For over a decade, they’ve been in prison for allegedly being part of a Cuban spy ring known as the “Wasp Network.”
But now, the first of the Cuban Five, who were convicted of spying in the U.S. for the communist Castro government, is walking out of prison.
René González, 55, served about 13 years of a 15-year sentence, with time off for good behavior and including time behind bars awaiting and during trial. His attorney, Phil Horowitz, told The Associated Press he picked up González at the prison around 5:30 a.m. EDT.
Now González, a Chicago native who has dual American and Cuban citizenship, must serve three years' probation in the U.S., unless his attorney can persuade a Miami federal judge to let him return to Cuba.
Horowitz said for now González wants to remain out of the limelight at an undisclosed location "anywhere from Puerto Rico to Hawaii." Horowitz said González is declining interview requests and that he has some concern for his safety.
"He's been in prison for 13 years. I think it's time to give him some peace," he said. "I do believe he needs some time to decompress."
González and the other four Cubans were convicted in 2001 of being part of a spy ring known as the "Wasp Network" that sought to infiltrate and report back on South Florida U.S. military installations, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to the government of Fidel and Raúl Castro.
One of the five was convicted of murder conspiracy for the 1996 shootdown by Cuban fighter jets of planes flown by the "Brothers to the Rescue" operation, which dropped pro-democracy leaflets in Cuba and helped migrants trying to reach the U.S. González, a pilot, flew with the group on some earlier missions as part of his intelligence cover as a purported anti-Castro militant, according to court documents.
The Cuban government hails the men as heroes, and they and their supporters have long insisted they were only in the U.S. to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country, mainly by Miami-based exile groups. They also complained that Miami was a patently unfair location for the trial, which took place following the controversial decision by the U.S. to send Elian González back to his father in Cuba.
The young Cuban boy had been found on an inner tube off Fort Lauderdale, one of three survivors of a boat that sank as those onboard tried to defect to the U.S. His mother was among those who drowned.
At his December 2001 sentencing, René González was unapologetic, saying the men "were convicted for having committed the crime of being men of honor."
"I have no reason to be remorseful," he said.
José Basulto, who heads Brothers to the Rescue, called González a "traitor" who should renounce his U.S. citizenship and go back to Cuba.
"If anything were to happen to him, I know we will immediately be blamed," Basulto said. "Let him go to Cuba, and if anything happens to him, let it be there."
The three-year probation term began the moment González left the federal prison in Marianna, in Florida's Panhandle. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard in Miami preliminarily refused to modify probation to allow him to return to Cuba, but said he could request the change again. Horowitz said he will do so in the near future.
González has a wife and two daughters in Cuba; his wife was also implicated in the spy network and was deported after the men's arrests. She cannot legally return to the U.S. and the couple has not seen each other for over a decade.
The case's chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller, said the U.S. opposes allowing González to return to Cuba because he might resume his spy career using his U.S. citizenship and because it would "effectively put him beyond any supervision by the court."
"He poses a particular, long-term threat to this country," Miller said in court papers.
Among the conditions of González's probation is one barring him from "associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence (and) organized crime figures are known to be or frequent."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. should not keep González in this country.
"René González, like the regime he serves, is an enemy of America," said Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American. "He has American blood on his hands and dedicated his life to harming our country on behalf of a regime that is a state sponsor of terrorism."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.