HAVANA – The Cuban parliament met in a special session Saturday to bestow the country's highest honors on five men who were convicted in Miami this month on charges of spying on the United States.
Members of the National Assembly voted unanimously to declare the five "heroes of the Republic of Cuba." The award said it was given for "for completing with exemplary dedication, dignity and steadfastness the sacred mission of defending the nation and protecting it from terrorism."
After a six-month trial in Florida, the men were given sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison for espionage conspiracy and lesser counts.
The five were among 14 secret agents allegedly assigned by Havana to warn the communist island about signs of a U.S. invasion of Cuba. The others have entered pleas or are believed to have fled to Cuba.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro later told the assembly that because of the men's importance, 2002 would be officially known as the "Year of the Heroic Prisoners of the Empire" — a reference to the United States. The Cuban government regularly choses a slogan for each year, which is then used in official correspondence and in state media instead of the year's number.
"The political battle has just begun," Castro told the assembly. "I emphasize, I repeat: they will return."
Castro earlier said the sentences were "rude, infamous."
"They have sentenced these extraordinary men who were completing an extraordinary and human mission," said Castro, who in the past has insisted that the agents were merely gathering information to protect Cuba against violent exiles.
Lawmakers also voted to honor the men's mothers with the Order of Mariana Grajales, an award named for the mother of independence hero Antonio Maceo y Grajales, and to honor the wives of the four married agents with the Ana Betancourt Award, named for a woman who supported and inspired Cuban fighters in their battle for independence from Spain.
National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon read a New Year's letter written by the men to Castro, other leaders and the Cuban people, in which they cite Cuban independence leader Gen. Calixto Garcia.
"I am, before everything, Cuban," Alarcon read. "And for nothing, and for no one, will I sacrifice my ideals."
The agents allegedly were assigned by Havana to infiltrate U.S. military bases and exile groups in south Florida, although none obtained any U.S. secrets.
The National Assembly vote followed two hours of lawmakers' speeches. Some drew comparisons between Cuba's fight for the agents' freedom and its battle last year for Elian Gonzalez, the castaway boy who returned to Cuba in June 2000 after a six-month custody battle between his father and a group of his relatives who live in Miami.
Lawmaker Lazaro Barredo, a columnist for the communist workers' newspaper Trabajadores, said the Cuban people would fight "with all our strength" for the agents' freedom. "Their only action was to protect the safety of their country," he said.
While the espionage case has not attracted the attention that the battle over Elian did, some American groups have taken up the agents' cause. Former attorney general Ramsey Clark is among those who back a campaign to free them.