Driving from Santiago de Cuba, near the eastern end of the island, all the way west to Havana, one passes through a score of towns and villages, none of which seems to have had a coat of fresh paint in the past half century. The ubiquitous shabbiness of today’s Cuba is even more noticeable in Havana. Once one of the most beautiful cities in the world, today Havana is divided between the restored glories of Habana Vieja (plus the resort areas visited by tourists) and the rundown sectors where most of the people live. Even the patriotic billboards and murals of Fidel, Che, and the endlessly repetitive slogans look old and long neglected. With one exception: signs celebrating Los Cinco Héroes, the five “heroes” known in much of the rest of the world simply as “the Cuban Five.” They were part of a spy network that reported to the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence on the activities of anti-Castro groups in the United States. In September 1998, ten members of this network were arrested in Florida and convicted of various crimes under U.S. law. Five of the accused pleaded guilty, but the Cuban Five fought the charges. The freshly painted names and faces of these men—who are serving their terms in U.S. jails—adorn buildings and billboards throughout Havana and other cities in Cuba.
One gets the impression that the cause of the Five is the Cuban government’s most active propaganda ploy today. The economic embargo that has been the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Cuba for—what is it, ten presidencies?—has never succeeded in significantly depriving Cuba of needed food, medicine, or other essential goods. As a result, invoking the bloqueo is no longer sufficient to stir up anti-American sentiment, and Cuban propagandists have turned to touting the cruel and unjust incarceration of the Five. The Five get the fresh paint in Havana and have inspired scores, perhaps hundreds, of solidarity groups throughout the world. Antiwar activists in many countries have adopted the Five as the cause du jour, demanding they be freed and returned to their loved ones in Cuba.
On the face of it, that is a hopeless effort. The Five have been tried, abundant evidence has been brought forth, and they have been convicted and sentenced according to their involvement in crimes great and small. They receive the same privileges as others in federal penitentiaries, including visits from families, lawyers, and Cuban government officials. The living conditions of the Five are no doubt awful—prison life is never pleasant. They probably take little comfort in the knowledge that their situation is infinitely better than that of scores of political prisoners in Cuba today. And that fact—the situation of political prisoners in Cuba—explains the fresh paint.
Though there are known to be many political prisoners in Cuba, the magic number for some years now has been seventy-five. That’s how many totally innocent nonviolent dissidents were rounded up in the spring of 2003. Many were associated with the Varela Project, an effort led by Oswaldo Payá, a serious lay Catholic, to campaign for democratic reforms in Cuba. A little over twenty years ago, Payá founded the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, and ten years later he began the Varela Project, named after Fr. Felix Varela, one of the great figures of the Cuban independence struggle of the nineteenth century. Payá spearheaded a drive to collect signatures calling for freedom of the press, free elections, and other reforms. According to the government’s own rules, the national assembly would be obliged to consider any proposal with ten thousand signatures. Over time the Varela Project presented some thirty thousand signatures—each bearing the identity number of the signer, itself no small act of courage.
Payá has met with Jimmy Carter, who publicly expressed his support for the Varela Project. He was nominated by Václav Havel for the Nobel Peace Prize, received the Andrei Sakharov Prize for human rights awarded by the European Parliament, had an audience with Pope John Paul II, and in general became an intolerable problem for Cuban rulers. The arrests of the seventy-five dissidents during what has become known as la primavera negra—the dark spring—represented Castro’s main effort to blunt the effects of the Varela Project. Payá’s international profile preserved him from arrest that year, but did not spare many of his close collaborators. Twenty of the original seventy-five, mostly elderly and all seriously ill, have been released, lest they die as martyrs in prison. But the other fifty-five remain in prison to this day.
Although Cuba and the United States have no formal diplomatic relations, Washington maintains a de facto embassy in Havana, technically a branch of the Swiss embassy known as the U.S. Interests Section. The aggressiveness of James Cason, chief of the Interests Section in 2003, played some part in the roundup of the seventy-five. Cason had followed Michael Kozak and Vicki Huddleston as chief of mission (ambassador in all but name), and while their terms had seen some tussling with the Cuban authorities, Kozak and Huddleston were diplomats who adhered to the customs of diplomacy. Cason, on the other hand, seemed to look for opportunities to press U.S. concern for human rights and became a major irritant to the authorities.
In December 2004, the Christmas display on the front of the Interests Section building included a large 75, which, by then, needed no explanation. Cason was told to take it down; he refused. The government then placed several large billboards facing the building with images of Abu Ghraib and references to “Nazi” President Bush.
A year later, Cason installed electronic billboards on the windows of his top-floor office that carried scrolled messages about democracy and freedom, and Cuba’s lack of same. This was too much for the government, and so a “Mount of Flags” was installed in front of the Interests Section: 148 very tall poles, each bearing a large black flag with a white star, effectively blocking most views of the electronic billboards.
Then began the campaign mounted in Cuban embassies across the world to blunt the impact of the seventy-five with the heart-rending story of the Five and their sorrowing wives and innocent children. Several Catholic bishops have been asked by Cuban diplomats to express their humanitarian concern for these separated families, and some have agreed to urge improved contact between the prisoners and their families. U.S. policy on the matter, however, seems fixed and unchanging.
But should it be? If the Five were to be pardoned and deported tomorrow, they would carry with them absolutely no intelligence that would be of interest to the Cuban government. They were spies a decade ago; they sought mainly to infiltrate anti-Castro groups in South Florida, and such information as they may have transmitted to their government could have been of limited value and would surely be obsolete by now.
One of the Five, Gerardo Hernández, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to two life terms without parole, making his pardon the most likely to provoke protests. He was charged with notifying the Cuban government about the plans of Brothers to the Rescue, a Florida-based Cuban exile group, to fly into Cuban airspace and drop leaflets over Havana. Two of the Brothers’ three planes were intercepted by Cuban MiG fighters and shot down over international waters. This is by far the most serious of the charges against any of the Five and poses the greatest legal and political obstacles to a possible pardon and deportation of the men. But it was Castro who ordered the shootdown; Hernández was just a cog in the machine.
Most students of U.S.-Cuba policy believe that the desperate act of shooting down unarmed planes, an unprecedented escalation of tensions between the two countries, was precipitated by President Bill Clinton’s plan to veto the Helms-Burton Act, a 1996 measure to tighten the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The shootdown guaranteed Clinton’s immediate signature on the bill, and it became law. For those opponents of the embargo who believe that it actually serves as America’s greatest gift to Fidel Castro, and now to his brother—the one-size-fits-all excuse for Cuba’s economic ills—no further explanation is needed.
What then of the Five? Why not send them back as an act of realism and a humanitarian gesture at a time when both are in short supply? In return, the U.S. government must stipulate that the fifty-five dissidents still imprisoned in Cuba be immediately released. Castro has released political prisoners on several occasions—for example, to mark visits from the pope, Cardinal John O’Connor, and Jesse Jackson. Given Cuba’s extremely parlous economic situation after the devastation of Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike, smart U.S. diplomacy should be able to make a deal and let at least these sixty people return to their families in Cuba.
President Barack Obama has declared his determination to pursue a more realistic policy toward Cuba. In May 2008, he told a group of Cuban Americans in Miami, “The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners.” Few gestures could signal his intentions more clearly than securing the release of the fifty-five nonviolent dissidents in Cuba by returning the Cuban Five. This could be the first step toward freedom for all political prisoners and an end to the foolish propaganda war.