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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

The most dramatic testimony centered on Cuba's 1996 shoot-down of two planes piloted by Brothers to the Rescue, one of the most strident Miami-based, anti-Castro groups. Its members search the Florida Straits to save Cuban rafters but occasionally violate Cuban airspace to drop pro-democracy leaflets on the island and, Cuba asserts, gather intelligence for future attacks.

Four members were killed that year when Cuban MIG fighter jets blew their prop planes out of the sky, reversing a warming trend in U.S.-Cuba relations. Prosecutors tried to link the spy ring to the shoot-down.

The prosecution and defense produced conflicting witnesses--American and Cuban officials who testified as to whether the planes were in Cuban airspace when they were shot down.

Prosecutors argued that the accused ringleader, Gerardo Hernandez, supplied Havana with a Brothers to the Rescue flight plan before the shoot-down and warned undercover agents such as Gonzalez not to fly missions during those days.

"They are conspirators, three of them, in espionage, and Gerardo Hernandez has the blood of four people on his hands," prosecutor Kastrenakes told the jury.

Gonzalez, who had successfully infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue and other groups, was among the two who were not officially charged with espionage. He and Fernando Gonzalez were convicted on a single charge of failing to register as a foreign agent, a crime that suggests spying and carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.

Wife Is Arrested 2 Years After Raid and Deported

Rene Gonzalez's wife asserted in her first interview last week that U.S. law enforcement agents tried to use her to get her husband to confess to the more serious crime of espionage.

Salanueva, who remained in Miami with the couple's daughter and a newborn child after Gonzalez's arrest, told The Times that she was arrested by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service last August--nearly two years after the FBI raided their condo. She said she was charged in an administrative proceeding, which under U.S. law is private, with knowingly supporting her husband's activities.

After three months in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., jail, she said, she was deported to Cuba--a process that Salanueva insists was an unsuccessful attempt to pressure her husband into cooperating with the FBI.

But the ultimate twist, she said, is that her husband is an American citizen.

Rene Gonzalez was born in Chicago in 1956. His family has migrated to and from Cuba and America for the last century. When he was 5, Gonzalez was brought to Cuba by his father, a metalworker who chose to return to Castro's Cuba "because he realized the revolution was meant to liberate the country for people like him," Salanueva said.

Gonzalez joined the youth wing of Cuba's Communist Party, served with the Cuban military in Angola in the 1970s and pursued his flying career with the Cuban air force.

Sentencing Set for September and October

When he left for America in 1990, Gonzalez told his wife that it was simply to pursue his love of flying, to improve his skills and ratings and ultimately become a commercial pilot for an American airline. Salanueva insists that she hadn't a clue her husband was spying. In fact, she said, she doesn't consider him a spy even now.

She said she's proud of her husband, who will be sentenced along with the others in September and October. "He has sacrificed his own family life for the good of a larger family. He wasn't trying to steal secrets from anybody. He was working against terrorists, to prevent hate from prevailing over the law."

"Besides, Rene in particular could never do anything to hurt America," she said. "He has to love the American people. His roots are there. His grandmother is American. She lives in Florida."

Then, asked whether she misses her suburban American life, Salanueva nodded and smiled sadly.

"It's a mixture of feelings," she said. "Life was hard. It was tough making ends meet. But I loved the people--most of them, anyway. They are a very peaceful people in a land very much at peace."

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