the four-year period is . . . a law in Cuba (enacted in response to the [U.S.] Cuban Adjustment Act) that essentially says that if a person has left Cuba, after two years they are considered to have effectively migrated from Cuba.  In the course of our negotiations, the Cuban government agreed [to change that period from two to four years].” In addition, Cuba has agreed to accept other Cubans “on a case-by-case basis.”

“Ultimately, we seek to get to a place fully consistent with the international law under which the Cubans will agree to accept everyone back who is ordered deported by our country.”

“This is the ending of a policy that was put in place 20 years ago.  This is not the enactment of a policy that can be repealed by a subsequent administration. So I wouldn’t characterize it as creating a policy that could be repealed [by the Trump administration].”

Rhodes: “What we’ve seen in recent years is a continued uptick in Cuban migrants coming to the [U.S.].  We attribute that to a variety of factors — one, that Cuba has liberalized its own exit policies with respect to Cubans leaving the country; two, the change in our policy — the normalization of relations that began on December 17, 2014 — I think created an expectation in Cuba that this change might take place and therefore people were motivated to migrate.  Also, though, the increase in resources available to the Cuban people, particularly through our remittance policies, also made it more possible for Cubans to travel.”

“There has been a steady increase to some 40,000 Cubans granted parole in fiscal year 2015; 54,000 roughly in fiscal year 2016.  And what we had also seen is a growing number of Cubans who had begun a journey to try to reach the United States who were in a variety of Central American countries . . . creating both humanitarian challenges and strains within those countries as large numbers of Cubans were essentially stuck there and then facing a very difficult and dangerous — journey to our southern border in some cases.”

“Ultimately . . . we’d like to see people be able to increase their economic prospects within Cuba.  That is why we have taken steps to open up a greater commercial and people-to-people relationship, and have encouraged the Cuban government to pursue economic reforms.  That, ultimately, is the best way to ensure opportunity for the Cuban people going forward.”

“The Cuban Adjustment Act is the legislative architecture around these policies.  That provides preferences including adjusted status, green card status, and certain benefits to Cubans who are paroled into the country. . . . We do believe it would be the appropriate step for Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

“We did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows.”

“On the congressional point, while we did not have regular updates on what were very sensitive negotiations, we have over the course of the last year or so, frankly, heard from members of Congress, from both parties, who were expressing increasing concern about the migration flows.  In fact, in some cases, we were being urged to do something about it.  And we’ve also heard increasing interest and even pieces of legislation being introduced that seek to amend or repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, whether it’s the benefits provided under the Cuban Adjustment Act or the act itself.  So this is an issue that we’ve discussed with members of Congress from both parties, and around this announcement of course we’re doing many notifications to those interested members. . . . It was clear to us that Congress was taking a greater interest in this issue, given the uptick in migration flows and the strain that was placing on certain communities.”

“[E]arly in the post-revolution history, it was very clear that the overwhelming number of Cubans who came to the [U.S.] and ended up doing incredible things here in the [U.S.] absolutely had to leave for political purposes, or very much were leaving for political purposes.  I think increasingly over time, the balance has tilted towards people leaving for more traditional reasons in terms of seeking economic opportunity and, frankly, having not just the benefits of “wet foot, dry foot” and the adjusted status, but also literal benefits under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  That’s not to say that they’re not still people who have political cause to leave Cuba.  And as we do with any other country, political asylum continues to be an option for those individuals.  But we have seen the balance shift to more similar reasons in terms of people pursuing economic opportunity.”

“[U]ltimately the best future for Cuba is one that is determined by the Cuban people, both in terms of their economic livelihoods and in terms of their political future. . . . [It is] important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change and becoming entrepreneurs, and being more connected to the rest of the world. . . . [We] believe that this change is in service of creating more incentive for there to be the economic reforms that need to be pursued on the island in terms of opening up more space for the private sector, allowing foreign firms to hire Cubans, so that they can be responsive to the economic aspirations of their people. So in the long run, the best way for Cubans to have this opportunity is for them to be able to pursue it at home through an economy that has continued to pursue market-based reforms.”

