interview by Enrique Ojito Linares and Arelys García Acosta
After making his probably most risky flight on December 8th, 1990, René González Sehwerert, the first of the Five to return to his homeland, got infiltrated into Florida-based terrorist organizations such as Hermanos al Rescate, Movimiento Democracia, Partido Unido Nacional Democrático y la Fundación Nacional Cubano-Americana. In exclusive interview with Escambray newspaper and Radio Sancti Spiritus, the Cuban anti-terrorist fighter recalls his life as Cuban State Security agent, without putting aside his own personal life.
“If you say it could be tonight, I will figure out how to go to Havana”, I anxiously said when I made the telephone call to request an interview with René González Sehwerert. “Call us within 10 days”, he answered himself. Taking into consideration his legal condition at the moment, it was the appropriate thing to do.
The interview was scheduled to take place at the headquarters of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP, in Spanish), where he would later on said that returning to Cuba without his fellow comrades –Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González– was the nightmare of his imprisonment.
After having served a fifteen-year sentence on October 7th, 2011, Rene was required to complete 3 more years of supervised release. But this decision was modified last May 3rd by Judge Joan Lenard, who accepted his permanent stay in Cuba if he renounced to his US citizenship. On May 9th, Gonzalez received the US citizenship renouncement certification.
— I —
It is a cloudy afternoon. The noises of the street can be heard from the large ICAP hall, where Rene Gonzalez arrives accompanied by his wife Olga Salanueva. She attentively looks and his eyes and watches his hands, which he constantly crosses while recalling the few years he lived in Chicago, where he was born on August 13th, 1956.
It is just fragments of memories, he says. The family lived near Michigan Lake. He remembers the wooden pier on the lake, and the trip made to Cuba on board the Guadalupe.
It happened after the mercenary invasion to Playa Giron.
– “Yes. My parents were members of the Pro justo trato a Cuba committee, so they demonstrated against the invasion. Thus, they faced retaliations, and were even victims of aggressions by right wing-people. After that they decided to come to Cuba. We came here in October 1961.
Rene Gonzalez, better known as “Beaver” within the State Security bodies -according to Brazilian Fernando Morais’s Los últimos soldados de la guerra fría (The last soldiers of the cold war)- returned to US on December 8th, 1990, after highjacking a plane in San Nicolas de Bari, in the present Cuban western province of Mayabeque.
Before departing, you left Olga some money and the lyrics of a song by Pablito Milanes inside a magazine. Was it a coded message?
– It is a difficult thing to leave without letting your family knows what you’re going to do. During all these years, I fulfilled the most difficult tasks in Cuba, both of them in San Nicolas de Bari: saying no to the Cuban Communist Party membership process, and highjacking the aircraft. There are things not are not assignments, but where feelings are involved, leaving the family behind is one of them. It is a very hard thing to do. I left Olga the money I had saved, and the song inside a Bohemia magazine.
How many times did you revise the plan to highjack the aircraft that took you to Boca Chica, where you arrived almost without fuel?
– It was not possible for me to check anything. I had to wait for the right moment and take advantage of it. And I did so, even when I knew the fuel was barely enough to get there. It was probably the most dangerous and risky flight I’ve ever made.
Upon arrival in Miami, you made a statement to the so-called Radio Marti radio station saying that after seeing Florida Keys, you felt like a real Cristobal Colon. How did you manage to play the traitor character, and convince public opinion?
I asked myself the question since the very moment I was assigned the mission. I don’t think anyone could be trained for that. Besides, I was all the opposite; I have never been a hypocrite person. Then, the key to play such role is the sense of duty, the satisfaction of deceiving someone who wants to inflict harm on my people.
I remember when I first met Félix Rodríguez, the Cat; it was the same day in which Hermanos al Rescate group was created. I had been invited by the head a group called CUPA (Cuban Pilots Association) to attend a press conference in Miami airport in which the group will be announced.
