What lies across the Water- Why History, International Law and American Values matter in the case of the Cuban five
The following text is my presentation at the panel organized by Wayne Smith about the book "What lies across the Water", at the Center for International Policy, April 18, Washington DC.
I want to thank Dr. Wayne Smith and the Center for International Policy (CIP) for the invitation to discuss the book “What lies across the Water”. As a Cuban-American who thinks constantly about the difficult relations between Cuba and the United States, it is an honor to be part of the effort of the CIP to improve the knowledge about the complex history of these links and the need to approach them with creativity and goodwill.
Whatever you might think about the Cuban Five, if you want to know how their case fits into the history of relations between Cuba and the United States, you must read this book. The author Stephen Kimber presents a well written short narrative about how the Cuban five ended up in US prisons. The book reads more as reportage for the general public than as an academic report. The author has studied the long history of conflict between Cuba and the United States and the use of terror as a political weapon by Cuban right wing groups in Florida.
This combination of narrative style and historical knowledge makes the book a tool for educating the general public about the peculiarities of the case of the Five. The book clarifies that those who advocate for a new trial outside Miami or a political solution to their case are not interested in providing comfort to the enemies of the United States, damaging U.S. national interests or letting Cuban spies escape with impunity. Their purpose is to close a chapter of US conflict with Cuba, in which the great values and even the interests of the United States have been sacrificed to the parochial interests of the authoritarian and non-democratic Cuban right.
As a Cuban-American, who professes great admiration for the paradigms, values and principles in which the American system is founded, I appreciate that Mr. Kimber stayed away from any Anti-American tirade. Whenever he criticized the US government he did so respectfully, providing facts, and showing that the tolerance of Cuban American terrorist groups in Miami is more a deviation than the norm of US attitude towards terrorism. In the case of the Cuban American community, Kimber recognizes the complexity Cuban American history, and the plurality of opinions that exist within it. This is important because any viable political strategy to change the US policy towards Cuba must recognize the centrality of the Cuban American community in the discussion.
The author recognizes the Cuban people’s right to self-determination and the right and duty of the Cuban State to defend its sovereignty over its territory as established by international law. Kimber presents elements of Canadian-Cuban relations, particularly the Canadian right to travel freely to Cuba as a model for allowing people who live in different political systems and have different ideas to have meaningful dialogues and interactions, as he does with his Cuban friends. There is nothing in the book that promotes Cuba’s one party system. As a Cuban, I appreciate that because, like many of my compatriots, I believe that ending the 50year-old hostile U.S. policy will favor a transition to a more open and democratic economic and political system on the island.
Regarding the freedom to travel, I would like to add my two cents. Canadian respect for the human right to travel, as it is defined in the Universal declaration, is a model to be emulated by the United States and Cuba. Both countries have insisted on deviating from a universal norm. Cuba needs to put its migratory policy in line with international standards. The United States should behave with the dignity, befitting the democratic superpower that it is, and end the shameful travel ban against its own citizens.
The book repudiates terrorism as a political weapon regardless of the cause, grievance or identity of the victim or the perpetrator. Mr. Kimber does not fall on the sophist trap that one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”. He makes clear that acts of violence against civilians and innocent bystanders are always wrong and they deserve condemnation by the whole international community. He identified inconsistencies and double standards in the U.S. government's treatment of Cuban-American terrorists as the root cause impeding anti-terror cooperation with Cuba.
Kimber looks at the relationships between Cuba and the United States from the perspective of international law, a fair non-partisan standard of civilization. This is the proper framework for building good relations between the countries of our world, be they weak or strong, big or small. There is significant consensus among the community of states on many international norms. One might like or dislike the American, the Cuban, the Israeli, or the Indian government, but it is a fact that international agreements, signed and supported by the overwhelming majority of the states, consider it illegal to enter the air space of any country without its consent, and consider placing bombs on civilian aircraft, in discotheques and in hotels to be terrorist actions of the most despicable nature.
The policy of every state towards terrorists, regardless of their nationality, grievance or political cause, should be to prosecute them, to arrest them or to kill them. Treaties are also explicit about the obligation of every state in the community of nations to deny safe haven, prosecute and punish any person or group who engages in, or sponsors, terrorism without any excuse whatsoever. Furthermore, legitimate governmental tools such as lists of terrorist groups or nations that sponsor terrorism should not be objects of irresponsible partisan manipulations, because it destroys the credibility of the effort.
In her recently published memoirs, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice makes the distinction between what she calls the “political” and “technical” questions that were involved in deciding when to take North Korea off of the State Department's list of terrorism sponsoring nations. Secretary Rice made explicit what she considers a technical definition of whether a country belongs on the list: did the country in question engage in or sponsor any terrorist action against the United States in the last twenty years? Ms. Rice said that although technically North Korea fulfilled this criterion, its disregard for the nuclear non proliferation treaty made it difficult, until 2008, to make the political decision to remove it from the list.
Based on this information, there is no doubt that technically Cuba should not have been in the list for the last three decades. Politically, there is not a single higher foreign policy rationale, of the type described by Dr. Rice in the case of North Korea, to keep Cuba on the list.
