Roberto León  /  NBC News
Mothers of members of the so-called “Cuban Five” convicted on espionage charges in the U.S. with their lawyer in Havana, from left to right: Mirta Rodriguez, attorney Nuris Piñeiro, and Magali Llort.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 9/1/2006 4:04:56 PM ET 2006-09-01T20:04:56

HAVANA — Mirta Rodriguez and Magali Llort were unable to hold back the anguish they felt when a U.S. federal appeals court last month turned down a petition to grant their sons a new trial. They wept and felt fury, then fought to regain control over their emotions.  

"Tears don't help the plight of their sons,” said their legal counsel Nuris Piñeiro.

Both women have sons serving stiff sentences on espionage convictions in maximum security prisons in the U.S.

When you meet Rodriguez and Llort, you learn how deceiving looks can be. Elegant, dignified, soft-spoken — it's easier to imagine them playing with their grandkids than heading up an international campaign that challenges the U.S. justice system.

"I will never give up my fight to see these men walk out of prison," vows Rodriguez, 74, "even if I have to die trying." Her son, Tony Guerrero, was sentenced to life plus two additional five-year terms.

Llort’s son Fernando Gonzalez received a 19-year sentence. She frames the campaign to win their freedom as "a long-distance endurance race. The only way to reach the finish line is to stay on track."

These women became close friends over the past eight years as they worked full time to clear the names of the men known as the "Cuban Five.”

Convicted as Cuban spies
The FBI arrested Guerrero and Gonzalez, along with Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Rene Gonzalez in the fall of 1998 for spying on behalf of Fidel Castro's government. After an initial 17-month stay in solitary confinement with no access to family or attorneys, the men faced trial in emotionally charged south Florida.

They stood in a Miami courtroom soon after five-year old Elian Gonzalez sparked an international custody battle between his anti-Castro relatives in Miami and his father on the island.

The alleged spies provoked indignation from Miami’s one million strong Cuban community.

Exile leaders in south Florida pointed to their mere presence as proof of a communist conspiracy run by Castro to undermine American democracy.

The U.S. Attorney General's office picked up the beat, spending an estimated $20 million to prosecute the case.

Defense lawyers petitioned the original judge to move the trial out of Miami. Federal judge Joan Lenard turned the request down, instead defending the objectivity of the chosen jury. No Cuban Americans were among the twelve.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor repeatedly described the five agents as Castro's tools out to "destroy the United States.” The Miami jury found the five Cubans guilty in 2001 on charges that included “espionage conspiracy,” and they were given sentences ranging from 15 years to two consecutive life terms. 

Both a win and a defeat on appeal
The Cuban Five’s case has wound through the U.S. legal system ever since their 2001 convictions.

On Aug. 9, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned a decision made a year earlier by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit that threw out all of the convictions of the Cubans, ruling that pretrial publicity combined with pervasive anti-Castro feeling in Miami didn't allow for a fair trial.

The latest decision by the full appellate court affirmed the Miami court’s earlier decision in the case ruling: "Miami-Dade County is a widely diverse, multiracial community of more than two million people. Nothing in the trial record suggests that 12 fair and impartial jurors could not be assembled by the trial judge to try the defendants impartially and fairly."

The 11th Circuit decision means the Cubans are now left with few options; they may attempt a further appeal to the Supreme Court or appeal the case on a variety of other issues they contend show trial impropriety.

Admitted ties to Cuban intelligence
In any case, after their arrest, the Cuban Five divulged their ties to Cuba's intelligence apparatus. 

From the beginning, they denied operating under orders to collect American military or government secrets.

They claimed that Havana gave instructions to infiltrate exile groups out to subvert the Castro regime, especially ones with paramilitary dimensions.

For years, the Cuban government charges that respected Miami exile groups finance and plan armed actions against the island were considered far-fetched. But, recent revelations by a former exile leader suggest that there may be some credence to those claims.

Jose Antonio Llama, once affiliated with the Cuban American National Foundation, told Miami's El Nuevo Herald how he spent over $1.4 million of his own money to finance an arsenal of weapons for an attack inside Cuba.

Llama claims that 20 foundation leaders met back in the early nineties to concoct the plan and recruit the armed group. Now facing bankruptcy, Llama has gone public in an attempt to retrieve some of his investment.

The current foundation spokesman Alfredo Mesa vehemently denied the allegation, calling it "extortion and defamation.”

Averting ‘terrorism’ or spying
According to Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban Parliament, his government had advance knowledge of the planned attacks — that he labels “terrorist attacks” — because of information obtained by the five Cuban agents.

"These terrorist plans came up during the trial of the Five," said Alarcón. "They had been trying to locate those planes, weapons and explosives to stop a terrorist attack."

Even if that proved true, Brian Latell, a Cuba specialist and former U.S. intelligence officer, believes there's a price to be paid for engaging in illegal activities.

"No matter how honorable or defensive [the Cubans] and their government considered their motives, if they indeed broke U.S. laws, then there can't be any excusing or rationalizing their acts after the fact," said Latell.

The U.S. Attorney General's office never bought the Cuban version, believing instead that the agents had a more menacing goal.

Evidence put forward during the trial asserted that intelligence from the covert agents led to the 1996 shoot-down of a Cuban exile plane over international waters, that they sought to pit exile against exile and sow discord in the South Florida community, and that they meant to infiltrate American military installations including Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.

The allegations are all quite believable, given the level of Cuban intelligence gathering, according to Latell.

"Cuban intelligence is one of the best in the world," said Latell, "and has been for decades. Their skills in almost all areas of intelligence tradecraft, discipline, and operational focus are exceptional and help to explain the many successes they have had operating against the United States."

Promise to continue fight
Either way, Piñeiro the mother’s attorney vowed, “The fight isn't over."

Llort, 68, was initially conflicted by her son’s role and scared for his safety, but now stands firmly by him. 

"When I learned the truth, I felt a mixture of emotions difficult to describe," remembered Llort. "Fear for his safety, but also pride in his personal sacrifice. It was a very tough moment, a moment when my heart swelled."

Rodriguez also justifies her son's covert activities as "a matter of national security.”

A defender of Castro's government, Rodriguez takes umbrage when anyone describes Guerrero as a "spy.”

"That's a hateful word, used to create confusion... My son is a man who defended his nation. These terrorist groups exist. We are not making this up,” said Rodriguez

On one side of the Florida Straits, the women endure name calling and personal anguish. On the other side, they are revered as the mothers of two living heroes.

Llort confessed that she is "tired and worn" but it would be "treason to think about dropping out.”

Rodriguez’s life too is overrun by her devotion to her son. Suffering from a degenerative bone disease, she has postponed hip replacement surgery since her son first went to prison. "I'm more eager to see him than end the pain."

The visa process makes the separation more difficult. It took 15 months for the U.S. State Department to issue a visa, which allowed her to travel from Havana to Colorado's Florence prison holding her son.

"Nothing is ever simple,” lamented their lawyer Piñeiro, asserting that every aspect of this case is caught in the political crossfire between Washington and Havana.

Still, the prisoners and their families plan to continue pursuing the legal route. And Latell, the Cuban specialist agrees that one way or the other, the case is likely to carry on for a very long time.

"My hunch is that the five will be government bargaining chip once the inevitable process of negotiating a rapprochement begins,” said Latell.

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana, Cuba.

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