Fernwood Publishing of Canada has just released What Lies Across the Water – The Real Story of the Cuban Five, to date the most complete book available in English on a subject to which Americans have had little access: the case of Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando and René, the Cuban patriots incarcerated in the United States for fighting terrorism.
This story has been sequestered for 15 years. The efforts of author Stephen Kimber to publish his book in the United States were fruitless. "How hard a sell this book turned out to be for mainstream U.S. publishers. We heard all sorts of explanations, of course, but the key one seemed to be a belief that there wasn’t an audience in America for a book that might present a sympathetic portrait of a bunch of "Cuban spies". I hope this book proves them wrong."
The book is the result of thorough and profound research which took Kimber to review the 20,000-plus pages of court records (U.S. vs. Gerardo Hernandez, et al) and thousands of legal documents of the most prolonged case in American history. He also read books and newspapers about Cuba and its long confrontation with the United States, and interviewed many persons on both sides of the Straits of Florida who favored one of the two sides or neither.
This is not a book about the complicated and interminable legal process, but its essential aspects are covered. Nor is it a biography of the Five, although its pages show them for what they are: human beings close to the reader. The book goes beyond that and helps readers to understand the conflict between two countries.
However, it is not a voluminous work, neither is it difficult to read; quite the opposite. Its light and clear language allows readers to move through episodes of the conflict, and to finish in a few hours a story which captures them from the first page. It is the work of a master journalist, a great writer, and, above all, an honest intellectual, committed only to what he could verify independently.
In the very first paragraph he tells us, "This is not the book I intended to write. That book was to be a novel, a love story set partly in Cuba." And, of course, it was not to be a novel about the Five because, "I had only vaguely heard of them". In the prologue, Kimber tells us how it was that he decided to abandon his initial project and give us instead a non-fiction book, an example of rigorous, unbiased and objective truth.
In the words of its author, "The story of the Cuban Five isn’t really the story of the Five at all. Or, at least, it’s not just their story. And it isn’t a simple linear narrative. It’s a cascading accumulation of incident and irritant, of connivance and consequence, a parallel, converging, diverging narrative, featuring an ensemble cast of eclectic characters on both sides of the Straits of Florida."
Perhaps it was the deceptive complexity of it all which ultimately convinced me that this story needed to be told, and needed to be told by someone who didn’t know already which versions of which stories were the true ones."
Herein lies the real importance of this book. It is the fruit of research carried out by someone who, upon undertaking it, was not a defender of or sympathizer with the cause of the Five. Kimber, like many of the thousands of Canadians who visit Cuba, probably bumped more than once into a propaganda poster written with naiveté or linguistic clumsiness; or heard someone speak with admiration of the Five Heroes. But he knew almost nothing when he initiated his research.
The author formulates a question that holds the key for understanding the problem: Why did the FBI decide to arrest them and take them to public trial? Why, if it had them under surveillance for years, and knew everything that they had done and were doing? By acting in this way, in a deviation from its normal practice, the FBI lost an important and safe source of information. Nor could it accuse them of anything serious and therefore the two main charges against them were not of substantive crimes. The charges were of "conspiracy," for which they did not need to produce concrete evidence which never existed.
The only explanation is political. In the summer of 1998, the first steps had been taken for what could have been collaboration between the two countries to end acts of terrorism against Cuba originating in Miami. A delegation of high-ranking FBI officials, sent on the decision of President Bill Clinton, was given, in Cuba, abundant information on such terrorist activities and had promised to take action. When news of this contact reached Miami, Mr. Hector Pesquera, the local FBI chief, who maintained close links with the terrorists, arrested the Five with methods that revealed his motivation and the political nature of the operation. "If the espionage charges against the Cubans seemed thin – and they did, even then – why did the FBI decide to make such a big deal of that part of the case? "We have done this in a public way," Hector Pesquera explained in Spanish, in a message which was broadcast frequently on Hispanic radio stations for the next several days, "to gather information from the public." What?
Intentionally or not, news of the arrests and the allegations against the Cubans did serve to increase hysteria levels in the always-teetering-on-the-brink Miami exile community. WQBA-1140 AM commentator – and the Cuban-American National Foundation spokesperson Ninoska Perez Castellon – announced the FBI switchboard’s number on air and invited people to call the Bureau (and her program) to report "suspicious characters."
Exile groups like the Cuban American National Foundation jumped on the news of the arrests, "which we now see have been threatening vital U.S. security interests," in order to lobby for even tougher measures against Cuba. The day after Pesquera’s press conference, CANF chairman Alberto "Pepe" Hernández and vice chair Jorge Mas Santos, fired off a letter to Florida Senator Bob Graham, a supportive member of the Senate’s intelligence committee, to ask him to stage a public hearing in Miami about Cuban espionage."
While this was happening, right there in Miami, the terrorists who were to perpetrate the brutal attack on September 11, 2001, were training under the nose of Mr. Pesquera, totally undisturbed.
The environment of hatred created by the Miami local media, characterized in 2005 by the Court of Appeals as "a perfect storm of prejudice and hostility," led to the unanimous decision of the judges to rescind the trial. It was much later, in 2006, that it became known that those who unleashed the abovementioned "storm" received generous and covert payment from the Federal Government.
Kimber’s book appears when the case has reached a crucial point, awaiting the Miami court ruling on the collateral appeals (habeas corpus), the principal foundation of which is precisely the government conspiracy which financed and organized the media campaign that poisoned the environment in Miami and which was initiated by none other than the FBI itself. Let us hope that the judge reads this book before making her ruling.