As part of the release of American contractor Alan Gross from prison in Cuba, the United States has sent back to the island nation three convicted Cuban spies who are part of the so-called Cuban Five – marking one of the largest exchanges of prisoner between the U.S. and another nation since the end of the Cold War.
The Cuban Five were part of the "Wasp Network" and were sent by Cuba's then-President Fidel Castro to act as spies in South Florida. They were arrested by the FBI in September 1998, and were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents.
Cuban-American lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle blasted the administration’s choice to free the last three jailed members of the Cuban Five, with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio saying that their release “furthers the Cuban narrative about [Gross’] work in Cuba,” and New Jersey’s Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez saying there “is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies.”
“The Cuban Five were spies operating against our nation on American soil,” Rubio said in a statement. “They were indicted and prosecuted in a court of law for the crimes of espionage and were linked to the murder of the humanitarian pilots of Brothers to the Rescue. There should be no equivalence between the two, and Gross should have been released unconditionally.”
Menendez said, “Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms."
Two of the five spies - René González and Fernando González, who are not related – were already released in recent years. The three others - Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero – had remained imprisoned with little hope of a speedy reduction in their long sentences.
In 2012, the State Department refused Cuba’s request to exchange Gross for the remaining members of the Cuban Five in jail in the U.S., but that appears to have changed with Wednesday’s early announcement.
“It’s an immense change,” Larry Birns, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, told Fox News Latino. “The Cuban Five and Alan Gross have for years been at the top of the list of U.S.-Cuban relations.”
According to Gerardo Hernández, the leader of the Cuban spy group, the five men infiltrated a number of Cuban-American groups operating in Miami including Brothers to the Rescue, which flew rescue missions over the Florida Straits to search for Cuban refugees.
The five spies also were given the job by of spying on U.S. military installations in South Florida and politicians opposed to Castro's government.
Havana maintains the agents posed no threat to U.S. sovereignty and were only monitoring militant exiles in order to prevent terror attacks in Cuba—the best known of which was a series of bombings of Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist in 1997.
The crackdown on the Cuban Five by the FBI occurred after two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were shot down in 1996 by Cuban military jets in international airspace, presumably thanks to information provided to the Castro regime by the Five, resulting in the death of four U.S. citizens who were aboard.
In 2011, René González was the first of the Cuban Five to go free. He was ordered to remain in the United States for more than a year after release, but in April 2013 he was allowed to go to Cuba for his father’s funeral provided that he renounce his American citizenship.
Earlier this year, Fernando González was released from a U.S. federal prison in Arizona and transferred to an immigration prison. He returned to Cuba on February 28, 2014, and has been campaigning since for the release of his counterparts.
The other three remained behind bars with Hernández facing the smallest chance of an early release given his conviction for conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft that were shot down.
The plight of the Cuban Five took on enormous significance around the globe and especially in Cuba, even more so than Gross’ case did in the U.S.
School buses and walls in Havana were covered with “Free the Cuban Five” messages and artwork and every Cubana Airlines flight comes with a copy of the Cuban newspaper Granma featuring an ad stating “Obama … Give me five!”
Pope Francis and the Vatican were involved in the talks between the two countries, and the pope had pressed Obama to release the Cuban Five in the spring of this year, a senior administration official said during a press call on Wednesday.
Regardless of how controversial the agreement becomes in the United States, according to Susan K. Purcell, Director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, “The world will approve of what the president is doing.”
She told Fox News Latino, “The world continues to condemn the Embargo, so they should support what is happening between the U.S. and Cuba.”
Many analysts say that the release of Gross and the Cuban Five – along with the other news coming out of Washington and Havana of the re-establishment of diplomatic ties – signals a huge shift in relations between the two countries that have been strained since the revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel Castro to power.
“These releases have the potential voltage to drastically change the relations between the countries,” Birns said.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.