Miami Five - terrorism investigators jailed in US
In the second part of a SQUALL special, Jim Carey uncovers a nest of terrorist organisations operating with remarkable impunity in Miami, and examines the case of five Cuban investigators recently jailed in the US.
25th March 2002
According to Judge Howard Matz, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have no rights under the US constitution because..... 'they have not stepped foot on American soil.....the treaty says Cuba has sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay'.
In theory, Matz's judgement, issued in February 2002 in response to a Federal Court challenge to the US government, effectively infers Cuba is ultimately responsible for legal issues on Cuban soil. And yet since 1903, the US have occupied Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in south eastern Cuba, despite the Cuban government's disapproval and accusations of illegality. US courts might expediently defer to Cuban sovereignty now but its government have never consulted the Cubans on plans to incarcerate Al-Qaida suspects on the island.
So, it was particularly galling for the Cubans when, just a few weeks before US air force C-17 cargo planes brought the first Islamic militants onto their island, a US court in Florida gave heavy prison sentences to five Cuban terrorist investigators.
Their mission, according the Cuban government, was to investigate the incessant incidence of terrorism perpetrated against Cuba by organisations based in Florida. Their crime, according the United States, was attempting to spy on US military operations. Tellingly, the US authorities admit the Cuban agents never passed a single secret back to Cuba.
As far as the British media are concerned, the 'Cuban Five' is the collective name given to the five British-born Islamic militants incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. For the Cubans, however, the case of the 'Miami Five' has greater political implications.
"TRUTH, JUSTICE AND REASON CAN ONLY BE SERVED BY RELEASING THESE FIVE CUBANS". - RAMSEY CLARK. FORMER US ATTORNEY GENERAL.
Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez were part of the so called La Red Avispa network; a collection of the Cuban agents living in Florida reporting on the activities of a number of organisations involved in terrorist activity. The information discovered by Cuban agents has helped thwart numerous bombings and assassination attempts, and even helped the FBI catch a cocaine smuggling ring. And yet all of a sudden in September 1998, the Florida branch of the FBI arrested all five and charged them with espionage and murder. After spending 17 months in solitary confinement the five men were tried in front of a jury of Miami residents in the first half of 2001. Their defence argued that in the interests of justice their trial should be held elsewhere. Even the right wing Miami Herald newspaper refers to the city as 'anti-Castro Miami', and there was little hope of a fair trial. However, the defence's request was turned down. Sure enough, after an extraordinary six month trial during which known terrorists testified against them, all five were found guilty of every charge levelled at them. In December 2001, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard gave the five Cubans a collective total of four life sentences and forty four years in prison. No parole. The US and European media didn't bat an eyelid. In Cuba, a million people took to the streets to protest.
In the UK six British MP's wrote a letter to Tony Blair calling on the government to apply pressure on the US to act against terrorists in Florida and to immediately release the Miami Five. In America former US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, said 'truth, justice and reason can only be served by releasing these five Cubans'. But nothing happened to spoil the jubilance of what Cuba calls the Miami mafia.
The US authorities refuse to acknowledge that terrorist activity emanates from Florida. And yet voluminous, clear and corroborated evidence now firmly contradicts their denial.
On April 26 2001 Cuban border guards caught men attempting to land a boat on the northern coast of Cuba's Santa Clara province. On board they found four AK47 assault rifles, one M-3 rifle with silencer, three Markarov pistols, night goggles and communications equipment. The three terrorists belonged to a group called Alpha 66, the oldest anti-Castro paramilitary organisation in the US.
Cuban intelligence videotaped one of the men phoning his boss, Santiago Alvarez, in Miami. During the conversation Alvarez advises him to be careful and to continue with the plan to bomb one of Cuba's foremost tourist attractions, the Tropicana Cabaret. Far from unusual, the incident was just the latest of a long and relentless list of terrorist plots.
The Cuban government claim that between 1990 and 2001 they uncovered 16 plots to kill Fidel Castro, eight conspiracies against the lives of other Cuban politicians and 140 acts of terrorism. And yet groups like Alpha 66 continue to operate openly in the US, seemingly immune from prosecution.
