René González is one of the Cuban Five, long jailed in the US for their intelligence work combating far-right Miami terrorist groups. He spoke to Jacobin about the blockade and what his trial told him about the US’s concern for human rights in Cuba.
René González is a former member of Cuba’s “Wasp Network,” set up to combat the terrorism long directed against the island by far-right Miami exile groups. Following the murder of over two hundred Cubans in sustained attacks on the country’s aviation, shipping, and tourism sectors — organized by figures like CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles — this intelligence unit worked to infiltrate and undermine the terrorist milieu.
Immortalized in the 2019 Netflix film Wasp Network, González is best-known as one of the so-called Cuban Five. After the FBI broke up the Wasp Network in 1998, González and four of his colleagues were put before a Florida court in a trial internationally condemned for its lack of due process. He was sentenced to a fifteen-year jail spell, and finally returned to Cuba in 2013.
Today living in Havana, González saw first-hand the July 11 protests that captured international attention. In an interview with Voces sin Fronteras, hosted by Jacobin contributing editor Denis Rogatyuk, he spoke about the current situation in the capital, the history of US attacks on the island, and a six-decade-long economic blockade affecting even Cuba’s trade with third countries.
What has your experience of the protests been, and what have you seen?
Like the vast majority of Cubans, I woke up on July 11 and began my normal life — or at least, a normal Sunday under the pandemic — and suddenly information began appearing on social networks. First, about what was happening in San Antonio, then the president’s presence there, and gradually, especially from sites in Miami, information and jubilant videos about events elsewhere in Cuba.
I continued my routine, until I realized something more serious was going on. I started making some calls and in the evening, I went to two places where protests had taken place. I went to [the municipality of] Diez de Octubre, and when I got there, the protest was still ongoing but was practically over. You could see the damage, and then I went to Zanja Street where something had also happened, but much less.
So I could see things first-hand. Then, I think on the Monday there were some further protests, and a mixture of falsehoods, lies, and video footage. We all know now that images of Buenos Aires, Alexandria, Venezuela, and other places were used to create the impression that Cuba was immersed in chaos, and that the government had collapsed.
In Cuba, we all knew that was a lie, but I suppose that it will have had its effect on some people elsewhere, who do not know the Cuban reality. And I suppose that some exaggerations regarding the supposed repression of peaceful protesters will have made their mark on some of the not so well-informed.
How about the counter-mobilizations, in support of the revolution?
I’m not going to deny that what happened surprised us. We’re not used to seeing events like these in our country — and above all, this level of violence. I will clarify that not everyone who demonstrated was a violent person — there were places where some dissatisfied people came out, some with genuine claims and problems that have been imposed on us for years, largely from the United States. But the level of violence was unusual for Cuba. This is something we need to examine, make the corresponding analyses, and take the appropriate measures — in terms of public order, but also social and political measures.
We, as a country, as a people, as a community, have for six decades been subjected to a genocidal policy whose express purpose is precisely to make people surrender out of hunger, out of desperation, out of necessity.
These events provoked a response among people who don’t want to see our country like this. The demonstrations organized by communities and by trade unions took to the streets to show that we want to build a peaceful country — we don’t want these levels of street violence. And also to show that most Cuban people continue to support this country, the revolution, the government.
Above all, that we’re aware that beyond the legitimacy of some people’s demands, all this is part of an attack against Cuba. It was well-planned through social networks. But we are going to defend this government, our sovereignty, our independence — and we are going to continue resisting.
We, as a country, as a people, as a community, have for six decades been subjected to a genocidal policy whose express purpose is precisely to make people surrender out of hunger, out of desperation, out of necessity. And well, there are people who surrender. I don’t mean this as an insult — I don’t think that everyone necessarily has to have the same level of endurance. The people who decided to blame the Cuban government for all this aren’t all criminals.
But I believe that criminal elements, spurred on by the tremendous campaign on social networks, made these demonstrations into what we saw in [those] days. I believe that the part of the population that maintains a dignified position in the face of US imperialism’s criminal policy has the right to take to the streets to demonstrate in favor of this process and against the policy that has tried to suffocate us for sixty years.
What do you think about the comparisons being made between these protests and the so-called “El Maleconazo” in 1994?