We “believe very strongly, in this administration, of course, that our Cuba opening is the best way to incentivize that economic reform; that as more Americans travel, as more Americans do business, as there are greater commercial ties, that ultimately is going to create more opportunity for people in Cuba, as well as creating opportunities for Americans.  And so that’s very much the approach we’d like to see continued going forward, and ultimately the one that has the best opportunity to deliver results to the Cuban people.”

The “Cubans will be treated like everybody else.  People from anywhere can issue a claim of asylum; that does happen frequently. There’s not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.  So just like any other migrant who reaches our border, they have certain claims that they can pursue, but they’ll be treated as other individuals from other countries are.”

Press Briefing

At the January 13 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the following extensive comments about the change:

“This policy change was codified in an executive agreement between the U.S. government and the government in Cuba.  As even some of the incoming administration’s nominees have noted, there’s a tradition of subsequent Presidents observing and adhering to the executive agreements that were put in place by the previous President unless, of course, a specific decision is made to change the policy.”

“President-elect Trump . . . on January 20th . . . [will] be able to exercise all of the executive authority that are invested in the presidency at his discretion.  We believe that there is a strong case to be made about normalizing relations between our two countries, and this is just the latest step in that process to ensure that we are treating Cuban migrants the same way that we treat migrants from other countries.”

The “response to this announcement . . . is indicative of how public opinion is changing on these issues, including in the Cuban-American community.” There is “a growing majority of Americans who agree about the direction that the President [Obaama] has moved the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

“[T]he migrants from Cuba will be treated in the same way that migrants from other countries are, which is to say legitimate claims for refugee status or for asylum will be subject to due process, which means that their claims will be evaluated.  And if they have legitimate claims for asylum, then that will be granted. But that will be adjudicated through the regular process . . . that migrants from other countries go through as well.”

“There was . . . a successful effort to brief the incoming administration shortly before this policy change was made public.”

It “takes time to negotiate these kinds of executive agreements, particularly with a country like Cuba that does not have a long history of negotiating these kinds of agreements with the United States.  For more than 50 years, the United States pursued a policy of diplomatic isolation with Cuba.  And so it’s only over the course of the last year or so that we’ve had the kind of diplomatic opening that will allow us to have these kinds of conversations.  So, negotiating these kinds of executive agreements takes time, but as soon as this agreement was completed, we announced it right away.”

Mr. Trump “certainly seems to be motivated by financial interests in some pretty important ways; he has over his professional career.  So I think he’ll find . . . [the economic argument for normalization] persuasive, particularly when you consider that there were reports that his company was negotiating with Cuba for exactly those kinds of agreements.  So he obviously recognizes the economic opportunity that’s there.  There’s more than a hundred flights every day between the [U.S.] and Cuba.  That’s cancelling a lot of flights if he wants to roll back this policy.  And I can’t imagine that the U.S. airline industry is going to be particularly pleased by that kind of development.”

“There are thousands of Americans that have an opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they’ve had an opportunity to enjoy their time there, learn a little bit more about the country, enhance ties between our two countries, and they’ve been able to return to the United States with all of the cigars and rum that they could pack into their suitcase if they choose to.  I don’t think those Americans are going to be particularly pleased to see that policy rolled back.”

For “more than 50 years, there was a policy of diplomatic isolation in place that had no material impact in improving the human rights situation in Cuba.  If anything, it got worse.  This policy has been in place for about a year.  And is there more that we would like to see the Cuban government do with regard to protecting human rights?  We absolutely would.  But our view is that the ability of the United States to advocate for those kinds of improvements is enhanced when we deepen the ties between our two countries.  When there are more Americans that are traveling to Cuba, when there is more communication going back and forth between Cuba and the United States, when there are more Cuban Americans that have an opportunity to visit family and send money to family in Cuba, all that is going to promote freedom.  That’s going to promote our values.”

“There has not been nearly as much an improvement in human rights in Cuba as we would like to see.  But the [normalization] policy has been in place for a little over [two years].”

We also have removed “an impediment to our relationship with countries throughout Latin America that have important relationships with Cuba.  For most of the last 50 years, those countries in Latin America didn’t apply that much pressure to Cuba about their human rights situation, and [instead] were focused on the [U.S.] and our failed policy of trying to isolate them.  Now that that impediment has been removed, it’s not just the [U.S.] that’s encouraging the Cuban government to improve their human rights situation, but you’ve got countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that are making the same argument.  So all we have done is to increase pressure on the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation there, and, at the same time, the American people have enjoyed a number of material benefits, including monetary benefits, that I do think will be persuasive to the incoming President as he determines what policy he believes is best with regard to the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

Positive Reactions[2]

 A New York Times editorial applauded the ending of this policy, which was “misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.”