During the trial of the Miami Five, self-admitted Alpha 66 activist, Orlando Suarez, testified on behalf of the prosecution. He excused Alpha 66's arsenal of weaponry by saying they were just 'military preparations......a way to remain active. It's nothing to do with sabotage anywhere.' With US courts accepting such dubious explanations, Alpha 66 militants roam free. An overt banner hanging above the door of their HQ in Miami proclaims: 'Irregular Warfare in Cuba - the only solution.' Of all the anti-Castro organisations operating in Florida, the most politically powerful is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Founded in 1981 CANF has offices in Miami. Washington DC and New Jersey. It also has chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Puerto Rico, New Orleans and Texas. Since its beginning CANF's hierarchy has been an influential cabal of ex-US ambassadors, rich businessmen, bankers, the Bacardi Corporation and even a British lord.
The Foundation receives $millions donated by both private donors and the US government, used to fund its so called 'non-violent' lobbying activity against Castro's Cuba. Using the support of a number of sympathetic members of congress and governors, including George W Bush's brother, Jeb (Governor of Florida), CANF also has a huge influence in US politics. The organisation has contributed over a $1 million to various politicians including George Bush snr, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The organisation has also been involved in every major piece of US legislation involving trade sanctions against Cuba.
AFTER A SPELL HELPING THE THE CIA ORGANISE ARMS DROPS TO THE RIGHT WING CONTRA GUERILLA'S IN NICARAGUA, CARRILES THEN TURNED HIS HAND TO SUPPLYING EXPLOSIVES TO MERCENARIES PAID TO CARRY OUT ACTS OF TERRORISM AGAINST CUBAN TARGETS.
It is ironic that former US ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick is a member of CANF's advisory panel. At the end of 2001 the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming 167 to 3 to condemn the US blockade of Cuba. It was the 10th successive UN condemnation of the blockade.
CANF also operate Radio and TV Marti, two powerful transmitters based in Florida which pump anti-Castro propaganda into Cuba, inciting Cubans to escape the island and come to the land of riches, America.
CANF's website also runs a constant stream of anti-Cuban stories and manages quite successfully to insert them into various US and European media. In late February, The Observer newspaper ran CANF's top story of the month concerning a so called 'scandal' of Cuba's 'illegal' involvement in the international dolphin trade. When SQUALL made some enquiries about the issue, it transpired the only illegal aspect to Cuba's actions was a contravention of the US trade blockade. The 'scandalous' incarceration of dolphins in marine-aquariums referred to in the article is in fact widespread throughout the US and particularly in Florida.
CANF's ability to play this $multi-million political lobbying and media spinning role depends heavily on its continuing denial of any involvement in terrorist activities. However CANF has, on more than one occasion, been caught with traces of explosives on its hands.
The worst episode of the many terrorist attacks against Cuban targets, occurred in 1976 with the bombing of a Cubana Airlines jet and the loss of 73 lives. [See 'The President's favourite terrorists' SQUALL features page]. Two CIA trained Cuban-exiles, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles spent years in a Venezuelan prison charged with the crime before Carriles bribed a prison guard and escaped. The Cuban government say intelligence sources reveal $50,000 was channelled by CANF down through Panama to Carriles in prison.
After a spell helping the the CIA organise arms drops to the right wing Contra guerilla's in Nicaragua, he then turned his hand to supplying explosives to mercenaries paid to carry out acts of terrorism against Cuban targets. Cuban agent, Percy Francisco Alvarado, infiltrated CANF and was codenamed Agent 44. During the trial of the Miami Five he testified that he'd been offered more than $15,000 by the Foundation to set off two large bombs in Havana tourist centres in the mid 90's. The Cuban agent went along with the plan long enough to pick up the explosives in Guatemala from none other than Posada Carriles.
AFTER A MEETING SET UP BY JEB BUSH WITH HIS FATHER GEORGE BUSH SNR., BOSCH INEXPLICABLY RECEIVED A FULL PRESIDENTIAL PARDON FOR ALL PREVIOUS TERRORIST CONVICTIONS.