There are many points of contact. The main one, the “backdrop,” is the US blockade against Cuba, which has deliberately sought to sow despair among the Cuban people so that they become disenchanted and blame the government for this country’s economic problems and material hardships. It is part of a systematic, sixty-year policy, a common thread running through the 1994 crisis and the one we are facing now.
Moreover, I think that in both cases, the uprising was promoted from abroad. In 1994, the immigration issue was used so that some desperate people took to the streets and, in this case, the COVID situation has been used. This has been linked to an intensification of the criminal US policy against Cuba, imposed by President Trump and continued by President Biden.
I think that US empire’s policy towards Cuba will continue to promote these events. It will not change as long as they consider that they can provoke despair in the Cuban people, and there are moments like these when various circumstances converge that increase people’s material hardships and when part of that population — out of despair in some cases, in other cases due to political, malicious, sometimes even criminal intentions — end up taking these positions and take to the streets.
Have you seen signs of a campaign of fake news?
Yes, of course. The US government has always tried to use the media to influence the Cuban population and incite insurrection, illegality, and violence. We cannot forget that during Reagan’s presidency, Radio Martí was created. Previously, there was Radio Ciudad alongside Radio Americas. The US Government always wanted to use communications to subjugate Cuba, as part of this war. This is the psychological component of a war of attrition that is anything but simply psychological. In the 1960s, it was the radio, then came TV Martí, though it was never seen in Cuba, and recently social networks have joined this war.
We all know that the US Government dedicates considerable funds to this psychological warfare, which, through social networks, has been “dropped” on Cuba. It is a persistent, systematic, methodical, scientifically calculated effort that does end up impacting some people — and has been a very important element in this campaign.
This campaign is carried out in two directions. One aims to break our spirits, to confuse some Cubans, to incite us to violence, to make us believe and rationalize the theory that the embargo does not exist, that there is no blockade, that the Cuban government is to blame for everything. But we mustn’t forget that it also aims to deceive the rest of the world, so that people receive false news about Cuba. It aims to magnify any problem that occurs here and thereby justify the demands for “humanitarian intervention,” which many of the worst spokesmen of the Cuban counterrevolution make to the US government in the hope that its army will hand them back their privileges in Cuba.
In both cases, I think this is a criminal use of a technological instrument that in other circumstances should serve to bring people closer, to sow the seeds of peace. Obviously, this is not in the interest of those who wish to reconquer Cuba. And that’s a phenomenon that we must continue to face and fight.
Is it possible to do something from outside of Cuba?
As in the case of the Cuban Five, I think it’s important for people to inform themselves and not be fooled, to try to learn about Cuba from the Cubans who are here. Not to be influenced by all the campaigns, the lies, the misinformation that — both through social networks and through the hegemonic disinformation media — are disseminated throughout the world. To try to stay informed and spread that information among your friends, your acquaintances, and try to stir worldwide solidarity with the Cuban people, against the criminal policies of the US government.
Let’s not kid ourselves. They want to turn Cuba into a Syria, a Libya, an Iraq, and then come in with all these processes we’ve seen already in which capital returns and supposedly rebuilds the country that they have just destroyed. They want to do the big business that they do everywhere when they arrive with their “humanitarian” interventions, in favor of “democracy,” etc.
What have been the harshest effects of the blockade that you have observed in the last year?
The blockade has been a brutal act of war, intensified over the past four years by the Trump administration. The assault on the Cuban economy has been brutal, even before the pandemic came along. I’ll give some examples.
With the connivance of the Latin American right, specifically the presidents of Brazil and Ecuador, the medical programs that brought several billion dollars a year to enter Cuba were dismantled. That was a brutal economic blow. Then [Trump’s administration] continued to take measures against family remittances. Trump talked a lot about “human rights,” as does Mr Biden and all the others who went before did. They attacked the Cuban family and cut remittances to relatives in Cuba, inflicting another blow to the heart of the Cuban family economy. Further, [foreign-based] Cubans’ trips to Cuba were drastically reduced.
The pandemic added to all this. After the other blows I described, the Cuban economy was counting on tourism, but the pandemic has practically paralyzed the tourism industry and we have had to do without that income, which is what allowed the development of normal life in Cuba.
