On November 17, 2000, shortly after arriving in Panama City for a summit of Ibero-American leaders, Fidel Castro held a press conference to announce that the legendary Cuban exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles had also come to Panama–on an assassination mission. The Cuban authorities subsequently supplied a video of Posada and three co-conspirators meeting in front of their hotel. Within forty-eight hours Panamanian officials located a gym bag containing thirty-three pounds of C4 explosives that Posada apparently had planned to use to blow up the auditorium where Castro was scheduled to speak.
How did the Castro government know of Posada’s plot? Cuban intelligence, known as the DGI, had a high-level mole in one of the exile groups reporting on the assassination operation as it evolved. The Cuban spy program potentially saved dozens of lives and averted an act of international terrorism.
Perhaps more than any other nation over the past fifty years, Cuba has consistently faced both threatened and real assassination attempts, sabotage efforts, armed attacks and bombings, infamous among them the midair destruction of a Cubana passenger plane in 1976. (CIA and FBI documents implicate Posada, who was once paid by the agency as a demolitions trainer, as the mastermind of that attack.) Long after the CIA abandoned its direct efforts to overthrow the Castro regime and terminate its leadership, militant anti-Castro groups continued their campaign of violence. After viewing a 1977 CBS special titled The CIA’s Secret Army, on violent Cuban exile operations in Florida, President Jimmy Carter was, according to a recently declassified White House memorandum, “appalled at the idea that people could use US territory as a base for terrorist actions.”
Yet even in the post-9/11 world, US soil continues to be used for such purposes. As recently as November 2005, Posada’s leading financial benefactor in Miami, Santiago Alvarez, was caught with a military-grade arsenal of machine guns, grenades, silencers, explosives and thousands of rounds of ammunition–leading to speculation that violent exiles were planning another major operation against Cuba.
Just as the CIA escalated its efforts to penetrate Al Qaeda after 9/11, the DGI has devoted considerable resources to infiltrating hard-line anti-Castro organizations in Miami and monitoring the activities of Alvarez and other exile leaders with a track record of violence. In the mid-1990s Cuba sent more than a dozen operatives to Florida to establish a spy ring code-named the Red de Avispas–the Wasp Network. Most of the agents were assigned to penetrate groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation, Brothers to the Rescue and Alpha 66; one, Antonio Guerrero, was hired on as a sheet metal worker at the Boca Chica air base, where he took notes on the types of military aircraft landing and taking off and monitored the level of activity on the base.
In September 1998, the FBI moved in. Five agents–Guerrero, Fernando González, Gerardo Hernández, René González and Ramon Labañino–now known as the Cuban Five–were detained, thrown into solitary confinement for seventeen months, prosecuted for conspiracy to commit espionage (as there was no evidence they had gathered any classified US information) and given maximum sentences ranging from fifteen years to double life in prison. When a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw out their convictions in August 2005, issuing a unanimous decision that the Five had not received a fair trial, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s office immediately appealed to the full Circuit Court to revisit the ruling.