HAVANA — In the depths of his 16-year odyssey through the U.S. prison system, convicted Cuban spy Gerardo Hernandez was transferred to an underground cell at Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution that was known to inmates simply as “the cage.”
As Hernandez recalls it, he was stripped to his underwear, cut off from all human contact and tormented by toilet water seeping — drip by drip — from the cell above him into the sink in his cramped living space.
It was days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the federal Bureau of Prisons was taking no chances — “special administrative measures,” as they were called — with high-profile, politically sensitive inmates such as Hernandez, who was serving a double life sentence, with no possibility of parole, for conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
“Hello,” he said when he was finally permitted to make his first phone call to his designated contact at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. “It is the Count of Monte Cristo calling.”
It was Hernandez’s impish allusion to the famous 19th-century novel by Alexandre Dumas, whose hero, Edmond Dantès, is imprisoned in a dungeon on a Mediterranean island for the rest of his life — only to miraculously escape and re-emerge years later, triumphant, as a wealthy member of French nobility.
Today, after a series of plot twists every bit as improbable as those in Dumas’ novel, Hernandez counts himself as the modern-day, real-life equivalent. His sentence commuted by President Barack Obama, he is now a free man in his native Cuba, reunited with his wife, Adriana, and his former spy comrades. Last Tuesday, Hernandez and his fellow spies — the Cuban Five, they are called here — were officially decorated by President Raúl Castro as national heroes in a grand celebration at Cuba’s National Assembly.
And, Hernandez tells Yahoo News in an exclusive interview, he’s ready to return for duty to advance the cause of his country’s communist revolution.
“What I’m telling you right now, I already told Raúl Castro: I’m a soldier,” said Hernandez, pounding his chest. “I’m ready to receive my next order. I can serve anywhere my country believes I am useful.”
Perhaps most astonishing of all, Hernandez, 48, is also the father of a 7-week-old baby, Gema. The girl (her name means “precious stone” in Spanish) was conceived last year while Hernandez was still in a U.S. prison: His frozen sperm was shipped to Panama for secret fertility treatments for Adriana, all facilitated by the Obama administration — at the urging of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy — as part of its backdoor diplomacy with the Cuban government.
“We have to believe in miracles,” Hernandez said, gently rocking Gema, a glowing Adriana by his side as the couple sat in the courtyard of the foreign ministry villa where they now live, attended to by a government-supplied staff of nannies, cooks and servers.
The release last Dec. 17 of Hernandez, as well as the last two imprisoned members of his Cuban Five spy network, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero, was a huge propaganda coup for the Castro government. It also paved the way for a historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations that has already brought a wave of American tourists to the island and U.S. companies knocking on Havana’s door looking for new business opportunities.
But the freeing of Hernandez and the Cuban Five spies — coinciding with Cuba’s release of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross and a jailed CIA spy — is continuing to stir raw anger among anti-Castro Cubans in South Florida and some members of Congress.
“Shameful,” wrote GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a recent letter to the Bureau of Prisons, describing Hernandez as a “convicted spy and murderer” and demanding answers about the medical treatments for his wife.
For his part, Hernandez is unbowed and unrepentant, a proud Fidelista, although one with a wry sense of humor. “I have a new warden now,” he said at the villa, nodding toward a woman looming in the background. “My mother-in-law.”
As Hernandez describes it, he is a patriot who was dispatched by Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence to perform what Cubans viewed as a vital mission inside the United States: to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida that for years were plotting and conducting “terrorist” attacks on their homeland.
“There were training camps in the Everglades in South Florida,” he said. “Those people used to go in speedboats to Cuba, do some shootings there, place some bombs there and go back and give a press conference: ‘Oh yeah, we did this. We went to Cuba. Down with the Castro government.’”
Those attacks, which continued over a span of decades and are mostly forgotten in the United States, are etched in the memories of most Cubans. In 1976, a Cuban airliner was bombed over the Caribbean, killing 73 passengers, including the teenage members of the Cuban national fencing team. As late as 1997, there was a series of bombings at Havana hotels, aimed at disrupting the country’s nascent tourism industry and killing an Italian businessman — attacks that were said to be the work of anti-Castro exile groups.
Hernandez compared his efforts to thwart those attacks to the CIA’s own attempts to disrupt terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Only unlike the United States, he said, Cuba “doesn’t have drones” to kill the terrorists.
“And even in the U.S., where you have drones, you are sending people, dressing them up like al-Qaida people with beards” and infiltrating their training camps. “That’s exactly what Cuba did.”