As soon as I arrived in the airport hall, I was introduced to Félix Rodríguez. I remembered some said: “This is the the man who killed Che”. I don’t know what I really felt. I shook hands with him and said: you are the one. I got amazed to myself, how could I have said that? When I left the place I knew I was ready for the task.
Being an intelligence agent might lead to the assumption that you had a comfortable life. How did you survive during the first months from the economic point of view?
– I had the help of the many relatives I had there. I didn’t have any extra money, but I had where to live. I was welcomed by my grandmother. I began to work as soon as I arrived there, but it was my purpose to get closer to aviation people.
Sometime after, I managed to get involved in Hermanos al Rescate group. I had to spend a lot on licence applications, which is very expensive. So, I had to do several different jobs. I had a modest life, and moving forward as a pilot was always my major goal.
You joined Hermanos al Rescate in 1991. You flew over Havana with Basulto, and threw pamphlets. How could you have the calm to share the plane cabin with that terrorist?
– I didn’t go the United States to fight people; I went there to fight against activities against Cuba. I went there to warn the country against such activities. In such circumstances, one cannot pay to much attention to personal situations, because you get dissociated.
You transported journalists from TV channels like Univisión who built campaigns against Cuba.
– In the beginning, Hermanos al Rescate was probably one of the best psychological war operations ever organized. It used the boat people (“balseros”) situation, which was a complicated and easy-to-manipulate issue. The organization was founded by Basulto and some Bay of Pigs veterans. They had been trained by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the 1960s.
At the same time, a sort of euphoria was created in Miami around Cuba’s real and unreal problems. In such a context, Hermanos al Rescate was a very strong tool. Several elements got together that allowed them to organize a very strong psychological war operation.
As long as the so-called special period got worse in Cuba, their hope of a burst in the island rose. What happened around Havana’s Malecón on August 94 was an impulse for them. Within this framework, they began to organize violent actions.
When the United States and Cuba signed the migration agreements in 1994 and 1995, the Hermanos al Rescate’s business broke, because those who dared to go into the sea would be intercepted by the Coast Guard and returned to the island. It was then when provocations grew bigger, and they tried to create a conflict between Cuba and US.
What concrete missions did you have?
– I joined several organizations. Hermanos al Rescate was the first I got linked to. It was my duty to keep Cuba informed on all what was being done concerning the fleets. Later on, Basulto was involved in the acquisition of a Russian fighter plane (Mig 23), to use it in a violent action. He also wanted to buy a Czechoslovak military training aircraft.
I was also linked to Partido Unido Nacional Democrático (PUND), which was responsible for the 1992 and 1993 intrusions in the north coast of the island, mainly in Varadero and Cayo Coco territories. Someone was killed by a PUND commando in Caibarien. I was involved in the infiltration activities organized. Comando de Liberación Unido was also linked to these activities.
I had to fulfill location tasks as well. Once I had to locate certain means owned by a FNCA (Fundacion Nacional Cubano-Americana) paramilitary group. In the 1990s, I knew about Posada Carriles’s location thanks to someone’s indiscretion. That was the kind of activities I performed.
Why did you cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in dismantling drug operations?
– I dismantled two drug operations. In the first place, everyone knows Cuba’s position in relation with drugs. But there, drugs play a double role, and the money made out of them was use to finance PUND and the Comando de Liberación Unido. Cutting off financial sources was like eliminating operations against Cuba.
It is difficult to assess how many operations were not fulfilled. I remembered that once we sent Tony (the Fat One) to prison. He was the one who financed PNUND.
Given your intelligence job, how could you handle the feeling of being watched?
– There are certain intelligence-related behaviours that one has to adopt, being always alert. A balance must be found between being on alert and taking care of yourself, otherwise one might be seriously affected.
Amidst that situation, you were determined to reunite with Olga and Irmita. How much did do for that purpose? It is said that you even went to the Capitol.
– Several considerations were taken into account. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen didn’t have the capacity to take Olguita there. It was part of the whole scheme. Obviously, it was always my priority to reunite with them. We were apart during six years, but they could finally go there in December, 1996.
You went to welcome them in Miami airport dressed in a suit, and even carrying some flowers.