In 1997 a series of bombs were planted in hotels and restaurants in Cuba in an attempt to ruin the island's tourist trade. A bomb set off in the Copacabana Hotel in Havana killed an Italian tourist. Two Salvadorean and three Guatamalan mercenaries were convicted by the Cubans, and Posada Carriles admitted publicly he had supplied explosives to the men. One of the Salvadoran mercenaries, Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon, confessed he was paid $3000 by CANF for each bomb he planted. At one point Posada Carriles also said publicly that the bombings were supported by CANF, though he hastily retracted his statement after CANF issued vehement denials. Cuban intelligence then discovered that Carriles was planning another assassination attempt on Castro during the Cuban president's visit to the 10th Ibero American Conference in Panama in November 2000. Panamanian police subsequently apprehended four men, including Carriles, and discovered their hire car was packed with explosives. Carriles is presently in a Panamanian prison awaiting trial.
Carriles' partner in the bombing of the Cuban jetliner, Orlando Bosch was released from his Venezuelan prison cell following concerted pressure from the US ambassador to Venezuela. After a meeting set up by Jeb Bush with his father George Bush snr (former CIA boss and then US president), Bosch inexplicably received a full presidential pardon for all previous terrorist convictions. One of the Miami Five was specifically sent to Florida by the Cuban government to follow Bosch. However, when the Miami Five's defence lawyers requested that Bosch's multiple convictions for terrorism be read out to the jury, the Judge refused. As far as the jury were concerned then, Bosch was an innocent US citizen being followed by a Cuban spy.
ACCORDING TO AN FBI DOCUMENT, ONE OF THE SNIPER RIFLES FOUND ON BOARD LA ESPERANZA WAS LICENCED TO FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, CANF'S PRESIDENT.
The clearest evidence that CANF are majorly involved in terrrorist activities came in November 1997 when US coast guards came across a boat called El Esperanza floundering with mechanical problems off the coast of Puerto Rico. The four men on board gave unconvincing stories of what they were up to and the boat was searched. In a false bottom US Customs found two .50-caliber long-range military sniper rifles, 70 rounds of ammunition, night scopes, three fatigue uniforms and communications equipment.
US Customs Agent Marco Rocco testifies that one of the men admitted they were on their way to assassinate Castro in Venezuela. US The boat was registered to Nautical Sports, a Florida based company of which CANF director, Jose Antonio Llama, is president, director, secretary and treasurer. Llama claimed he had just sold the boat. The vessel had left Florida from a private dock owned by Llama's friend, Marco Antonio Sainz, a business partner of CANF's treasurer, Feliciano Foyo. Sainz claims he doesn't know the people who came to his home to 'carry out repairs to the boat' and fitted the false bottom. He also claims not to know the people who came to his private dock and sailed the boat away.
According to an FBI document, one of the sniper rifles found on board La Esperanza was licenced to Francisco Hernandez, CANF's president.
It all looked bang to rights when the seriousness of the case was stressed by the Chief of the FBI office in San Juan: 'We have got to pursue this. Most likely additional defendants and counts will be added.......There could be foreign policy implications.' Unusually for a case involving weapons and terrorism, the four men on board the boat were bailed by a US judge and walked free. One of the men admitted in public that his $50,000 bail money had been fronted by 'Cuban exile groups and individuals' in the US, though he refused to be more specific.
Three more men were subsequently added to the prosecution list including the boat's owner and CANF's director, Jose Antonio Llama. Incredibly, however, all seven men succeeded in having their trial moved from Puerto Rico to 'anti-Castro Miami', and all of them were fully acquitted.
Despite continually escaping prosecution, anti-Castro organisations in Florida were becoming increasingly frustrated at Cuba's success in infiltrating their networks. They wanted action, and Florida's political machinary made sure they got it.
In order to beef up its charges against the Miami Five, the Florida branch of the FBI accused them of attempting to spy on US military installations in Florida. The prosecution's case was extremely weak. Firstly the FBI admitted that during the four years they had the Cubans under surveillance not one military secret went back to Cuba. The prosecution countered the absence of evidence by submitting that just because the Cuban agents were no good at spying didn't mean they weren't trying. However, even when the FBI hadn't fully decoded all the information they'd copied from computer discs being sent back to Cuba by the agents, they still allowed the discs to go; a sure sign they were confident the information did not contain military secrets. To firm up their spurious charge, the FBI persuaded two other minor Cuban agents to accept a plea bargain and testify for the prosecution. These two Cubans claimed they had been asked by Cuban intelligence to get a job at military bases in Florida and spy on US operations. Their testimony was accepted by the court even though, farcically, the couple claimed they never actually found time to apply for a job at a military base because they were too busy. Neither could they speak English. The chances that Cuban intelligence would ask such a unprepared couple of relatively ordinary Cuban Americans to carry out such a task is ludicrous. Nevertheless, the prosecution succeeded and the Miami Five were all convicted of the serious crimes of attempting to procure United States military secrets.
