Freed from U.S. prison, former Cuban spy returns home a hero

by Stephenie Nolen
Dec. 16, 2015
Reprinted from the The [Toronto] Globe and Mail

On this day a year ago, Gerardo Hernandez woke up in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison for the last time. In the early morning, guards took him, shackled, from the cell and bundled him on to a plane. Mr. Hernandez had been in jail for 16 years, sentenced to two life sentences plus 15 years. The day before, terse State Department officials had come to tell him he would soon be going home; nevertheless, he couldn’t quite believe it when the plane took off and headed south.

He landed on a tarmac in Cuba, alongside two comrades, a free man. Hours later, he was sitting beside Raul Castro as the Cuban President announced the normalization of relations with the United States.

“Until that moment, nobody imagined how far things had gone,” Mr. Hernandez, a former undercover agent of the Cuban government, recalled in a recent conversation with The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Hernandez is articulate, warm and humble; his is the freshest and most-admired face of institutional Cuba these days. Mr. Castro has pledged to step down in 2018, and there is widespread speculation here that the 50-year-old Mr. Hernandez will be tapped for a senior role in the new political formation that succeeds him.

Mr. Hernandez was the leader of the “Cuban Five” sent to Miami in the 1990s to infiltrate the hard-line anti-Castro community of Cuban exiles who boasted about carrying out acts of terrorism in their former homeland.

The cell of agents, known by the code name The Wasp Network, was cracked by the FBI and the men were arrested in 1998. They were tried in Miami and found guilty of a host of illegal activity, including conspiracy to commit espionage and, most gravely, conspiracy to commit murder, in connection with an incident in which the Cuban government shot down two exile-piloted planes that it says entered Cuban airspace, killing the pilots, who were U.S. citizens.

In Cuba, the jailed men were portrayed as heroes paying a huge price for their service to the homeland. The government angrily pointed out that it had provided the FBI with information, gathered by these same agents, that exiles known to have carried out violent acts against Cuba were walking free in Miami.

But in the United States, the story of the Five was almost unknown and it seemed Mr. Hernandez and his fellow agents might never come home – until their exchange in a prisoner swap became the linchpin of the surprise end of the long Cold War with Cuba. Three of them were released on Dec. 17, 2014. The other two had been returned to Cuba earlier.

Things had gone far indeed, as the United States ended more than 50 years of isolation of Cuba and restored diplomatic relations. Mr. Hernandez went from maximum-security prison in California to adulation in Havana. He has spent much of the past year on a global “thank you tour” for those allied nations that lobbied for the Cuban Five, including Venezuela and Brazil.

“You can imagine him as president, he is so beloved,” said Ariel Terrero, director of the Jose Marti International Journalism Institute in Havana. A year after his return, people still stop Mr. Hernandez to ask for selfies everywhere he goes. “But then a lot of people also say he has given so much already, he should be permitted a quiet life now,” Mr. Terrero added.

When Mr. Hernandez arrived in Mr. Castro’s office a year ago – a moment shown live on national television – his wife, Adriana Perez, who had never been granted a visa to visit him in jail, flew into his arms. Many Cubans were startled to see that she was pregnant – nine months pregnant, as it happened. Their daughter, Gema, was born just three weeks after his return.

It emerged that Gema’s conception was a part of the great Cuba-U.S. thaw. Ms. Perez was past 40 and despairing of ever being able to fulfill their dream of having a child when she had the chance to meet U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and his wife on a visit to Cuba. She pleaded with them to help arrange for Mr. Hernandez to inseminate her, and they agreed – a good-faith gesture, as Mr. Leahy was also hoping to persuade Cuba to provide better treatment to Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor imprisoned as a spy in Cuba after he was caught giving out telecommunications equipment.

So State Department officials arranged for the clandestine hand-carried export of Mr. Hernandez’s sperm, delivered to Ms. Perez at a clinic in Panama. The resulting pregnancy nearly derailed the secret talks on normalizing relations, forcing the United States to plead with Cuba to keep Ms. Perez and her belly hidden in the last days of negotiations, lest they trigger awareness some sort of deal was afoot and provoke backlash in Miami.