– The re-encounter had two opposite angles. Unfortunately, I had to go there with some element who was not very … (Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of Movimiento Democracia). The re-encounter was as if Olguita and I got married again. We had been married since 1983. So, after six years apart, it was beautiful and difficult at the same time, due to the adaptation Irmita had to go through. But our feeling was stronger, and help us succeed.
Ivette was born from that love. How much Gerardo Hernandez, without a child of his own, enjoyed Ivette’s birth?
– Gerardo was always sensitive about everything related to family. Before Ivette was born, he was waiting for Irmita’s nascence. He was really attentive with Olguita. We were a family; actually, in those circumstances that’s the only family you have, the only people you can tell everything. Gerardo assumed that role in a very humane way, with an immeasurable capacity to love; he was indeed happy with Ivette.
In what context took place your arrest on September 12th, 1998?
– An apprehension in the United States of America is a euphemism for assault. They got into your house with violence in an attempt to paralyze you; that’s the first step to soften yourself. They (the FBI) start beating down our door; in other cases they used a battering ram. We lived in a very narrow hall with an iron door so it was impossible for them to bring it down. When I opened, they entered with guns, dropped me in the floor while threatening me and cuffed me immediately. When Olguita came out of the bedroom they threw her against the walls. After that, they put me on my feet, asked me if I was Rene Gonzalez, and if I belong to Hermanos al Rescate. They got me out of home that Saturday and took me to prison.
How would you describe the first days in jail?
– The first days are terrible. Besides, our case was different from the common practice in which they take you to an admission area, give you cloth, explain how prison works and provide you a telephone call. We were given a special treatment; in military terms this is known as golpe y estupor (hit and stupor), that means you are violently apprehended, then, they take you to the FBI to see if you declare guilty or not, or if you cooperate. After that, they put you in the “hole” so you start thinking about what comes. Those are days in which you can’t get to sleep; they didn’t even give us a sheet.
At that time, your future is decided. If you choose not to chicken out, then you won’t do it later. We decided right there we were not pulling out.
Those were difficult days until Monday. It is all well staged: they have you alone with your thoughts on Saturday and Sunday, without shaving, without brushing your teeth; on Monday they dress you as a clown and take you to Court. They walk you down the corridor, and you see all the people, full of hatred, watching you chained, bearded, with a cadaveric look, and, then also, there is the concern for your family, all the time in your head.
I was lucky; when I was downed from the elevator and they face me to the room full of people, and I was looking for my family, I suddenly heard someone shouting out: “Daddy!!!”, so I watch and see Irmita giving me a thumbs up. From that moment on I breathed again and said to myself: this air will fill me till this ends, and it still lasts.
What do you hold on to for not betraying, as some other members of the Cuban network did?
– I hold on to the most basic thing ever: human dignity; I believe in the value of human dignity. The process showed there are some people who don’t believe in that. We all proclaim it, but in conditions like those, you get to know who is really attached to that quality. The Five believe on human values. If these exist, I don’t see why a person must give in to violence.
There’s no value in yielding when being locked or subjected to cruel treatment. I was convinced of the cause I was fighting for. I was quite aware of what my mission was, knowing I was defending human life, and that I was dealt with unfairly.
You add all that, and also their behavior. You see them lying to the judge, blackmailing witnesses, trick the Court and mock the main authority’s orders, and then you ask yourself: to what extent can they lower themselves?, and then you realize you can’t just give in to them.
You were incarcerated in Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida. How did you manage to get respected in such a hostile environment?
– In the case of the US penitentiary system, going to trial gives you a lot of respect; almost no one goes to trial. People are afraid of the process; the system is organized in a way that all who goes finally lose. Lawyers talk you out of going, and encourage you to cooperate with the district attorney, and by cooperate they mean that you betray someone. When you face trial, you stood up against the government.
People respect you very much for that; besides, they assume you won’t turn them in. Your attitude is also key; if you treat people well, they generally pay you back. You need to relate to persons with positive and constructive characters, avoid games, debts and getting involved with gangs.
