Interview with Rene Gonzalez
News from Cuba | Wednesday, 29 May 2013
by Fernando Ravsberg
On September 12, 1998, the FBI dismantled a network of Cuban spies who had been monitoring anti-Castro groups based in Miami. A number of these spies negotiated with the prosecution to have their sentences reduced, but five refused to do so. Their convictions, which included life sentences, were the most severe.
One of these five Cuban men was the pilot Rene Gonzalez, recently released from US prison, following nearly 13 years of incarceration and another nearly two years on parole. Now back living in Cuba, he agreed to talk to me about his life as an agent, his activities in the United States and his time in prison.
Q: Why did you agree to go the United States and act as a spy there?
I am part of a generation of Cubans who grew up under the threat of terrorist actions against the country. I've never forgotten the hijacking of Cuban fishing vessels and the murder of their crews, which were often perpetrated by terrorist groups based in Miami. I was among the one million people who said goodbye to the remains of the martyrs of Barbados, when the Cuban airliner was shot down. So when I was asked to do this I did not hesitate, I felt it was my duty as a patriot.
Q: Is it ethical to spy on another country?
I believe it is ethical to defend yourself when you are being attacked and that was what I set out to do. The most powerful nation in the world has attacked us for many years and we have the right to defend ourselves, provided we do no harm to the American people. At no point was it our intention to do anyone any harm, we merely exercised our right to defend ourselves.
Q: When you live a double life you also know good people, did you not feel you were betraying them?
The human element can complicate things. In all of these groups, you find good people who actually believe in what they're doing, or people who are manipulated or harbor prejudices. You learn to recognize them, to identify those who are good people and those who are not. You realize that many of these people in other circumstances would have remained with us and you treat them with the love they deserve.
I don't want to mention any names, so as not to cause anyone any trouble over there, but I met people who had been officials in Batista's army, elderly people, and I'm still like a son to them, just as they are like parents to me.
Q: What kind of information were you after? It's my understanding some of you were operating in a military base.
One of us was at a military base. He was divulging public information, he never had access to anything classified and never looked for it. His job was to compile as much publicly available information about the Cayo Hueso base as he could, because the base is a place where you can pick up signs of a possible attack against Cuba.
Q: What did the others do?
Gerardo was in charge of coordinating the network's activities. I had infiltrated several organizations: Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate), Democracy (Democracia), United Liberation Command (Comando de Liberación Unido) and others. I went through quite a number of different groups, because anyone who needs a small plane for their operations also needs a pilot and I was available.
Olga, René's wife, was detained by the U.S. and later expelled from the country. She was never permitted to visit her husband and became one of the major activists for the freedom of the Five. Photo: Raquel Pérez
Q: On the subject of Brothers to Rescue, Gerardo is accused of causing the deaths of its four pilots. Did you actually have anything to do with that?
We had nothing to do with that. I would say that the most audacious thing the prosecution did to politicize the trial was to present the charges of the Brothers to the Rescue incident. Gerardo can't even be accused of murder; he can only be accused of conspiracy to commit murder, that is, working with others, the government of Cuba, in this case, to commit murder, which would lead to the illicit death of a person not living in Cuba. Neither of the two charges could be substantiated.
Q: Why were the sentences so severe then?
It goes beyond the trial, the cruelty against Cuba, I would say it is revenge for all the resistance of Cuba. The U.S. government's obsession is unhealthy and leads to the irrational policies of the past 50 years.
The sentences are an irrational decision that results from the subordination of the prosecution to terrorists that control Miami - the FBI chief himself boasted of consorting with these elements.
Q: If this is the case, why did the Cuban government provide the FBI with the information that led to your capture?
In 1998, Gabriel Garcia Marquez acted as a kind of liaison [for President Fidel Castro] to approach two FBI officials and offer them our cooperation in the fight against terrorism. These officials were given a folder containing evidence. But it wasn't the information Cuba offered them which led to our capture. The evidence suggests that we were already under investigation at the time.
I also think that, ethically speaking, the fight against terrorism ought to unite our governments, over and above our ideological differences. I am for cooperation with other governments in this sense.
Q: Were you given an opportunity to negotiate? Why did you refuse to?
Yes, of course. They also offered us good deals. One had his sentence reduced to 5 years, and he was being charged with the same crime as Antonio Guerrero, that is, they would have sentenced him to life in prison. It's hard for some people to turn down an offer like that.
You have to debase yourself as a person. When you're offered a deal, the US prosecutors tell you that, if you don't lie in court and if you refuse to do what you're told, you will die in prison. You have to decide whether to lie or not.
And you know you're being used to accuse your country of espionage and attack it, to gather false evidence against Cuba. A Cuban agent confirming everything the prosecutors claim about Fidel, about the Cuban government, about Raul, would have been used to put together such evidence.
So, we're talking about two very important factors, your dignity as a human being and Cuba's defense. We went on a mission knowing it could cost us our lives, not just a prison term, and we did it to protect the Cuban people.
Q: How were you treated in prison?
René is considered a hero in Cuba, and when we were doing the interview we couldn't move more than 20 meters before people stopped to say hello. Photo: Raquel Pérez
While on trial, they put us in solitary confinement, in the prison's punishment ward, and kept us there for 17 months. They were very rough with us, our families were mistreated, I wasn't allowed to see my daughters, the medical attention we got was lousy. They tried to break us, but we had enough moral fortitude to resist.
Outside Miami, the political aspects of the case aren't as determining, you're just another inmate. It also depends on the prison's security level. It's crime that Gerardo should be kept in a maximum security prison, because these are very violent places, where very dangerous confrontations between gangs take place.
I was lucky, because I was put in a medium security prison, in the Eastern United States, where there aren't as many gangs and violent acts are less frequent.
Q: Do you believe that exchanging your comrades for Alan Gross is a fair proposal?
I don't know whether "exchanging" is the right word. No one wants to us it, politicians are complicated people. But I think it is, yes. I think all six families would benefit from it. I don't think any side should have to make a unilateral gesture, it seems absurd, an arrogant suggestion.
I have nothing against Mr. Gross. I believe that politically-motivated crimes should be dealt with a certain degree of benevolence, provided it's not an heinous crime, because these are prompted by convictions that deserve respect, whatever these are. I would be pleased to see this matter resolved and above all to see the two governments settle all of the problems they have.
Q: Why do you think the US government doesn't exchange the Five, as they did with Russian spies?
Wayne Smith, a former top US diplomat in Cuba, says that Cuba has the same effect on the US government that the full moon has on a werewolf.
Cuba breaks a scheme of continental domination that until the triumph of the revolution had not been questioned and hence the rage. Cuba is hated for Giron, hated for the October Crisis, hated for its existence and its example.