What Lies Across the Water: the real story of the Cuban Five by Stephen Kimber

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I wrote this book review of Stephen Kimber's 'real story of the Cuban Five' for Science & Society. It is not due to be published until October 2014 (Vol. 78, No.4), but they have kindly given me permission to post it on my blog prior to publication. I wanted to post the review early to draw attention to an important event which takes place in London next month: the International Commission of Inquiry into the Case of the Cuban Five, on 7 and 8 March. The Commission website can be found here: The following day, Sunday 9 March, there will be a rally to demand justice for the Five in Trafalgar Square from 2pm. Details here:


Stephen Kimber, What Lies Across the Water: the real story of the Cuban Five, Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2014. 296 pages. $29.95 CAD. ISBN: 9781552665428

Review by Helen Yaffe*

According to the author, this book owes its existence to serendipity. In 2009 Stephen Kimber was in Havana researching for a love story he planned to write when, he explains, he ‘got sideswiped by the truth-is-stranger-but-way-more-interesting story of the Cuban Five.’ (1) Thanks to serendipity, Kimber has produced the first full-length book in English about the case of the Cuban Five. During his research, the Canadian writer, broadcaster and professor of journalism read 20,000-pages of court transcripts, and a mass of books, media reports and documents. He conducted interviews and established correspondence with the Five in prison. The book is organized chronologically into sections which are sub-divided by diary-like entries providing updates on the entire ‘cast of characters’. This work is meticulously researched, factual without being dull and written with sensitivity and honesty - warts and all. It is as gripping as an action-packed movie and deeply moving.

Most important, it contextualizes the story of the Cuban Five within the shocking history of Miami-based Cuban exile attacks against the Cuban Revolution and the turning-a-blind-eye, or often complicity, of US authorities. Since 1959, 3,478 Cubans have died and 2,099 been injured as a result of terrorist attacks or aggression against Cuba. Kimber’s account covers the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet bloc heralded the end of the Cold War and Cuba took an economic battering following the loss of 80% of its trade and investment, resulting in a GDP collapse of 34%. The US government (intensifying the blockade) and right-wing exiles (increasing terrorist attacks) hoped to exploit Cuba’s vulnerability and undermine its efforts to end political isolation and economic crisis, partly by developing its tourist industry.

At the centre of this exile opposition is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), ‘ostensibly the single most powerful American lobby group working for peaceful, democratic regime change in Cuba. CANF has helped elect – and influenced the Cuba policy of – every American president since Ronald Reagan.’ (7) However, Kimber explains, members of CANF, ‘were also organizing and financing their own secret paramilitary wing whose purpose was to overthrow the Cuban government by force, and, if possible, murder Fidel Castro.’ (7) At least 638 assassination attempts have been documented by Cuban authorities.

The US government created the monster, Kimber explains. Shortly after the Cuban Revolution of January 1959: ‘the CIA set up shop on the south campus of the University of Miami, doling out $50 million to hire a permanent staff of 300 to oversee the insurrectionist work of more than 6,000 Cuban exile agents.’ (15) The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 catalyzed the campaign of sabotage and terrorism. Among the young exile recruits who received training in bomb-making and sabotage from the CIA were Felix Rodriguez, the CIA’s operative behind the execution of Che Guevara, Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of CANF, and, ‘the founding fathers of anti-Castro terrorism’(7): Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch Avila. Most infamous among their joint criminal enterprises is the blowing up of a civilian Cubana Airlines flight in 1976, killing all 73 people on board.

This book demonstrates that terrorist attacks against Cuba have never ceased and were actually escalated in the 1990s. A hotel bombing campaign in Havana left an Italian tourist dead in 1997. Posada’s plan to bomb the popular tourist night club, Tropicana, was thwarted by a Cuban intelligence agent whom he entrusted with the task. The agent had been promised $10,000 per bomb. Another plan uncovered by Cuban agents involved bombing civilian airlines carrying tourists to and from Cuba. This was three years before the terrible airborne terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.

The need to keep abreast of these plots, and the abject failure of the US authorities to prevent or punish the perpetrators, led Cuban intelligence to create the Wasp Network (La Red Avispa) to infiltrate Miami exile-groups and gather information. The agents who stepped into this murky labyrinth of conspiracy and intrigue were Gerardo Hernández, Rene González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero. In fact, Kimber explains, ten Cuban agents were arrested in 1998, but five of them struck deals with the US authorities; lesser sentences in exchange for testifying against their compatriots. That’s not all. According to Kimber: ‘Adding up all those names and code names, I arrived at a total of 22 members of La Red Avispa.’ (9)The agent’s preparations involved affecting growing disillusionment with the Revolution before ‘abandoning’ the country. In December 1990, Rene González ‘escaped’ to the US on a hijacked Cuban aircraft. That night, Rene was wined and dined by the Cuban-American president of Key West’s Latin American Chamber of Commerce. He joined exile-group Brothers to the Rescue, led by CIA-trained José Basulto, which ran hostile flights over Cuban airspace.

Kimber describes the personal anguish and sacrifice involved for the Cuban agents. With trepidation we read that the FBI began surveillance of the agents in 1996. In June 1998, an unprecedented meeting took place in Havana between Cuba’s Interior Ministry, the FBI and other US agencies. This followed Fidel’s warnings, delivered via Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez directly to President Bill Clinton, about CANF plans to ‘set up bombs in planes from Cuba or any other country’s airline carrying tourists to, or from, Cuba to Latin American countries.’ (185) Kimber explains: ‘the Cubans presented the Americans with a blizzard of material: photos, audio and video tapes, confessions, wiretap transcripts, bomb-making paraphernalia…’ (199) and three documents: a 65-page Report on Terrorist Activities Against Cuba, a 61-page who’s-who of 40 exiles the Cubans had identified as terrorists, and a 52-page Operational Appendices with intricate details of operations. Unaware that Wasp Network was under FBI surveillance, the Cubans were determined to hide the identities of their agents. The FBI took the information away to ‘evaluate’. Then they arrested the Wasp Network.

The court case took place in Miami; a fair trial was impossible. The Cuban 5 were convicted of false identification, conspiracy to commit espionage and, in Gerardo Hernández’s case, conspiracy to commit murder. He was blamed for the shoot-down of Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in 1996. They received sentences ranging from 15 years to life. In 2005, a US court conceded that the Cuban Five did not receive a fair trial and ordered a retrial in a new location. The US Attorney General overturned this decision and the convictions were upheld. Evidence since obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the US government paid millions of dollars to Miami-area journalists to prejudice the public against the Cuban Five before and during their trial.

The Five have received ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment, including long stretches in isolation and being denied access to lawyers or family-visits. In late 2011, Rene González (15 years) was granted ‘supervised release’ on a three-year term, initially under life-threatening conditions; to remain in Miami alongside the terrorists he monitored. In spring 2013 he returned permanently to Cuba. In late February 2014, Fernando González (18 years) will be released into detention by US immigration authorities, prior to his return to Cuba. Antonio Guerrero (22 years) and Ramón Labañino (30 years) face many more years of incarceration. Gerardo Hernandez (two consecutive life sentences) will never leave prison, except through political intervention.

All of this has been tracked and opposed by an international campaign to demand the freedom of the Cuban Five. Campaign committees are active in many countries and especially active in the US. Some progress has been made in engaging international ‘dignitaries’, from actors to politicians, in raising the campaign’s profile. However, as mainstream media censorship has prevailed public knowledge of the case is limited. Kimber makes a vital contribution to addressing that by revealing the real story of the Cuban Five.  

 *Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.

(Taken from: Helen Yaffe blog)

Nación y Emigración