This policy, says the Times, “has served as an escape valve, giving a way out to tens of thousands of Cubans who were frustrated by the island’s authoritarian government. Young Cubans have grown up regarding immigration to the [U.S.] as an option that has become a core part of the Cuban psyche.”

Now, the Times continues, there probably will be “pent-up dissatisfaction [that may] embolden more Cubans to press for economic changes and political freedoms as the era of rule by Raúl Castro draws to an end [in early 2018]. This would be hard and risky in a police state that stifles dissent by rewarding loyalists, punishing critics and sowing division among groups agitating for change. Eliécer Ávila, a prominent opposition leader, said, ““In the long run, I feel this will be beneficial by putting pressure on us to take responsibility for our homeland. The fundamental problem here is not the laws of other countries but the reality we live with.”

The Times concluded,  “should be clear to . . . [President-elect Trump’s] team that rolling back the recent progress would be foolish.”

A Washington Post editorial reached the same conclusion as the Times while emphasizing that the “dry foot/wet foot” policy “not only induced discontented Cubans to make a dangerous journey, but also relieved pressure on the regime to meet their legitimate demands at home. In recent years, the policy has also led to various scams, such as Medicare fraud perpetrated by Cubans who quickly settled in South Florida and then returned to the island with ill-gotten money.”

The incoming Trump administration was urged by the Washington Post “to treat [Cuban asylum] claims with the generosity they deserve while noting that the U.S. continuing “to set aside 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans [was] an unusually high number properly reflective of Cuba’s unusually repressive system.”

Jon Anderson in the New Yorker points out that the change “should also help curtail a gruesome people-trafficking network that, over the past two years, has bled tens of thousands of Cubans of what little money they have in order to make it to the United States. Many of the migrants have sold their homes to obtain the cash to pay the traffickers who smuggle them through different countries before they reach the United States. One of the networks funnels people through a Mafia-controlled section of Colombia on an arduous and dangerous trek, sometimes lasting as much as three weeks, through the Darién jungle into Panama. Numerous Cubans, as well as other nationalities, have been robbed, raped, and killed along the way. In Mexico, an unavoidable part of any overland journey to the U.S. border from the south, Cubans fall prey to traffickers linked to the violent drug gangs there, at times with corrupt police involvement.”

Representative Albio Sires (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, said that “in recent years [some Cubans] used [the dry foot/wet foot policy] to reap economic rewards by sending money back to the island or even going back themselves to visit. While I am sympathetic to the plight of all the Cuban people, this program was designed for those asylees and refugees that were forced to flee. Money sent back to the island has no choice but to pass through the hands of the regime that for years has been using this program to fill their coffers.” He, however, questioned the timing of this change with an incoming president who has made many “hateful and disparaging remarks about refugees, minorities and immigrants.”

Negative Reactions[3]

Cuban-American representatives in Congress registered their typical negative reactions to U.S. normalization with Cuba: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL); Carlos Curbello (Rep., FL); and Mario Diaz-Balart. Representative Curbello, however, admitted that the old wet-foot/dry-foot policy had been “grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime. A change to this policy was inevitable. I remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of persecution in Cuba while ending all abuses of America’s generosity.”

 A negative opinion also was registered by Carlos Eire, a Cuban-American who arrived in the early 1960’s as a “Peter Pan” kid and who now is an author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.He argues that many Cubans saw the December 17, 2014 announcement of rapprochement . . . [as] new support from the [U.S. that] could prolong the life of the Castro regime indefinitely and allow it to rule despotically; and . . . [as a sign] how Cubans would no longer continue to be viewed by the [U.S.] as an oppressed people.” The January 12 termination of ‘dry foot/wet foot’ “has completed . . . [Obama’s] utter betrayal of the Cuban people — a legacy move set in motion two years ago [and] has burdened Trump with a no-win situation with the potential to seriously tarnish or weaken his presidency right from the start.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on January 12 released a statement from the Chair of its Migration Committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas. Expressing disappointment over the “sudden policy change,” he said, “While we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States.”

