Before returning to Cuba, René González spent 12 years in prison for having infiltrated anti Castro groups in Miami.
On 12 September 1998 the FBI uncovered a Cuban spy ring operating in Miami for the purpose of keeping an eye on anti-Castro groups. Several members of the ring agreed deals with the prosecution and received reduced sentences but 5 agents refused to do so and their sentences were much worse, and included a life sentence.
One of these 5 Cubans was the pilot René Gonzalez who has recently been released from US prisons after 14 years in captivity. He agreed to talk about his life as an agent, his activities in the US and his time in prison.
Q: Why did you agree to go to the US as a spy?
I am a Cuban of my generation and I grew up under the threat of terrorism against Cuba. I remember the kidnapping of fishermen, who were often murdered by terrorist groups from Miami. I was among the million people who attended the funeral of the Barbados martyrs after the Cuban airliner in which they were travelling was bombed. So when I was asked to do this, I didn’t hesitate. I felt it was my duty as a patriot.
Q: Is it ethical to go and spy in another country?
I think it is ethical to defend oneself when one is attacked, and that is what I went there to do. We have been attacked by the world’s strongest power over a period of many years, and we have the right to defend ourselves, on condition of not harming the north-American people. We never went to hurt anybody over there. All we did was to exercise our right of self defence.
Q: Living that double life you must have got to know good people as well. Didn’t you feel you were betraying them?
The human factor is complicated. In all those groups there are some good people who also believe in what they are doing but are manipulated or are prejudiced. One recognises them, and learns who has human qualities and who hasn’t. You realise that many of these people, had things been different, would have stayed with us, and you treat them with the affection they deserve.
I don’t want to name anybody in order not to get anyone over there into trouble but I got to know people who had been officers in Batista’s army, who are old now, who even today treat me as their son, and I treat them as my fathers.
Q: What sort of information were you looking for? Why were some of you working in a military base?
There was a comrade working in a military base who passed on information available publicly – he had no access to classified information, and never looked for any either. He put together all possible public information that he could find about the Cayo Hueso base because this base could have been a centre of possible aggression against Cuba.
Q: And what were the rest of you doing?
Gerardo was the one who was coordinating our activities. I infiltrated various groups such as Hermanos al Rescate, Democracia, Comando de Liberacion Unido and others. I had dealings with a lot of groups because anybody who needed a little aeroplane also needed a pilot and I was available.
Q: On the subject of Hermanos al Rescate, Gerardo was accused of being responsible for the death of its four pilots. Were you involved in that?
We had nothing to do with it. I would say that the main prosecution trick for politicising the trial was to trump up the charge relating to Hermanos de Rescate. They couldn’t accuse Gerardo of murder, only of conspiring to murder, which of course involved his combining with other persons (in this case supposedly the Cuban government) to commit murder, the illegal killing of a person outside Cuban territory. Not one of these allegations could be proved.
Q: In that case why were the sentences so harsh ?
That goes beyond the trial. It was a question of punishing Cuba. I would say it was vengeance for all Cuba’s resistance. The US government’s obsession is sick and leads to the irrational policies of the last 50 years.
The sentences were irrational, a consequence of the prosecution’s subordination to the terrorists who control Miami. The FBI chief himself boasted of being in with these elements.
Q: If that was the case, why did the Cuban government provide to the FBI the information which led to your capture?
Garcia Márquez was the conduit for an invitation to be issued in 1998 to two FBI officers, to whom cooperation was offered in the fight against terrorism. A file was handed over to them, but it was not this that led to our arrest. From the evidence it can be deduced that we were already being investigated.
Moreover I believe that, speaking ethically, the struggle against terrorism ought to have united our respective governments regardless of ideological differences. I agree with cooperating with whatever other government.
Q: They offered to negotiate with you ? Why didn’t you accept?
Of course. They even offered us good deals. One was given a 5-year sentence on the same charge as Antonio Guerrero, and could have faced life imprisonment. It would have been easy to accept it.
But you have to debase yourself as a person. When the US prosecutors offer you a deal they tell you that if you don’t lie on the stand and if you don’t do what they tell you, you are going to die in prison. You have to decide whether you will lie for them or not.
You are not unaware of the fact that you are being used as a tool to raise an accusation against your country and to harm it, in order to build a case against Cuba. One Cuban agent agreed to everything the prosecution wanted against Fidel and the Cuban government, and against Raul. I would have been used to strengthen the accusation.
So we are talking about two very important issues : your human dignity and the defence of Cuba. We were sent on a mission that could have cost us our lives, not just prison, and we went to defend the Cuban people.
Q: How were you treated in prison ?
While we were on trial we were put into solitary confinement in the prison’s punishment cell and kept there for 17 months. Really they treated us very harshly. Our families were treated very badly. I was prohibited from seeing my daughters. Medical care was awful. They tried to break us but we had sufficient moral courage.
Once you leave Miami the political aspect fades and you are just another prisoner. A lot depends on the security level of the prison. It is criminal that Gerardo is in a maximum security prison because those prisons are very violent with regular very dangerous confrontations between gangs.
I was lucky because they put me in a medium security prison in the geographic area of the eastern US where gangs are not so common and there is a much reduced level of violence.
Q: Do you agree that the proposal to exchange your comrades for Alan Gross is fair ?
I don’t know if the word ‘exchange’ is appropriate. Nobody wants to use it. The politics are complicated. But I think it would be fair. 6 families can benefit. I don’t believe in a unilateral benefit for one side only. That seems absurd and arrogant.
I have nothing against Mr Gross. I think political prisoners should be treated with some leniency if their crime is not atrocious because they have different motivations for which I have a certain respect. I would be in favour of the matter being settled and above all that the two governments should sit down and work out all the problems they have with each other.
Q: Why didn’t they exchange you in the same way they did the Russian spies? Wayne Smith, who was a US ambassador here, says that Cuba awakes in the US government the same response as the full moon awakes in a werewolf.
Cuba has broken the pattern of US domination of the American continent that until the triumph of our Revolution could never even be questioned. That is the reason for the rage. Cuba is hated for Girón (Bay of Pigs), for the October crisis (Cuban missile crisis), for existing and for being an example.