As FBI and federal prosecutors later alleged, Hernandez — using a false “legend” as a graphic designer from Puerto Rico — was the case officer for the project, overseeing more than a dozen Cuban spies in the United States known as La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network. Prosecutors charged that their efforts weren’t restricted to simply spying on the exile groups: They also tried to penetrate U.S. military installations. Cuban Five member Guerrero, for example, landed a janitor’s position at Naval Air Station Key West in order to count airplanes flying in and out from the base, providing “an early warning” system in the unlikely event of a U.S. invasion. (Hernandez says this was a small part of the Wasp Network’s mission and, in any case, didn’t involve the theft of “secret” information.)
And in Hernandez’s case, prosecutors charged, he also tipped off his Cuban handlers to flights by Brothers to the Rescue, headed by Bay of Pigs veteran Jose Basulto — an exile group that rescued “rafters” fleeing Cuba in the open seas and dropped anti-Castro leaflets over the island, violating Cuban airspace and infuriating the Castro government.
In February 1996, after multiple warnings, the Cuban military shot down two of the planes, killing four pilots — and resulting in Hernandez’s conviction for conspiracy to commit murder.
Hernandez’s association with the shootdown remains the most inflammatory part of his case. In the days since his release, the families of the slain pilots have expressed outrage that Hernandez should walk free; last week, the same day the Cuban Five were receiving their medals from President Castro, hundreds of Cuban exiles marched in Miami’s Little Havana to commemorate the Brothers to the Rescue pilots, and a silent vigil, with family members holding hands in a circle, was held at Florida State University. “This is very emotional for every single family member touched by this — to have what little justice you had taken away from you,” said Maggie Khuly, the sister of slain Brothers pilot Armando Alejandre Jr., about Hernandez’s release. “This is never going to go away.”
Hernandez adamantly denies that he had any advance knowledge of the Cuban shootdown that day. (At least one of the federal appellate judges who reviewed his case concluded that the principal evidence against him — a message he sent warning one of his fellow spies who had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue not to fly that day — was inconclusive.) Still, when asked what he would say to a still-grieving sister like Khuly, he responded that her brother shouldn’t have been flying anyway because Basulto had once been a terrorist himself, even though he had long since renounced violence.
“I’m not going to go into whether that was the right decision or not,” he said about Cuba’s decision to shoot down the Brothers to the Rescue planes. “That’s not my call. I’m just explaining that Cuba has the right to see Basulto and the Brothers to the Rescue not as a humanitarian organization that they say they are. Can you imagine somebody like bin Laden now” — and here Herandez held up his right hand, as if he were taking an oath — “saying, ‘From now on, I’m going to be a pacifist, and I’m going to create an organization ... just to drop some food’? Can you imagine a scenario like that?”
U.S. intelligence sources told Yahoo News that the FBI finally got onto Hernandez and the Wasp Network through a cryptographer informant inside the Cuban intelligence service — Rolanda “Roly” Sarraff, the very same spy “asset” released by the Cubans in exchange for Hernandez. And after Hernandez and the rest of the Cuban Five were arrested in 1998 and held for 18 months in solitary confinement in a Miami detention center, the FBI did everything it could to flip Hernandez and his colleagues, repeatedly offering them deals to inform on their spymasters in Havana.
But Hernandez and his Cuban Five colleagues held firm, emboldened, he said, by the words of Fidel Castro, who when asked about their arrest told a CNN reporter, “I can tell you one thing: We will never leave them behind.”
“And that day, those statements reached us,” Hernandez said. “That was the day that changed everything for us. From that day on, we knew that nothing would break us.”
Hernandez’s fortitude in the end seems to have paid off. He and the rest of the Cuban Five are now rock-star celebrities in Cuba, instantly recognized and cheered wherever they go. When they walked through the streets of Romerillo, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods, accompanied by a reporter, they were mobbed: Women embraced and kissed them, children beseeched them for their autographs and everyone wanted a picture taken with them.
At one point, Hernandez and the group stopped by a small gold statuette shrine to San Lazaro, a patron saint in Cuba — for miracles. It has not gone unnoticed here in this communist, but still religious, country that San Lazaro Day is Dec. 17, the same day that Hernandez, Labanino and Guerrero were released from U.S. prisons.
“The fact that we came back on Dec. 17 — so many Cubans say that’s not a coincidence,” Hernandez said, standing in front of the shrine. “Remember, through 16 years, many Cuban people prayed and asked San Lazaro for a miracle that the Five will one day come back. So who will tell those people that the miracle wasn’t granted by San Lazaro?”
Does he believe that himself, he was asked. The veteran spy laughed and looked at the shrine. “All that matters to me is that I’m here. Who made it possible,” he said, looking up at the sky and throwing up his hands, “congratulations! Thank you! Whatever.”