HAVANA, Cuba — A former Cuban intelligence officer jailed for more than 16 years in the United States on two life sentences before getting released on a prisoner-exchange deal last December says President Barack Obama is “being brave” by taking steps to normalize diplomatic relations with the Communist-led nation. And he hopes the move will lead to a budding new friendship between the two countries.
Gerardo Hernández, the ringleader of a spy network known as the “Cuban Five,” said Obama’s recent actions on Cuba are valiant because they could easily be “misinterpreted as weakness towards the Cuban government”— something that, under normal circumstances, is akin to political suicide in the United States. Instead, Hernández says, Obama’s bold strides on Cuba shows the depth of his political character.
“Any step by any American politician that could be seen or portrayed in the U.S. as a weakness towards Cuba would represent the political depth of that person,” the Cuban spy told Fusion in a rare English-language interview in Havana, Cuba.
“The fact that the Obama administration has been recognizing that the U.S. policy towards Cuba for more than 50 years has been a complete failure…deserves some recognition that he is brave, right?”
Despite Obama’s initiative on Cuba, Hernández warns that some —but not all— elements within the Cuban community in the United States will try to trip-up the normalization process.
“I have a mostly positive opinion on the Cuban community in Miami. I lived there and I know that the majority of Cubans want to have normal relations with their country and they want to have normal relations with their families and go back and forth and have a normal regular life like the Cubans who live in Colombia or anywhere else,” Hernández said.
“But,” he added; “there is a small, vocal minority in south Florida that, unfortunately, have been the ones running the show there for many years. They are used to live out of hatred and confrontation. And if one day, relations between Cuba and the U.S. are normal, they have to look for another job, and they don’t want that to happen because they don’t have any other way of living.”
Hernández, whose mission was to keep tabs on the Cuban exile population in the United States, was arrested in 1998 and later slapped with to two life sentences in a California federal prison, one for conspiracy to commit espionage and the other for conspiracy to commit murder for his alleged connection to the downing of two light aircraft by Cuban MiGs in 1996. Four people were killed in the attack.
“One of my two life sentences had to do with the shoot-down of two small planes with the organization Brothers to the Rescue. They charged me with conspiracy to commit murder, and that was the most absurd charge in our case,” Hernández said, insisting he had nothing to do with alerting Cuban officials about the presence of the aircraft, and that the U.S. government “twisted the facts” to pin the crime on him.
“Cuba has radars, and the U.S. has radars. And the U.S. sends its flight plans to Cuba in advance, as a procedure. And everybody knew they were flying and Cuba sent 16 diplomatic notes telling the U.S. please don’t let these people come here and provoke again. So what Gerardo Herández did [sic] to deserve a life sentence for that?”
Hernández’s second life sentence was for “conspiracy to commit espionage” — a charge he claims was equally “absurd.”
“They didn’t charge us with espionage because we didn’t get any information at all,” he said. “There was one of us working in a military airbase; he was a handyman there — a plumber, or whatever— and he was reporting on the numbers of planes on the base.”
Hernández says Cuba was concerned that any dramatic build-up of aircraft on the base might indicate an impending invasion of the island. But he says the intel that his agent provided from the base was the same information that anyone driving by the airfield slowly enough could gather by simply counting planes through the fence.
The number of aircraft, Hernández insists, is “military information, but it’s not secret information…If you read the newspaper from the base, you can tell that and more.”
In any event, despite getting saddled with two life sentences, Hernández, while serving time behind bars in the U.S., still managed to impregnate his wife back in Cuba, befuddling U.S. media in the process. And that’s a pretty cool trick, worthy of this brief non sequitur.
But that’s all in the past. After the prisoner-swap announced on Dec. 17, Hernández and the remaining incarcerated members of the Cuban Five returned to Havana to a hero’s welcome. Now, Herández says, they — and the rest of Cubans living on the island— are looking to the future and hopeful of a new age of amicable relations between the two countries.
“I hope the U.S. will finally recognize that Cuba is a sovereign and independent state and the Cubans have the right to chose our own path,” he said. “I believe that if the U.S. recognizes and admits that we Cubans are the ones who have to fix our system…I believe we can be friends.”
So what is Hernández’s message to people back in United States? Simple: Come visit. Get to know the real Cuba. And “let’s be friends.”
“Learn the truth, the reality of Cuba. Don’t trust what you are told,” Hernández said. “Come to Cuba and see for yourself. Cuba is not a perfect country, but it’s not the hell that it’s been portrayed as for many years in the U.S.”
“We know that there are things in Cuba that need to be changed. Every Cuban knows that. The revolution means constant change for better. You cannot stay in the past. All revolutionary Cubans know that and agree with that.”
And to the Cuban exiles he got to know while living in Miami?
“You are welcome to your country. Respect your country. Respect the decision of the majority of Cubans. And be a part of it.”
This interview was conducted in Havana, Cuba by Colombian journalist Alvaro Garcia of Red + Noticias for Fusion.