The Bishop added, “Cuban Americans have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. The protections afforded them were a model of humane treatment.” This change “will make it more difficult for vulnerable populations in Cuba, such as asylum seekers, children, and trafficking victims, to seek protection. . . . My brother Bishops and I pledge to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure humane treatment for vulnerable populations, from Cuba and elsewhere, seeking refuge in the United States.”

The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights (OCDH), criticizing the change, said thatmany Cubans do not want or can not live in their own country” and that Cuba has not guaranteed “there will be no reprimand or violations of the human rights of” the Cubans the U.S. returns to the island.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Miami-based Democracy Movement, believes the change “will not stop the Cubans leaving the island, because in Cuba ‘there is a tyranny’ that will create more deaths (of rafters) in the Florida Straits.”

Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue: “Freedom is going to have to be sought now inside Cuba.” It is “sad” that Cubans have always bet on escaping from Cuba rather than fighting for freedom within their country.

Conclusion

This blogger remains persuaded that the “dry foot/wet foot policy is not justified, at least in recent years. Now many, if not most, Cubans wanting to come to the U.S. are motivated by an entirely understandable desire to improve their financial circumstances. That same desire exists in many people from many countries throughout the world. There is no special reason why Cubans should be preferred over all these other people.

As Secretary Johnson, Deputy National Security Advisor Rhodes and Press Secretary Earnest emphasized, if the Cubans are fleeing Cuban persecution for their political opinions, then they may and should submit an application, under U.S. and international law, for political asylum.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel is also unjustified. Cuban students receive their medical education without any tuition. As a result, it is only reasonable to require such students, after receiving their medical degrees, to “give back” by serving on a Cuban foreign medical mission for which they are paid more than they would have earned in Cuba. Yes, the Cuban government is paid more for their services on such missions by foreign governments than the medical personnel are paid by the Cuban government, but that also is reasonable and appropriate. The contention that such service is illegal forced labor or semi-slavery is absurd.[4]

============================================

[1] White House, On-the-Record Press Call [by Jeh Johnson and Benjamin Rhodes] on Cuba Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/13/17.

[2] Editorial, Ending a Misguided Cuban Migration Policy, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017); Editorial, Obama’s latest step on Cuba actually seems necessary and proper, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); Anderson, Obama’s Last Big Cuba Move, New Yorker (Jan. 13, 2017); Congressman Sires Statement on the Administration’s Decision to End “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” (Jan. 12, 2017).

[3] Ros-Lehtinen Statement on Latest Obama Concession to Castro Regime: Elimination of Wet Foot/Dry Foot and Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 12, 2017); Diaz-Balart, Have You No Shame, President Obama? (Jan. 12, 2017); Curbelo Comments on DHS Announcement Regarding End of Wet-Foot Dry-Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2917); Eire, Wet foot, dry foot, wrong foot, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); USCCB Migration Chairman Expresses Disappointment over Abrupt End of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy—Policy Has Long Benefited Cuban Migrants and Refugees (Jan. 12, 2017); OCDH Position on the Elimination of the Policy of “Dry Feet/Wet Feet (Jan. 13, 2017);Reactions: Obama’s policies have been ‘a betrayal of Cubans,’ says Mario Díaz-Balart, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017).

[4] See posts listed in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical (CUBA).

U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Recent Releases from U.S. Prison

On December 17th U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of three Cuban spies to time served and released and returned them to Cuba. They are Antonio Guerrero, 56, a U.S. citizen; Ramón Labañino, 51; and Gerardo Hernández, 49.

Antonio Guerero
Antonio Guerero
Ramón Labańino
Ramón Labańino
Gerardo Herńandez
Gerardo Herńandez

They were known as members of “the Cuban Five,”  a Cuban spy ring in South Florida in the 1990s that infiltrated Cuban-exile groups and U.S. military installations.[1] They, along with other members of the ring, tried to make themselves indispensable to the exile groups whose secrets they stole. One of the operatives worked at the Naval Air Station in Key West, while another worked undercover in Tampa.