When President Barack Obama announced the change in relations with Cuba, he thanked Canada for facilitating the secret talks that brokered the détente. There is another Canadian behind the scenes in the Cuban Five story: veteran Halifax journalist Stephen Kimber, who in 2013 published What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.

On a holiday in Cuba in 2004, Mr. Kimber noticed “Free the Five” propaganda posters; his interest eventually grew into an obsession that led him to read tens of thousands of pages of documents to reconstruct how the men wound up in jail. His account – particularly details of the biases in the legal proceedings for the Five – was startling.

And while it wasn’t a bestseller, it was circulated in influential political circles in Washington, where those seeking a détente with Cuba found in it a basis to persuade the Justice Department that the trials could be revisited.

The release of the Five was non-negotiable for Cuba, and fundamental to any deal with the United States, Mr. Kimber said in a telephone interview from Halifax.

The book is now being made into a film, a Cuban-Canadian co-production spearheaded by Barrie Dunn, producer of the Trailer Park Boys movie.

Mr. Hernandez returned to a vastly different Cuba than the one he left – one where the economy had collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the future seemed bleak, indeed. Today, a process of economic reform has small businesses opening on every corner; Internet access is still limited but spreading and dropping fast in price.

“When I left the country, people had money but they had nothing to do with it – now it’s the opposite,” Mr. Hernandez observed in his smooth English, which bears small hints of prison inflection. “Some people are making some money – in my time, you didn’t see that.”

With that comes a new inequality, and Mr. Hernandez’s analysis speaks to the big questions that preoccupy the regime today.

“Most Cubans, including myself, know where they want to go: toward the most equitable society possible. You cannot avoid a certain level of inequality in a society, but we need to figure out a system that helps the people at the bottom more than others. We have to figure out a system to produce wealth, and our economic system is not working as well as we would like. Part of that can be blamed on the [U.S.] blockade, but not everything.”

He added, “One good thing is that we know what our problems are, and we discuss them openly – a few years ago we didn’t discuss.”

Mr. Hernandez is an enthralled father, eager to show off pictures of baby Gema, and he appears a remarkably light-hearted soul– perhaps surprising, Mr. Kimber pointed out, given his extensive experiences in solitary confinement and exposure to vicious prison environments where other inmates were murdered.

He betrays no bitterness. “I believe that if I keep hatred in myself, they win,” he said. And he won’t begrudge the years that were stolen from his life with Adriana. “Today was another day I stole off my two life sentences,” he said with a grin.

And how will he use those days? “Be useful. I’m a soldier,” he said. He speaks easily about the flaws in Cuba’s revolution, but it is obvious he remains intensely loyal to it. He will do whatever the government asks of him, he said, then hastened to emphasize that he seeks no formal position. “Having a larger role in Cuba is more complicated, so I hope it’s not larger,” he said. “There are many people better prepared than me to tackle the problems we’re facing.”

Mr. Kimber, who corresponded extensively with Mr. Hernandez while the latter was in prison and has since spent time with him in Cuba (where the book was recently launched in Spanish), said the Five, all of them smart and articulate, are a political asset the regime is unlikely to squander. “Whether they have political ambitions or not, the government has plans for them, he said. “Gerardo, in particular, is as good as any politician I’ve ever seen. … He is incredibly smart, accessible, and also a pragmatist– if you were going to try to make a deal, this would be a good person to make it with.”

Mr. Hernandez displays a keen sense of the urgency of safeguarding Cuba’s interests. The generation that delivered the revolution is “by natural law, passing,” as he put it delicately, and young people born in the post-Soviet era have known only hardship.

“Some people … don’t give history the weight it deserves: Imperialism doesn’t disappear because we have diplomatic relations,” he said. “Many powerful interests are looking at this [thaw] as an opportunity to achieve what they couldn’t do before,” in terms of undermining the Castros, Raul and his older brother, Fidel – now through a rush of international capital rather than sanctions.

“But people are not naive,” Mr. Hernandez said, before turning to the next knot of well wishers seeking photos and a handshake in the office where he met with The Globe. “And the majority of people don’t want us to give up what the revolution brought us and go back to what Cuba was in 1959.”