I sit on a gray plastic chair, facing a tiny, gray, plastic table and another empty, gray, plastic chair, waiting for Gerardo Hernández in the visiting room of the maximum-security federal pen in Victorville, California. Next to me, in similar seating arrangements, a middle-aged black man speaks to a woman, presumably his wife; other black men talk to their spouses. Two kids run from the children’s room to their Dad to get a caress.
Four guards chatter and observe the visitors and inmates. No contraband must be exchanged and no “excess touching.”
Gerardo emerges and reports to the guards. We hug. Gerardo talks about ideas to force the National Security Agency to release its vectored map of the Feb 24, 1996, shooting of two “Brothers to the Rescue” planes by Cuban MIGs. The government charged Gerardo with conspiring to commit murder because he allegedly passed the flight information to Cuban authorities knowing they would shoot the planes down (how would a Miami-based agent know of high level decisions in Havana?). The government offered no evidence.
The Cubans maintain the MIGs fired their rockets at the intruding planes over Cuban air space. U.S. authorities insist it happened over international airspace. If the NSA map sustains Cuba’s claim then Gerardo, who purportedly delivered the date and time of the fatal flights to Cuban authorities, committed no crime. The prosecutors offered no proof that Gerardo delivered this information. Hollywood would portray the Miami courtroom scene with the prosecutor telling the jury: “I don¹t got to show you no stinkin’ proof.”
Indeed, Gerardo’s defense lawyer showed that Basulto, the head of Brothers to the Rescue, had already announced the date of the flights, and several U.S. officials also knew of his plan. The FAA had even advised Cuban authorities of the impending flights. Facts don’t matter when a jury and judge understand that a wrong decision could result in their houses getting burned down.
The NSA refused defense attorneys’ subpoenas to deliver their vectored maps during the trial and appeals: “National Security,” the two deadly words not found in the Constitution or the Bible, constituted their reason (excuse) for not delivering the documents. What could force the NSA to comply? We had no answers, but the question will linger.
Other questions still bothered me. What had motivated the FBI to arrest him and his fellow Cuban agents? After all the Cuban agents had fed the Bureau juicy morsels related to terrorist activities, including the location of a boat on the Miami River loaded with explosives. The FBI commandeered the boat before it sailed for Cuba or blew up in Miami.
“Héctor Pesquera,” replied Gerardo. He became the Agent in Charge of the Miami Bureau and immediately focused his attention away from the terrorists and onto the anti-terrorists. After the jury handed down guilty verdicts at the trial of the Cuban Five, Pesquera proudly boasted to a Miami radio station that “he was the one who switched his agents’ focus from spying on the spies to filing charges against them.” (See, Stephen Kimber, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban_Five)
Indeed, Pesquera persuaded justice officials to refocus attention from exile terrorists in South Florida and onto the Cuban intelligence agents who had penetrated the terrorist groups. The case “never would have made it to court” if he hadn’t lobbied FBI Director Louis Freeh directly. (Kimber, p. 286)
Ann Bardach reinforced the view of Pesquera’s key role in turning the FBI from investigating terrorists to investigating anti-terrorists. Bardach and Larry Rohter wrote two stories in the New York Times in July 1998, in which Posada Carriles, a notorious Cuban-American terrorist admits his mastermind role in a series of bombings in Cuba to discourage foreign tourism. One of these bombing killed a young Italian tourist whose father is suing the United States for sponsoring terrorism.
Bardach told me about her surprise when Pesquera answered her question on Posada by saying “lots of folks around here think Posada is a freedom fighter.” Pesquera, friendly with ultra-right exiles, terminated the investigation of Posada, and shredded his file. Even as Pesquera focused the FBI on destroying the Cuban agents web, thus reducing the Bureau’s information supply on terrorism, 14 of the 19 participants in the 9/11 attacks trained in the area without FBI scrutiny. Pesquera seemingly escaped scrutiny for his apparent lapse. (Trabajadores, May 22, 2005)
Gerardo and I switched subjects to Alan Gross’s interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Gross, convicted in Cuba of activities designed to undermine the government, which AP reporter Desmond Butler documented, whined about his life in prison, the food, his window had bars on it and he had only been able to receive visits from U.S. Senators, Members of the House, Foreign Presidents, religious groups and a day with his wife. He complained conditions in the Havana military hospital were downright prison-like.
Worse, ignoring Desmond Butler’s reporting and former National Security Council official Fulton Armstrong’s devastating op ed in the Miami Herald, he proclaimed his innocence, insisting he only wanted to help the Jewish community get better internet access. For this he smuggled in equipment (documented by Butler) and got paid almost $600,000 from a company contracted by USAID. And Blitzer, who should win the journalism award for best stenographer, didn’t ask him about any of the facts Butler and Armstrong had raised.
We hugged goodbye. Gerardo raised a triumphant fist before returning to his cell. I walked into the dry desert wind, to the car and the road, down 5,000 feet and 40 miles to the Ontario, California airport with a chance to think about justice and injustice, again.