Free the Cuban Five! Lies, conspiracy and hypocrisy fuel 'What Lies Across the Water' to deliver the truth

Since when did anti-terrorism actions become conspiracy to commit espionage?

On September 12, 1998, the FBI mounted coordinated raids in locations across the state of Florida, arresting ten people. The FBI alleged that they were members of a Cuban spy network, sent by Castro to undermine the security of the United States of America.

They were also accused in the deaths of four Cuban exiles from Miami, who had been shot down by the Cuban Air Force in 1996.

The people in custody told a different story. They said they were actually in the U.S. to stop terrorism; Havana had recently been the target of a bombing campaign that had killed a visiting Canadian. The Cuban security apparatus had sent them north to gather intelligence on anti-Castro Cuban exiles linked to the suspects.

Despite their claims of innocence, five Cuban men were found guilty of a range of crimes, including conspiracy to commit espionage; the five others pleaded guilty to lesser offences.

Three months after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino were sentenced to life in prison; Fernando González to 19 years; René González to 15 years; and Gerardo Hernández, the only one to be convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, to "double life plus 15 years."

Stephen Kimber, an award-winning writer and journalist from Halifax, first heard of the men known as the Cuban Five while vacationing in Cuba, three years after they began serving their sentences in U.S. prisons. It wasn’t until a second visit to the island nation, made with the intention of doing research for a novel, when he found himself caught up in the intrigue of their case.

Kimber abandoned his story in favour of writing What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, the search for the truth providing a pull stronger than fiction. "The book took me outside of my comfort level in all sorts of ways -- place, language, topic" says Kimber, who has authored seven non-fiction titles and one novel, Reparations.

"It was both personally and professionally rewarding." Kimber poured over thousands of pages of documents presented during the trial of the Cuban Five, and read hundreds of news articles covering relevant events in Florida during the 1990s, such as the founding of Brothers to the Rescue.

The Brothers flew small aircrafts over the Strait of Florida looking for rafters leaving Cuba and occasionally breached Cuban airspace to drop leaflets over Havana, urging Cubans to rise up against Castro. It was a Brothers aviation mission that was shot down in 1996.

Kimber navigated the "never easy" Cuban state bureaucracy for details of the counter-terrorism spy mission and of the Havana terror attacks. He was stonewalled by the FBI and U.S. State Department in his search for documents he knew existed. But he says it was contact with the five men themselves that made the book.

"Gerardo wasn’t even allowed to use the prisoners’ email system, so it was all by mail," says Kimber. "It could get frustrating -- but he was incredibly patient. He was also honest and candid once we developed a rapport. I’ve come away with a tremendous amount of respect for him especially, and for Rene."

Throughout the book Kimber keeps his focus on the characters involved: the Cubans who volunteered to move to the U.S. and infiltrate militant exile groups, the FBI agent who arrested them and members of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community.

What Lies Across the Water connects the dots between the Cuban American National Foundation -- an influential lobby group of Cuban exiles living in the U.S., the Brothers to the Rescue organization and paramilitary operations meant to violently overthrow the Cuban government and assassinate Fidel Castro.

Kimber leaves the wider themes of imperialism and U.S.-Cuba history to others. Instead, he highlights the hypocrisy of a legal system that purports to oppose terrorism but which permits anti-Castro terrorists to freely walk the streets of Miami, while those who tried to stop them rot in jail.

"I had to decide what book I was going to write," Kimber says. "I hope everyone will be able to see the injustice involved, regardless of your politics, and that progressives will have more concrete evidence to back up their rhetoric."

Absorbing all of these details can be daunting, and the organization of the book into brief scenes weakens the narrative flow. Despite these drawbacks, those looking for truthful testimony about the Cuban Five will find that What Lies Across the Water makes a compelling and damning case. 

Stephen Kimber and Fernwood Publishing launch What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five on September 25th at the Company House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Yutaka Dirks is a tenant organizer and writer living in Toronto. His fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and activist publications including the White Wall Review, Rhubarb Magazine and Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution. He has a serious love for stories of all stripes.

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