Under these conditions, the United States has increased its disinformation campaign, its psychological war against Cuba, always with the message that the fault lies with the inefficiency of the Cuban government — that it doesn’t care about its citizens and should be protested against. The result has been that some people have become desperate and have lost their perspective on the real impact that these measures have had on Cuba.
I don’t know the exact figure, but we can speak of several billion dollars that have stopped arriving in Cuba in recent years. Under these conditions, the government has had to deal with the pandemic — and the resources are simply not enough for everything. I wouldn’t venture a comparison with other governments such as Leningrad [in 1941], but the conditions we are experiencing at this time are quite similar.
The US government considers that it has the right to decide that each country must do what suits the US government — and, if not, it will have to face the consequences.
If we lived in a just world, the Trumps and Bidens would be prosecuted for this criminal policy. It is imposed by the largest political, economic and military power in human history against a country of 11 million inhabitants which gives the rest of the world only solidarity, love, and peace. But our all-powerful neighbors have decided to set us against each other. They continue to dream — as it was set out in the 1980s — that through hunger and despair Cubans will end up desperate and will kneel before the US government.
As a former US political prisoner, what would you say to those who say that Cuba is a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime?
I think that the repression within US society is visible to the whole world. I am amazed when some people take lessons on human rights, on the rule of law, from the US government.
The US government has been repressive from its inception, and that has not changed. That’s not even mentioning the rest of the planet. The US government considers that it has the right to decide that each country must do what suits the US government — and, if not, it will have to face the consequences.
The trail of death that it has left around the world in recent decades just because a government decided not to do what suits US capital is appalling — and that is what they are looking for in Cuba. To speak of repression, and to do so in the name of the US government, is the most blatant cynicism.
There is no reason why we should capitulate: we will continue to defend this revolution.
I think that has a lot to do with the experience that we [the Cuban Five] had, especially in the legal process to which we were subjected. If the annals of American legal history are studied one day, the trial that we went through would be right up there for its cynicism, for the use of lies, by a government that considers itself the arbiter of human rights and legality around the globe.
We saw things in that trial that you don’t even see in the movies. We saw the prosecutors blatantly lie. Blatantly put people on the stand to lie knowing that everyone knew it was a lie — knowing with tremendous confidence that the jury was going to believe all those lies. We saw the prosecutors blackmail witnesses, threaten them with prosecution if they testified. That is, witnesses that we took to the trial for the defense, witnesses that were given subpoenas according to our right to defense but couldn’t testify because the prosecutor stood with tremendous calm and said that if that person testified, he would prosecute them.
In the trial, we saw the prosecutors threaten an American general that his pension would be taken away if he testified in favor of the defense. We saw all kinds of violations, mockeries of due process. … It had nothing to do with what we see in the movies where the accused has every right to defend himself.
Really, I think the trial taught us to better understand why an individual like Joe Biden, who is painted, presented or sold as liberal and moderate, can stand in front of a camera and say no to reopening family remittances because the Cuban government supposedly going to appropriate them. Why he can then stand before a camera and suddenly offer us vaccines, but insist that an international organization has to come to distribute them among the population because the Cuban government — the only one in Latin America that has created a vaccine — supposedly isn’t going to.
You have to be cynical, you have to be hypocritical, to say such things. I do not know if Biden is a lawyer — he is probably also a lawyer. I think he has learned from the cynicism that colors those who represent that imperialist, criminal, genocidal government. Our experience as political prisoners left a mark on us and quickly taught us to be able to identify such people.
The majority of the Cuban people continue to defend this revolution. I think it is a question of principles and human dignity. There is no reason why we should capitulate: we will continue to defend this revolution. We will have to look inside ourselves, rectify what has to be rectified. But I do not think it is worthy of our history, of our martyrs, of the principles that have inspired this revolution, that we surrender to an empire because it wants to starve us. We will have to look for solutions within ourselves — but surrender is not an option for us.
Featured image: A Cuban flag flies over Havana. Andrew Wragg / Flickr
(Jacobin Magazine) by Denis Rogatyuk
Denis Rogatyuk is a Russian-Australian freelance writer, journalist and researcher. His articles, interviews and analysis have been published in a variety of media sources around the world including Jacobin, Le Vent Se Léve, Sputnik, Green Left Weekly, Links International Journal, Alborada and others.