Once their cover was blown and federal agents smashed the ring, they were arrested and jailed on September 2, 1998. Several of its members pleaded guilty to various charges, but the Cuban Five instead went to trial, starting in November 2000 and concluding in June 20001. They were convicted on all charges and sentenced in December 2001 to long prison terms although two of them after completion of their sentences were released from prison and returned to Cuba in 2013 and 2014.

Mr. Guerrero, who was born in South Florida and studied engineering in Ukraine, was originally sentenced to life plus 10 years, but later was re-sentenced to 21 years plus 10 months (262 months). Mr. Labañino is a native of Havana who studied economics at the University of Havana. Originally sentenced to life plus 18 years, he later was resentenced to 30 years.

Mr. Hernández was the only one of the group convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus 15 years. American investigators accused him of having previous knowledge of the Castro government’s plans in 1966 to shoot down two Cuba-exile organization private planes that regularly flew missions from the U.S. near Cuba, killing four anti-Castro volunteers.

A fuller understanding of the Cuban Five and the recent release of the three Cuban men from U.S. prison requires an examination of (a) the events that precipitated the downing of the two planes; (b) the actions of the Cuban Five relating to those events; (c) the long, complicated history of their criminal case in U.S. federal courts; and (d) reactions to the commutation of  the three men’s sentences and their release from U.S. prison and return to Cuba.

Precipitating Events

According to one of the judges in the latest 11th Circuit decision that is discussed below, the trial evidence established that Brothers to the Rescue (“BTTR”), an anti-Castro Cuban exile group in Miami, repeatedly and knowingly had violated Cuban airspace since 1994. Here are some of the details:[2]

  • In 1994 a BTTR flight flew near the Cuban coast with a television reporter who filmed Cuban military fighter jets circling, but not firing at the BTTR plane.
  • Later in 1994, another BTTR plane flew over Cuba near Guantanamo Bay and dropped BTTR bumper stickers, and again Cuba did not fire at the plane.
  • In 1995 BTTR announced that it would commit civil disobedience in Cuban waters, and in response the U.S. State Department issued a public warning that no one should violate Cuban waters and airspace. Nevertheless BTTR proceeded to send a boat into Cuban waters and a plane flew over Havana for 13 minutes dropping anti-Castro leaflets and religious medals. Again the Cuban military did not attack the BTTR plane. [3]
  • Immediately afterwards the Cuban Government complained to the U.S. FAA and requested action to prevent violations of Cuban sovereignty and stated, “Any craft proceeding from the exterior that invades by force our sovereign waters could be sunk and any aircraft downed.” In response the U.S. State Department reiterated its warning that U.S. planes should not violate Cuban airspace and quoted the Cuban warning.
  • Nevertheless in January 1996 BTTR flew twice to Cuba and presumably over international waters dropped anti-Castro leaflets that landed in Havana. Again Cuba requested the U.S. to stop these flights. [4]

On February 24, 1996, three light civilian U.S. planes that were operated by BTTR flew from Miami to Havana. All three at one time were in international airspace close to Cuba’s territorial waters. One of them clearly flew into Cuban airspace, but was not shot down. The other two civilian planes were shot down by Cuban MIG fighters, killing three Cuban-American citizens and one non-U.S. citizen. Cuba defended its actions by contending that the planes were shot down within the territorial limits of Cuba whereas the U.S alleged that the downings had occurred over international airspace.[5] According to one of the judges in the latest 11th Circuit opinion, these two planes did not enter Cuban airspace and were shot down in international airspace, 4.8 and 9.5 miles (land miles or nautical miles?] from Cuban airspace.[6]

The concept of national and international airspace is complicated. National airspace is the area or portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory that is controlled by that country and above a country’s territorial waters, which generally are considered to be 12 nautical miles [or about 13.8 land miles] out from the coastline of the nation. All other airspace is known as ‘international airspace.’

In any event, the two planes that were shot down were at least very close to Cuban airspace after a history of such planes entering Cuban airspace and dropping leaflets and medals and potentially dropping bombs.

On December 17, 1997, a U.S. district court entered a default judgment against Cuba for $187 million for the deaths of three of the four pilots.[7]

The Cuban Five’s Actions

The Cuban Five were not directly involved in any of the above incidents. They did not shoot down the private plane on February 24, 1996. They were not in any of the Cuban MIG fighter jets that were involved in that incident.

