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THE WORLD

Cuba Rallies for Release of 5 Held 'in Belly of Beast'

Campaign: The fate of the men convicted of being spies against the U.S. takes precedence over other issues between the 2 nations, Castro says.

July 18, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Rene Gonzalez and Olga Salanueva seemed every bit the model immigrant couple pursuing the American dream when they moved into their small suburban Miami condo in 1996.

Both had been lifelong communists. But six years earlier, Gonzalez had walked away from the Cuban capital and his job as a government flight instructor to toil as a roofer and fly volunteer missions for fiercely anti-Communist Cuban American organizations.

When he had saved enough for the condo, Salanueva joined him with their 11-year-old daughter. And quickly, the couple settled into lives as a telemarketer and an aspiring commercial pilot.

Then the FBI burst through the door.

A swarm of agents handcuffed Gonzalez in the predawn September 1998 raid. They accused him of being a spy, and today the 44-year-old pilot is in "the hole"--the solitary confinement ward of Miami's federal prison--along with four others convicted last month on charges of being spies for Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But here in Havana, the five men have become overnight heroes, centerpieces in a national crusade that Cuban officials say will define U.S.-Cuba relations for months or years to come.

After nearly two years of silence on the case, Havana has launched a frontal assault to free the five men. And Castro has made it clear in recent speeches that their fate will take precedence over all other issues between the U.S. and Cuba--from immigration to drug trafficking.

Under the banner "Heroism in the Belly of the Beast," Castro launched the campaign late last month in an outdoor rally during which he briefly fainted after speaking about the five men for two hours in the blazing sun. It was the first time in the four decades since his revolution that the 74-year-old Cuban leader had publicly faltered.

The Case of the Five, as Cuba's latest official obsession is known here, has cast Gonzalez and the others as political prisoners. It has been the focus of a series of two-hour, prime-time specials on state television, where Cuban scholars, journalists and legal experts have dissected the six-month trial.

Castro and his official media have linked the verdict to the same "putrefied atmosphere of Miami" that they blamed for the five-month standoff over 6-year-old Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez. And they have equated the importance of the outcome of the two cases.

Campaign Modeled on Effort for Elian

At the core of this new campaign--clearly modeled after Cuba's successful effort to win Elian's return--is the costly, complex trial of the five men in a city where the anti-Castro Cuban lobby holds powerful sway. Cuban officials said Havana deliberately remained mum during the trial to avoid influencing its outcome.

But now, they blame the guilty verdicts on an anti-Cuba bias predominating in Miami and Washington since Castro's revolution overthrew pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The issue is not whether the five men spied. It's who they spied on and why.

Their court-appointed American defense attorneys conceded that the team, code-named the "Wasp Network," was to penetrate Miami's anti-Castro groups and report back on their structures, plans and membership through encrypted computer messages and encoded shortwave transmissions.

But never, the defense asserted, did the five men seek to compromise U.S. intelligence or subvert American national security. Rather, they sought only to safeguard Cuba's national security against militant, U.S.-based groups, which, the lawyers asserted, have plotted no fewer than 140 terrorist attacks on Cuba and 16 assassination attempts against Castro during the last decade.

Prosecutors asserted that the group also tried--but failed--to gather intelligence on the U.S. military. It didn't matter, the prosecution said, that the group never harmed U.S. interests.

"These are spies bent on the destruction of the United States of America," Assistant U.S. Atty. John Kastrenakes told the 12-member jury.

If so, testimony indicated that they were so underpaid, underfed, overworked and overwhelmed with simple survival that they had little or no time left for spying. On balance, testimony cast the five far more in the mold of Austin Powers than James Bond.

Their expense accounts included $5.28 for an air freshener. The network's ringleader accidentally ruined his only pager link to Havana by dropping it into a swimming pool and misplaced a computer with encrypted codes. Several of the agents worked two jobs just to pay their rent. When they met, it was at McDonald's or Burger King.

The extent of their "penetration" of U.S. military secrets was a Cuban who secured a job as a garbage man outside a South Florida naval air base, where the best he could do was record takeoffs and landings. And among the "secret" documents sent back to Havana was a Miami bus schedule.

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