Perhaps the most farcical, and highly revealing, element of the case was the accusation by the FBI that one of Miami Five, Gerardo Hernandez Nordello, had committed murder.
On February 24 1996, three Cessna aircraft flown by members of the anti-Castro Brothers to the Rescue organisation set off across the Florida straits bound for Cuba. Only one returned. In the lead aircraft was the head of the organisation, Jose Basulto, and secretary Arnaldo Iglesias. Behind them were two other cessna's flown by other Brothers to the Rescue activists.
Basulto has made a lifetime career out of anti-Castro activism and was a member of the ramshackle force which unsuccessfully attempted to invade Cuba in the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. Trained in intelligence techniques, explosives and sabotage by the CIA, he helped fly medical supplies into the right wing Contra guerilla's in Nicaragua in the 80's. He also admits sailing a boat over to Cuba and firing a 20mm machine gun at a Cuban Hotel full of Russian guests.
Brothers to the Rescue claim their only activity is to rescue Cubans seeking exile in the US. The Cubans argue that Basulto pursues his own one man US foreign policy and is constantly trying to precipitate an international incident. Indeed, over the years Brothers to the Rescue aircraft have violated Cuban airspace twenty five times, dropping propaganda leaflets over Havana on several occasions. They have also been caught making and testing crude bombs out of PVC pipes which the Cubans feared might be dropped from the Cessna's.
Cuba submitted formal complaints about the violations to both the US State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA told Cuba it was charging Basulto for violating Cuban airspace but the encroachments continued. Retired FAA enforcement officer, Charles Smith, testified in court that he had warned Basulto personally not to continue his maverick flights into Cuban airspace. Basulto claims he doesn't remember the warning. Finally the Cuban government said it would defend its airspace by force if Basulto's organisation flew into Cuban airspace again.
Depending on which country you believe, the events of Feb 24 differ. What is certain is that Cuban MIG fighters were dispatched to intercept the Brother to the Rescue aircraft and shot down two of them. Basulto's plane escaped. Both the FAA and Cuban Air traffic control agree that Basulto's plane had once again violated Cuban airspace by several miles. The FAA also acknowledge that Cuban air traffic control radioed the Brother to the Rescue planes warning them that they were entering Cuban airspace and that they should turn back immediately. However, the US say that the other two planes flying with Basulto - the two that were shot down - did not enter Cuban airspace. The Cubans, however, say they flew several miles into Cuba's territorial airspace, a position confirmed by a former US fighter pilot and commander of the North American Air Defense Command, Colonel George E Buchner. He was invited by the Cuban authorities to study radar print outs and radio communications with the MIG fighters on the day, and concluded the two stricken aircraft were more than half way inside Cuba's twelve mile territorial limit. Buchner also asserted that, because the Cessna's were displaying the markings of the US air force, they would formally be considered military not civilian.
In the trial of the Miami Five four years later, the FBI submitted that, because Gerardo Hernandez Nordello, had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue and warned Cuba that the Cessna's were going to fly towards the island on Feb 24 1996, he was therefore a party to their murder. The Miami jury found him guilty and he was given two life sentences plus 80 months. The families of three of the Brother to the Rescue men shot down by the Cuban MIG's still refuse to speak to Basulto, convinced he led them into Cuban airspace with knowledge of the consequences. After the Miami Five were found guilty, the supposedly impartial Federal Prosecutor for Southern Florida, Guy Lewis, hugged Jose Basulto in court.
The fact that overt terrorist organisations continue to operate from Florida with remarkable impunity is beyond doubt. There is no official explanation why a US government which postures so moralistically about the evils of terrorism turns such a blind eye to terrorists operating in its own backyard. But with George W Bush receiving more political donations from anti-Castro Hispanic businessmen than any other president in history, and with his brother, Jeb Bush, seeking re-election as Governor of Florida in November, the situation is only likely to deteriorate further. A brazen double standard has been raised and praised on the White House flag pole.
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