Instead, according to the latest 11th Circuit opinion that is discussed below, the evidence at trial established that the Five were in the U.S. as agents of the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence and members of its Wasp Network that was organized for espionage in southern Florida. The Network was to gather and report information regarding operations of U.S. military facilities, U.S. political and law enforcement agencies and U.S. nongovernmental organizations supporting regime change in Cuba, including BTTR. To that end, the Five attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of the U.S. Military’s Southern Command while one of the Five obtained employment at the Key West U.S. Naval Air Station and reported information about the Station to the Cuban Government. [8]

The 11th Circuit also stated that the trial evidence established that the mission of one of the Wasp Network’s operations, known as Operation Escorpion, was to stop flights to Cuba by BTRR.

According to the Cuban Government, the Cuban Five are patriots and Heroes of the Cuban Revolution who were acting to save American and Cuban lives from terrorists operating in Miami and to defend Cuba from attacks from the U.S.

What Happened in the U.S. Criminal Process?

In September 1998, the Cuban Five were arrested in Miami. A federal grand jury in Miami indicted them on charges of conspiracy to commit murder (of the four pilots); conspiracy to commit espionage; conspiracy to commit crimes against the U.S.; use of false identity and documentation; and being unregistered agents of a foreign government. Each of them then spent 17 months in solitary confinement before trial.[9]

In November 2000, the trial of the Cuban Five started in federal court in Miami. During the course of pre-trial proceedings the defense made five unsuccessful motions to change venue to move the trial away from Miami because of intense public hostility towards the Cuban Five.

In June 2001 the trial ended in Miami federal court with a jury verdict holding the Cuban Five guilty on all counts.[10] As none of the Cuban Five had been directly involved in shooting down the airplane in 1996, the key legal issue on the conspiracy to commit murder of three men who died in the airplane’s crash was the U.S. legal principle of conspiracy. Under U.S. law (U.S.C. sec. 1117), “If two or more persons conspire to [murder], and one or more of such persons do any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life.” In simple terms, the overt act of shooting down the plane is attributed or imputed to all members of the conspiracy even though some were not directly involved in that act.

In December 2001 (three months after 9/11), the Miami federal court sentenced the Cuban Five to the previously mentioned sentences. [11] (At about the same time, the Cuban legislature declared that the Five were Heroes of the Revolution.)

In August 2005, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta unanimously reversed the convictions on the ground that is was reversible error for the trial court to deny the motions for change of venue out of Miami.[12]

A year later, August 2006, however, the entire 11th Circuit en banc, 10 to 2, overturned the panel’s decision and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motions for change of venue and for a new trial, but remanded the case to the previous three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit to decide the following other issues on appeal:[13]

  • alleged prosecutorial misconduct regarding the testimony of a government witness and during closing argument;
  • alleged improper use of the Classified Information Procedures Act;
  • alleged improper denial of a motion to suppress fruits of searches under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act;
  • alleged Batson violations by the prosecution in striking prospective jurors on the basis of race;
  • alleged insufficiency of the evidence regarding the conspiracy to transmit national defense information to Cuba, alleged violations of the Foreign Services Registration Act, and conspiracy to commit murder;
  • alleged improper denial of a motion to dismiss Count 3 based on Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act jurisdictional grounds;
  • alleged improper denial of jury instructions regarding specific intent, necessity, and justification; and
  • alleged sentencing errors.

On June 4, 2008, that three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit resolved these issues in 99 pages of opinions. With one exception, the panel unanimously rejected all of the Five’s arguments on the merits.[14] The exception was the sufficiency of the evidence for the conviction of Hernandez for conspiracy to commit murder, where the decision to affirm the conviction was 2 to 1. The dissenter concluded that there was insufficient evidence for this charge because the Government had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he had agreed to have another agent shoot down a BTTR plane in international airspace, which is illegal, as opposed to shooting down a plane in Cuban airspace, which is legal. Another judge conceded that this issue was very close.[15]

The three-judge court also vacated the sentences of three of the Five and remanded the case forresentencing, presumably for shorter periods. The three are Labañino and Guerrero who had been sentenced to life imprisonment and Gonzalez who had received a 19 years sentence.[16]

On September 2, 2008, the 11th Circuit denied the Five’s petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc (the entire 11th Circuit). On June 15, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for review (denial of certiorari).[17]

On October 13, 2009, the district court reduced the sentence of Guerrero, under an agreement between the defendant and the prosecution, from life to 262 months. On December 8, 2009, the district court reduced the sentence of Labañino from life to 30 years. On that same date (December 8, 2009), the sentence of Gonzalez was reduced from 19 years to 18 years.[18] Gonzalez subsequently completed his sentence and was returned to Cuba.

