The Cuban spy at the center of the Obama-Castro deal

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Gerardo Hernandez is pictured on far left of billboard of the five Cuban prisoners in U.S. jails, in Havana March 30, 2012. (Enrique de la Osa /REUTERS)

They were known as La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network — a group of Cuban undercover agents who sneaked into South Florida in the 1990s and were arrested by the FBI for spying for Fidel Castro’s government.

But today, Gerardo Hernandez — the group’s ringleader, who has been serving a double life sentence — and two of his associates were released from U.S. federal prisons and returned home as national heroes, as part of a breakthrough agreement between Cuba’s communist government and the U.S. that is already provoking a storm of controversy. For some, the release of Hernandez and his fellow operatives is an important confidence-building step toward what could be a landmark diplomatic agreement.

“This is a seminal moment in American history,” Martin Garbus, a New York lawyer hired by the Cuban government to free the Wasp Network members, told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “It’s a landmark — the beginning of a normal relationship between Cuba and the United States.”

But for anti-Castro hard-liners, the deal is a betrayal and capitulation to communist tyranny. “It’s absurd, and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

As part of the agreement, Alan Gross, a jailed American contractor who has been sitting in a Cuban prison for more than four years after being convicted of distributing sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community, flew home to Washington — the result of intensive efforts by the State Department and members of Congress to free him. U.S. officials said Gross was released on “humanitarian grounds” and that separately, in a formal spy-for-spy swap, the Cubans released an unidentified American espionage agent who had been “instrumental” in identifying and disrupting Cuban intelligence operatives in the U.S. — including the members of the Wasp Network. A U.S. intelligence official called the trade a “fitting closure to this Cold War chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations.

But for Cuba, the release of Hernandez and his fellow convicted spies, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino, is a major diplomatic coup. Known originally as members of the Cuba Five (two of the convicted spies had already been released), they were household names in their island homeland — the subjects of mass demonstrations, their pictures on billboards and posters.

Schoolchildren were taught to idolize them. Nobel Prize winners and celebrities like Danny Glover — even former President Jimmy Carter — joined an international campaign to push for their release, convinced they had been unjustly tried and convicted in a South Florida courtroom poisoned by anti-Castro hysteria.

And their leader was also unrepentant. “I regret that I got caught,” Hernandez said with a smile when this reporter interviewed him in a federal prison in California two years ago and asked if he had any regrets. “I would do it again.”

Yes, he acknowledged on tape in a follow-up telephone interview, he and his colleagues “violated some U.S. laws.” They had failed to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department. They also came to the U.S. with “fake passports” and “fake identities.” But, he added emphatically, “we act out of necessity.”

As Hernandez and senior Cuban officials, whom I also interviewed, told the story, the Wasp Network members did not come to Florida to spy on the U.S. government (although the charges against them included conducting surveillance of U.S. military installations). Instead, they argued, they were fighting terrorism. Specifically, their principal mission was to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida that had been implicated in terror attacks inside Cuba — the bombing of Cuba Flight 455 over the Caribbean in 1976 (which killed 73 passengers, including teenage members of the Cuban national fencing team) as well as a series of hotel bombings in Havana in 1997 that killed an Italian businessman and disrupted Cuba’s nascent tourist industry.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Alan Gross embraces Tim Rieser (C, back to camera), a member of Senator Patrick Leahy's office, on the tarmac as he disembarks from a U.S. government plane with wife Judy (L) at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland outside Washington December 17, 2014 in this photo courtesy of Jill Zuckman. The United States plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba more than 50 years after they were severed, a major policy shift after decades of hostile ties with the communist-ruled island, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday. Obama discussed the changes with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday in a telephone call that lasted nearly an hour. Castro spoke in Cuba as Obama made his announcement on a policy shift made possible by the release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. REUTERS/Jill Zuckman/Gross Family spokesperson/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WILL BE PROVIDED SEPARATELY

“Cuba doesn’t have drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad,” Hernandez told me. “They need to send people to gather information and protect the Cuban people from these terrorist actions... I think it’s the same feeling that Americans have that defend their country and love their country when they go to infiltrate al-Qaida and send information here to avoid the terrorist acts.”

He added, “And the U.S. has to understand that Cuba has been involved in the war against terrorism for 50 years.”

Hernandez, 49, sporting a trim goatee, came off as a warm and sympathetic figure when I interviewed him. He showed no spite toward the U.S. government and displayed a sense of humor, laughing heartily at times about his predicament despite having served, at that point, 14 years in prison and facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

But there was a complication to his case. Among the charges he was convicted of (and the reason he received a double life sentence) was conspiracy to commit murder — the result of his alleged complicity in the February 1996 shoot-down by a Cuban fighter jet of two Cessna planes flown by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue. The shoot-down killed four men.

The anti-Castro group’s planes had been dropping anti-government leaflets over Havana, a provocative move as the Castro government saw it and one it had vowed to stop, even issuing public warnings that violations of Cuba’s airspace would not be tolerated. At the trial of the Cuba Five, prosecutors introduced messages between Hernandez and his controllers in Havana suggesting he had prior knowledge of the shoot-down.

But Hernandez adamantly denied those charges and insisted to me that the messages had been misinterpreted. “No, sir, absolutely not,” he said when I asked him if he knew in advance about the incident. “All I knew was what everybody knew: that Brothers to the Rescue through the years has violated many times Cuban airspace, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba complaining over that situation.”

At least one federal judge (U.S. Appeals Court Judge Phyllis Kravitch) agreed that the government had never proved its case tying Hernandez to the shoot-down. But she was outvoted two to one — and Hernandez’s conviction on the murder-conspiracy charge (and his double life sentence) stood, a crushing blow to those trying to free him.

A demonstrator holds a leaflet that refers to the so-called "Cuban Five", which are celebrated by many in Cuba as national heroes who were spying on armed exile groups in Miami to prevent attacks on their country and victims of Washington's campaign against the communist-run island, during a march in Havana "For the Five and Against the Terrorism", September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Back in Cuba, there was also personal anguish — from Hernandez’s wife, Adriana Perez, who became a major part of the campaign to free him. In an interview I conducted in Havana arranged by Cuban officials, she wept as she described the pain of separation from her husband. “Every detail, every single moment reminds me of him,” she said. “I believe there are many people in the U.S. and the American people as a whole who could convey to President Obama that there is a woman here suffering.”

But there are also many with a very different view — and their leaders were vocal today as the U.S.-Cuba deal was being announced.

“President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch spokesman for the anti-Castro cause, about the swap of Gross for the members of the Wasp Network. “There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation.”