The issue of Cuba’s presence on the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsoring nations is of utmost importance not only because it is the legal basis for hostile actions against Cuba in US courts, as has been properly explained by Robert Muse in several presentations and papers at this Center. Naming Cuba a terrorist sponsoring country creates fertile ground for provocations like the violations of Cuban air space byBrothers to the Rescue. Terrorists and provocateurs know that they have opportunity to lock the two countries on a crisis course or even provoke a military conflict.
Why are all these elements of international law and US foreign policy important for the discussion of the case of the Cuban five? How are these issues relevant to Stephen Kimber’s book?
First, Kimber frames the legal process against the Wasp Network, so brilliantly denounced by Leonard Weinglass as neither impartial nor fair, in the context of 50 years of American double standards, presidential pardons for terrorists such as Orlando Bosch, and complicity of local and federal authorities in gross violations of the Neutrality Act by South Florida Cuban groups. Furthermore, according to Kimber’s revelations, Cuban American political groups such as Brothers to the Rescue and the Cuban American National Foundation had paramilitary terrorist branches acting side by side with their legal political activities, similar to modern terrorist groups of the Middle East and Pakistan, such as Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah. Like the Pakistani group Lakshaar e Taiba, responsible for the terrorist acts in Mumbai in 2008, Cuban right wing groups used their presence and connections in the American political and electoral system as leverage to support and cover terrorist actions against Cuba’s touristic industry during the 1990's.
Second, Kimber discusses how the asymmetries of power between the United States and Cuba shape differences in their respective antiterrorism strategies. For Cuba, it is more important to compel the U.S. and other nations to take responsibility for enforcing their own antiterrorism laws than to liquidate a particular terrorist like Luis Posada Carriles.
Kimber identifies the perspective of Cuban leadership, particularly Fidel Castro, in terms of historical legacies. Comparing the information in this book to Dan Erikson’s interview with Roger Noriega in “The Cuba Wars”, it is evident that Cuba has had several opportunities to kill or even arrest Posada Carriles. But instead of killing Latin America's equivalent to Osama Bin Laden, the Cuban strategy has been to prevent terrorist attacks while forcing legal action by other countries such as Venezuela, Panama, El Salvador or the United States.
The reason is clear; Cuba cannot design a unilateral strategy against terror. It needs the coordination and support of other countries. It is unthinkable for Cuba to launch a raid on the soil of another country to kill a terrorist or to simply put a price on his head the way the United States did against Osama Bin Laden or even to offer a bounty for his capture as Washington did to Hafiz Mohamed Saeed, the leader of Lahshkar e taiba.
Third, the book also retells the stories of negotiation, secret diplomacy and contacts between the Cuban government and the Clinton Administration. There is a long record of Cuban signals to US authorities regarding the threat to Cuba’s security and to damage to already difficult relations between the two countries posed by the US tolerance of Brothers to the Rescue’s reckless behavior. The book describes how the Federal Aviation Authorities, the State Department, and even Rick Nuccio, the special advisor for Cuba in the National Security Council, warned many in the Clinton Administration about how Brothers to the Rescue was reaching the “a point of no return”. Kimber reproduced almost textually a report by the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez about meetings with Richard Clarke and Mack McClarty in the White House during which the US authorities expressed a clear need to take more decisive actions in enforcing US laws against Cuban exile terrorists and provocateurs.
Kimber is also clear that even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that the two civilian planes shot down on February 24 were in international waters and that Cuba made the wrong decision considering its relations with the Clinton Administration (which is my opinion), the evidence to blame Gerardo Hernandez for the fatal tragedy is ambiguous or nonexistent. It is not a surprise. The US government had come to the same conclusion when it tried to withdraw the charge of conspiracy to commit murder against Hernandez during the last stage of the trial.
Let me finish by mentioning what the book says about the trial in Miami. Dr. Kimber never disputes that Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, René González, Fernando González and Antonio Guerrero violated several US laws. He doesn’t even question whether they tried to target matters related to the U.S government and Congress. Based on the trial papers, Kimber affirms that the Five never obtained or passed information damaging to US national security.
I do not have the capacity to determine whether the Five are innocent or guilty. I am not a lawyer and I do not know all the details of the case. What is undeniable to anybody who reads Kimber’s book is the history of violations of Cuban sovereign air space and the US tolerance for Cuban terrorist groups in Florida, despite clear indications and knowledge of their activities. The book provides a bibliography that includes the 1992 Americas Watch report “Dangerous Dialogue”, which documented the threats to freedom of expression and the violations of the rule of law within the Cuban exile community. The profuse evidence of the McCarthy-era atmosphere that surrounds any discussion about Cuba in South Florida (Ozzie Guillen being the last victim) simply confirms Professor Lisandro Perez’ opinion to the Court: the probability of a fair and impartial trial for the Cuban Five in Miami was zero.
As a Cuban American who left Cuba in 2001 because of serious disagreements with the communist system, I tremendously value many of the guarantees offered to all of us by the US Constitution. Anybody accused of any crime, is entitled to a day in court, and not in a kangaroo trial but a fair and impartial comprehensive legal process. It would be easier to protect us if we were to accept lower standards, but to keep America the special place that it is, to defend our freedoms against all enemies, foreign and domestic; we must guarantee that everyone among us enjoys these unalienable rights.