After their resentencing, the three Cubans released a statement reiterating their claims of innocence and affirming, ¨We did not give one inch in our principles, decorum and honor, always defending our innocence and the dignity of our homeland.¨in addition, they asserted that they continued to reject the U.S. government´s proposal for more lenient sentences in exchange for collaboration with the U.S.¨[19]

Reactions to the Release of the Three Cubans

When the three men  returned to Cuba on December 18th after their release from U.S. prison, they were welcomed home by Cuban President Raúl Castro. A Cuban reporter said of this celebration, “The Cuban sky, which they had so longed to see, offered the first welcome to our heroes, then the breeze, the feeling of freedom… hard for their eyes to believe what was unfolding before them, hard for their hearts to bear so much joy, to see the radiant, euphoric people opening their arms to their sons, and offering them a cup of coffee. Eleven million tears were shed as the news was announced, and the photos began to appear, with Raúl welcoming them to the homeland. Who didn’t feel goosebumps along with Elizabeth as she embraced [her husband] Ramón. Who was not moved as Gerardo gazed into [his wife] Adriana’s face, and who did not feel the warmth shared by Mirta and her son Tony [upon seeing her husband Antonio Guerrero]… And what an avalanche of emotions hearing the exclamations, including, “Para lo que sea”, (For whatever may be needed), offering an exemplary lesson of genuine patriotism. Outside, in the streets, a sea of human beings welcomed them home, every corner of the nation was full of joy. Feeling the country’s greatness, it is no lie that Cubans feel our hearts swelling.”

Afterwards the three had a joyous reunion with their previously released fellow Cuban Five members.

Members of the Cuban-exile community in Florida reportedly were most upset with the release of Hernandez.  Given his conviction for conspiracy to murder and his double life sentence plus 15 years, that reaction is understandable. On the other hand, he personally did not shoot down the two BTTR planes causing the death of their occupants and was not personally involved in any other way in that incident. In addition, as at least one U.S. judge observed, there was evidence that  Hernandez did not understand or agree that the Cuban air force would shoot down a BTTR plane in international air space, which is illegal, as opposed to shooting down such a plane if it entered Cuban air space, which is legal. Moreover, Cuba had protested the prior BTTR flights to the U.S. authorities and asked the U.S. to stop such flights. Finally Hernandez had been in U.S. jail and prison for over 16 years, which is a significant punishment. Therefore, it should be possible to understand that he is not as evil as suggested by his being labeled as a convicted murderer or as a convicted murder conspirator.

The other two–Guerrero and Labañino–after 16 years in jail and prison were nearing the end of their sentences, and the commutation of their sentences to time served seemed to be less controversial to the Cuban-exile community in Florida.  They already had served their sentences in substantial part.

For this blogger, I see the commutation of the sentences of Hernandez and the other two Cubans and their release from U.S. prison and  return to Cuba as the price that had to be paid by the U.S. in order to obtain Cuba’s simultaneous release of the U.S. spy from Cuban prison. He was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban who was a cryptologist in Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence. He had provided U.S. officials with the codes being used by the Cuban Five and the other members of the Wasp Network that lead to their being arrested in 1998. (Mazzetti, Schmidt & Robles, Crucial Spy in Cuba Paid a Heavy Cold War Price, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, Spy’s Parents Search for Son After Cuba-U.S. Deal, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014).) Supposedly unrelated was Cuba’s simultaneous release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross. Obtaining Cuba’s releases of these prisoners and achieving the overall U.S.-Cuba agreement to normalize diplomatic relations and to start resolving the many bilateral issues that have accumulated over the last fifty-plus years are significant. These benefits alone, in my judgment, justify the commutations and releases of the last three of the Cuban Five.