Letters help pretty much also. The people notice you get many letters from different countries and they come and ask you for stamps. The Cuban stamps emission was great; they would say: “look, this guy is on a stamp”. Even guards asked me to sign them on the sly.
Did you have any special cellmate?
– I had a lot of cellmates. I remembered one rapper who was with me (in Marianna, Florida) who got so involved with the case that one day he got a t-shirt, and painted, along with Rody (Rodolfo Rodríguez), the symbol of the Five. He even sang a rap on us and things got messy there.
Rody is an unique example: a Cuban with a long delictive compendium since he was a kid, which included even violence; however, when he met me he began to change his ideas about Cuba, the Revolution and Fidel; he ended up being more communist than me.
There was also a white supermax prisoner, with a past of violence, a disfunctional childhood, who even ended up with the skinhead, and assaulting banks. He had been reconsidering when he was lucky to be my cellmate along the process; he approached me, reflected with me and got politicized. So, I can say that generally most of the inmates respected each other.
Olga became the center of the family, being mother and father at the same time; nevertheless, you did not lose control on the house.
I have to be honest; Olguita had the control of the house. I don’t like leading people from the distance. I trusted Olguita; my role was to do it fine where I was. It always felt important to let them know I was ok, as it was for me to know they were doing good. Olguita knew what she had to do, and she did it great, for instance when being with the girls, giving them advice. They have always had an open relationship with me. I’m not a grumpy dad. I think I’m a good father, a good friend.
What did Rene do to let go the depression that affects all human beings, especially when being locked?
– That didn’t got me. I coined a phrase that people used to laugh about; when I was asked in the morning: “How are you?”, I’d say: “I’m always ok”, so people approached me and said “I know you are ok”. I don’t know how to explain it; you have to fight the bad feelings. There are some days in which the anxiety is bigger, and you need to get to know it and cool off a bit.
I devoted myself to physical excersise, reading, styding. For me it was crucial not to be aware of time; time won’t kill me, I said to myself, and it worked: I never got depressed.
When did you most think about your parents?
– One thinks of the family everyday; I had a small mural with family pictures. For example, I remember the day of the allegations. When I stood in front of the judge and pierced her with my eyes to state some facts, I took my belt from behind and lift it, as if saying, here I go. My old man immediatly came to mind; it was one of his gestures, one I inheritted. (…)At that age you don’t think: mum and dad are doing this. I’m already toughen up; but what they taught you, that you take it with you everyday, every hour, and it helps you surviving.
Could you sleep the night of October 6th to 7th, 2011, when you came out of Marianna prison?
– Yes, I could. In jail you can’t allow that they take your sleep away from you. That night they bothered me a little; they put me in the hole, not because I did something wrong, but because we had already arranged that I got out earlier to avoid media; they knew there were some security considerations. They took me out of the blue from my cell and led me to the hole. I couldn’t say good bye to the people. My plans were to get up early, shave, dress nicely; anyway, I did sleep.
— II —
“Rene Back to Homeland”, read some of the most important headlines in Cuba on March 30th, 2012. He was in the island on a family and private visit: his brother Roberto, member of the Five defense team, was seriously ill. “My brother for life”, said Rene in a letter dating February which closes with a moving phrase: Breathe, brother, breathe!!
The supervised release ordered his return to Florida. “Having to go back was tough; I had to adapt myself again”, Rene would say later.
As if it was not enough, he lost his father on April 1st. The pain bring the son again to Cuba where he negotiated his renunciation to the American citizenship.
The time of a Hero dictates limits to this reporter, whose eyes follow, discreetly, Rene’s hand searching for his wife’s warm arm.
By the way, when are you taking Olga to the movies? The day you skyjacked you promised her that gift for the night.
“It’s true; today we were talking about that; but I won’t tell to media (KNOWING SMILE). If so….”.
The evening in Havana fills with clouds and lightnings. After turning my recorder off, heavy rains cover the Vedado. “It will be difficult that he gets her to see any film today”, I told myself when I was on the street.