A second member of the “Cuban Five,” the Castro-directed spy ring that infiltrated South Florida military installations and the exile community in the wake of the Cold War, was released from federal prison Thursday and was expected to be deported soon to Cuba.
Fernando Gonzalez, 50, was convicted for acting as an illegal Cuban agent at a 2001 espionage trial of the five men in Miami. He and the others are considered “heroes” in Cuba, which is planning festivities to honor them this weekend.
The highly controversial case strained already poor U.S.-Cuba relations not only because the five Castro agents infiltrated South Florida, but also because they were linked to the Cuban government's 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that killed four exile pilots over the Florida Straits.
Gonzalez, who was serving an 18-year sentence, was released from an Arizona federal prison early Thursday after more than 15 years behind bars because of time off his term for good behavior and other factors.
Gonzalez, known to U.S. authorities by his alias, Ruben Campa, is the second member of the Cuban Five to be released from prison. Rene Gonzalez, who is not related to Fernando Gonzalez, finished his prison sentence in 2011 but spent more than a year on probation in the U.S. until a federal judge allowed him to return to Cuba. Rene Gonzalez, a Chicago native with dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, renounced his U.S. citizenship after returning to Havana.
“This is slightly different because [Fernando] Gonzalez is not a U.S. citizen,” said Maggie Khuly, sister of one of the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down victims, Armando Alejandre Jr. “I would imagine Cuba will welcome him with open arms.”
Fernando Gonzalez was turned over immediately to the custody of immigration officials, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. For security reasons, she said she could not disclose exactly where he was being held or when he would be returned to Cuba, but a deportation order has already been issued.
Fernando Gonzalez was part of a 14-person “Wasp Network” sent by then-Cuban President Fidel Castro to spy on South Florida. They were indicted in 1998 on charges of conspiracy, espionage and failure to register as foreign agents in the United States. Five of the original defendants pleaded guilty following the FBI investigation and were deported. Four others were fugitives.
The other remaining defendants, who came to be known as the Cuban Five, faced trial and were convicted.
Trial testimony showed they sought to infiltrate the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command and military installations in the Florida Keys. They also reported on Cuban exiles and politicians opposed to the communist government in Havana, prosecutors said.
Havana maintained that the agents posed no threat to the U.S. government and were only monitoring militant exiles to prevent terrorist attacks in Cuba. The most notorious of those was a series of bombings of Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist in 1997.
In response to Gonzalez’s release, Cuba plans a concert Saturday night at the University of Havana in honor of the five men.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma published interviews Thursday with two of Gonzalez's friends back home. Rafael Hojas said he and Gonzalez knew each other as young students and crossed paths on international missions in Africa.
“I hope he spends as little time as possible in an immigration jail and can enjoy as soon as possible his mother, his wife, his family, and we'll see when we might be able to meet,” Hojas was quoted as saying.
Gonzalez's mother, Magali Llort, told The Associated Press that she sometimes thinks her son's release is a dream “but luckily it's a great reality.”
“But we can't feel satisfied with Fernando arriving and Rene having come,” she said. “We have to keep up the fight so that the rest, their brothers, are here.”
The Cuban Five have sometimes been linked to the case of American Alan Gross, who has spent four years in a Cuban prison after he was arrested while working covertly to set up Internet access for the island's Jewish community. He was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which Cuba considers bent on undermining its government.
Cuba has suggested it might swap Gross for the Cuban Five, but Washington has rejected any such deal.
Khuly, who has been an unofficial spokeswoman for the shoot-down victims’ families, said they would oppose any exchange of the remaining three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.
“Our main concern is that Gerardo Hernandez stay in the United States and that there be no exchange involving him,” Khuly told The Miami Herald Thursday. “The other two are also of concern.”
Hernandez is serving a life prison sentence on a murder-conspiracy conviction for his role in the 1996 killings of the four Brothers to the Rescue pilots. For years, the organization had dropped pro-democracy leaflets over Cuba and assisted Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States.
Khuly said the only exchange that the victims’ families would consider would be for the two Cuban Air Force pilots who shot down the Brothers to the Rescue planes over international waters and for the Cuban general who gave the order. They have been indicted in Miami federal court.
Fernando Gonzalez was originally sentenced to 19 years. But a Miami federal judge reduced that by one year after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he was wrongly labeled a supervisor of other spies.
Two other men sentenced to life on espionage conspiracy convictions also had their terms lowered as a result of that same court order. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard reduced Antonio Guerrero’s sentence to 22 years and Ramon Labanino's to 30 years in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.