Moreover, the previous discussion of the precipitating circumstances to the downing of the two BTTR planes and the deaths of their four occupants should help us see the Cuban perspective. The island was being threatened by previous BTTR flights and had raised legitimate complaints to U.S. authorities about those flights, all to no avail. As a result, the Cuban government was left to its own devices to protect itself, including trying to obtain information about future BTTR flights with the Wasp Network investigations of the BTTR in Florida. Moreover, the exact location of the planes when they were shot down was disputed with the Cubans asserting it was in Cuban territorial air space, which was legal. These considerations, in my opinion, provide additional reasons justifying the U.S. commutations and releases.

As a retired lawyer whose practice involved extensive experience in litigating civil cases in U.S. federal courts, I have a general respect for those courts and the U.S. civil and criminal judicial procedures, and  the prior discussion of the Cuban Five´s case in those courts convinces me that the Five had competent and dedicated defense lawyers. I have not attempted a review of the extensive trial record in order to reach my own conclusions on the legitimacy of the many complaints raised about that trial by the Cuban Five support network, by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions and by the amicus curiae briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court from Nobel laureates, international human rights groups and a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Nevertheless, the mere existence of those complaints and concerns, without investigating or conceding their merits, are other factors that support, in my judgment, the commutations and releases of the three Cubans by eliminating these international and domestic irritants.

===============================================

[1] They are Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, Fernando Gonzalez Llort (Rueben Campa), Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo (Manuel Viramontes), Ramón Labañino Salazar (Luis Medina) and Rene Gonzalez Sechweret. The “Cuban 5” website gives a lot of information about them and their case. http://www.thecuban5.org/who-are-the-cuban-5/

[2] Slip Opinions at 84-90, United States v. Campa, 529 F.3d 980 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008) (J. Kravitch, concurring and dissenting).

[3] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996.

[4] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996.

[5] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996; Rohter, Cuba Blames U.S. in Downing of Planes, N. Y. Times, Feb. 27, 1996; Crossette, U.S. Says Cubans Knew They Fired on Civilian Planes, N. Y. Times, Feb. 28, 1996; Crossette, Cuba, Citing Earlier Intrusions, Defends Downing of 2 Cessnas, N. Y. Times, March 7, 1996.

[6] Slip Opinions at 90, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008) (J. Kravitch, concurring and dissenting), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[7] Navarro, U.S. Judge Assesses Cuba $187 Million in Deaths of 4 Pilots, N. Y. Times, Dec. 18, 1997.

[8] Slip Opinions at 3-6, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[9] E.g., Cuban Five, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Five; The incredible story of five men imprisoned in the United States for fighting terrorism, Judtyicia/Justice.

[10] Id.; Atlanta and the Cuban Five: A Long March Towards Justice at 1-31 (Editora Politica: Havana, 2005)[“Atlanta“]; Fernandez, United States vs. The Cuban Five: a judicial cover-up at 1-134 (Editorial Capitan San Luis: Havana 2006)[“Fernandez“]; The Perfect Storm: The Case of the Cuban Five at 85-108 (Editora Politica: Havana, 2005) [“Storm“].

[11] Id.; Atlanta at 32-51; Fernandez at 135-82; Storm at 108-09, 149-63.

[12] United States v. Campa, 419 F.3d 1219 (11th Cir. 2005) (No. 01-17176), vacated & ordered to be heard en banc, 429 F.3d 1011 (11th Cir. 2005).

[13] United States v. Campa, 459 F.3d 1121, 1126 n.1 (11th Cir. 2006)

[14] Slip Opinions at 4, 6-63, 84, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[15] Slip Opinions at 83-99, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[16] Slip Opinions at 63-82, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[17] Campa v. United States, No. 08-987 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 15, 2009).

[18] Anderson, Deal gives man accused in Cuban Five spy case reduced sentence, Miami Herald, Oct. 10, 2009; Urbina, Judge Reduces Sentence for One of Cuban Five, N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 2009, ; Anderson, Cubans get reduced sentences for spying in US, Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2009; BBC News, US cuts Cuban spies’ jail terms, Dec. 12, 2009.

[19] Statement by Antonio, Rámon and Fernando: We will continue until the final victory, Granma (Dec. 9, 2009); The U. S. administration was forced to recognize that we did not endanger national security, Granma (Dec. 9, 2009).