22 June 2014
Ties between Cuba and South Africa continue to strengthen, with the latest engagement between the nations a two-week visit from the Cuban 5.
The five Cuban nationals – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Rene Gonzalez – are in South Africa to thank the government for its support for their release from prison. They were welcomed to South Africa by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.
American courts sentenced the five to jail in 1998 on various charges, including espionage and colluding to commit murder.
They were Cuban intelligence officers sent to the USA as part of La Red Avispa to monitor militant Cuban exile groups plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. Cuban exiles were implicated, for instance, when a Cuban passenger jet travelling between Barbados and Jamaica went down in 1976. Of the 73 people killed, 57 were Cuban.
US intelligence was reportedly aware of the men’s presence in the US. They were arrested in Miami in September 1998, and were accused and convicted of spying against the US, with their sentences ranging from 15 years to life. Hernandez, the leader of the team, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the 1996 shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, which had dropped pro-democracy pamphlets on Cuba. Four pilots were killed.
Their trial was controversial and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and Amnesty International issued separate reports in the following years, on the fairness of the trial. Appeals courts first overturned and then reinstated the convictions.
After spending 13 years in prison, Gonzalez was the first to be released in 2011; the remainder of the group were only freed in 2014. They were released from jail after an agreement was made between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to improve relations between the countries, and as part of a swap for Alan Gross, an American contractor imprisoned in Cuba on suspicion of being a spy.
“We are very happy that they are here,” said international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela. “Cuba has been participating in the reconstruction of South Africa post-1994 by making several contributions. So to celebrate and mark their release, the Cuban 5 are here to participate in a series of events the government of South Africa is hosting.”
Ties that bind
The five men served in Angola during the apartheid years, fighting against the national party regime. Following South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, Cuba continued its support with the implementation of joint programmes in health, social development, defence, housing and infrastructure.
“In addition, the deployment of Cuban doctors, engineers and technical experts throughout South Africa is a further demonstration of Cuba’s commitment to work with South Africa to address the infrastructural backlogs inherited from the pre- 1994 period,” said the department.
There are currently 3 000 South African medical students studying in Cuba; another 45 are scheduled to start their studies in September.