HAVANA – Cuba's Communist government calls almost daily for the return of the five agents it considers national heroes. But the current visit to the island by one, Rene Gonzalez, has gone virtually unnoticed.
There have been no ticker-tape parades for Gonzalez, one of the five Cuban intelligence operatives celebrated as patriots here ever since they were sentenced to long prison terms in the United States.
Gonzalez arrived on the island more than a week ago after a Florida judge granted him permission to visit his gravely ill brother, but the man whose face graces billboards in Havana along with those of the four other Cuban agents held in the United States since 1998, hasn't appeared in public.
"He's in Cuba? Really?" said Jose Blanco, a 52-year-old construction worker in Havana. "I didn't know. I didn't even hear about it."
"The radio silence is deafening," said Anne Louise Bardach, the author of the book "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington."
Havana has long demanded the return of the Cuban Five, who were convicted of being part of a ring known as the "Wasp Network" that sought to infiltrate U.S. military installations in South Florida, and monitor Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to then-President Fidel Castro's government. Havana says the five men never posed any danger to the United States and were only monitoring exile groups responsible for a bombing campaign that killed an Italian tourist on the island.
Reviled by many exiles in Miami, the agents are called the "Five Heroes" back home and lionized as "antiterrorists." State TV broadcasts and newspapers air calls for "freedom for the five!" on a near-daily basis.
Some analysts said Cuba's desire to win the men family visits, better treatment and ultimate release is a possible reason for the silence around the visit. Others said Havana could be hoping to get the five exchanged for Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in Cuba after he brought restricted communications equipment onto the island.
The only information about Gonzalez's two-week trip has been a short official statement read on the news March 30, the day he arrived, and carried in newspapers the following morning. The notice said it would be a "private family visit."
Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, was released in October after serving 13 years of a 15-year sentence, but was ordered to remain in the U.S. for three years under terms of his supervised release. He had been living at an undisclosed location when the judge ruled he could make the visit on condition he return to the United States. The other four men remain in prison.
"If (Cuban officials) are going to get a hearing with the Obama administration with regard to any of the issues that they want to raise, it probably helps to keep this visit quiet and not make the issue more political than it already is," said Philip Peters, a longtime Cuba analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.
"The quiet that we're seeing here indicates that the Cuban government is not rubbing the administration's nose in the judge's decision," Peters added, noting that the same justice who ordered Gonzalez to stay in the U.S. during his probation overrode U.S. Justice Department objections in granting him the temporary furlough.
Bardach said it's even possible that the low profile of Gonzalez's trip could be a sign of backdoor negotiations about Gross, although officials have repeatedly played down speculation about a swap and analysts say it would be politically risky for President Obama to do anything to alienate Cuban exiles in Florida in an election year.
Requests to interview Gonzalez have not been granted. There has been no word on where Gonzalez, a slender 55-year-old with a graying goatee, was staying in Cuba.
It's a sharp contrast from state television's live broadcast of raft survivor Elian Gonzalez's return to the island in 2000. About 800 children from the boy's school greeted him at the airport when he returned to Havana after a bitter custody tug-of-war between his Cuban father and Miami relatives who wanted him to stay in the U.S.
But while Elian was returning for good back then; Rene Gonzalez is here only briefly and on sober business.
"Personally I would have liked it if the people could have seen (Gonzalez), but he came under sad circumstances ... and that must be respected," said Reina Rojo, a 45-year-old office worker in the Cuban capital.
"I think it's good there has been no publicity," she added, "because you always have to think about the other four who are still in prison there."
By eschewing any fanfare now, Cuba avoids calling attention to the fact that Gross has made a similar request to visit his mother, who is seriously ill with cancer, in Texas. He, too, vows to return to Cuba.
Gross, 62, was sentenced under a statute on crimes against the state. He maintains that he never intended any harm and says he was just helping island Jews improve their Internet access, but Cuba contends the U.S. government program he was working on had subversive goals. His imprisonment has worsened the already bad relationship between Cold War rivals Havana and Washington, with U.S. officials saying no thaw can occur while he is behind bars.
Gonzalez's two-week window runs out Friday, and he has promised to return on schedule. He filed a detailed itinerary prior to the trip and has been checking in with his probation officer by phone, but there's nothing in the order barring him from appearing in public.
His Miami attorney, Philip Horowitz, said the nature of Gonzalez's visit did not lend itself to any politicking.
"The purpose of the trip is ... pure humanitarian," Horowitz said. "And when you have a gravely ill brother, a terminally ill brother, it's not cause for celebration or speaking out or advancing the cause."
Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.
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