HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban agent who served 13 years behind bars in the United States for his role in an espionage ring showed off a certificate renouncing his U.S. citizenship on Friday and said he was now just a “Cuban patriot.”
For Rene Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Cuba and held dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, the certificate meant he was the first of what the Cuban government calls the “Five Heroes” to complete his sentence and return to the island in a case that has plagued U.S.-Cuban relations since the 1990s.
He agreed to renounce his U.S. citizenship at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana this week in exchange for not having to serve the remainder of a three-year parole in Florida tacked on to the end of his prison term.
“I’m now simply a Cuban citizen, a Cuban patriot, which in all cases I’ve always been,” Gonzalez, 56, said in a Havana news conference as he held up the certificate he received on Thursday.
The men known as the “Cuban Five” in the United States were convicted in a 2001 U.S. trial of conspiring to spy on Cuban exile groups and U.S. military activities in Florida as part of a Cuba-backed espionage ring called the “Wasp Network.”
Gonzales flew to Florida in an allegedly stolen crop duster in 1990, posing as a defector from the communist island.
The case is little known outside the Cuban exile community in the United States, but it is a national cause in Cuba where pictures of the five, with the word “Volveran” - they will return - are posted everywhere.
Cuba says the agents were unjustly convicted and excessively punished, and that they were only collecting information on Cuban exile groups planning actions against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
The trial was held in Miami, center of the exile community and hotbed of opposition to the Cuban government, particularly former leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro.
Gonzalez, a lanky, bearded former military pilot, said he was enjoying walking the streets of Havana again and receiving the affection of the Cuban people, but that he was not yet truly free because his four colleagues are still imprisoned in the United States.
“From the first day we were five, we were one. I’m not going to feel free until my four brothers return,” said Gonzalez, who was accompanied by his wife, Olga Salanueva, at Havana’s International Press Center.
One of Gonzalez’s co-defendants is serving a double life sentence for his part in the shooting down in 1996 of two U.S. planes flown by an exile group that dropped anti-government leaflets over Havana. The other three are serving sentences that range from 18 years to 30 years.
Gonzalez, well spoken in both Spanish and English, said in his undercover work with exiles in Miami he had found that most were “not bad people,” but that “some have a philosophy of confrontation between Cuba and the United States that is very dangerous.”
“There are some people, some of them members of Congress, that will not rest until they create conflict between Cuba and the United States. What I would say to those people is that what they’re looking for is a tragedy,” he said.
“The demographics in Miami are changing,” Gonzalez said. “I hope that someday the philosophy of confrontation, of provocation, of terrorism against Cuba and searching for war between Cuba and the United States will be a thing of the past.”
Some had interpreted the U.S. deal allowing Gonzalez to stay in Cuba as an indication that something was in the works to free jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.
But Gonzalez said U.S. prosecutors agreed to it because they had “run out of excuses” for opposing it, not as a “humanitarian gesture” they hoped Cuba would reciprocate.
He said the Gross case should be resolved as part of a global solution of the problems that have divided Cuba and the United States since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Cuba has hinted at a possible swap of the “Cuban Five” for Gross, but the United States has rejected the idea.
Gonzalez said he is reacquainting himself with his wife and two daughters and hopes to take part in reforms to modernize Cuba’s Soviet-style economy launched by Raul Castro, who succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
Despite the high price Gonzalez paid for his actions, he said he did not regret them.
“I don’t have any regrets, I grew up in a country where bombs were exploding,” he said. “What I desire most is good relations between the United States and Cuba.”
Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Jane Sutton and Vicki Allen