MARIANNA, Fla (Reuters) - A Cuban agent jailed for spying on Cuban exiles in Florida was freed from a U.S. prison on Friday but must remain in the United States for three years on probation, a condition Cuba says puts his life in danger.
Rene Gonzalez, 55, the first to be freed of the so-called “Cuban Five” espionage agents arrested in 1998, left the Marianna prison in Florida’s northwest Panhandle at around 4 a.m. EDT and was reunited with his two daughters, father and brother, attorney Philip Horowitz told Reuters.
“He was in great spirits, very happy to see his family, to be out, he had a smile on his face,” Horowitz said. Gonzalez had served 13 years of a 15-year sentence.
Horowitz said he would renew an appeal against the requirement that Gonzalez, who has dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, spend three years of supervised release in the United States. He would make the request for “humanitarian reasons”, because Gonzalez had no family living in the United States.
The case of the five — the other four are still serving long U.S. jail terms — has been an irritant to already poisoned U.S.-Cuba ties. These have deteriorated further since the jailing by communist Cuba of a U.S. aid contractor, Alan Gross, who was sentenced this year to 15 years in prison.
The same Florida judge who had sentenced Gonzalez and his fellow Cuban spies in 2001 denied a motion presented last month by Horowitz for the terms of the convicted man’s supervised release to be modified so he could immediately return to Cuba.
Cuba’s communist government and Gonzalez’s family and supporters are demanding he be allowed to leave the United States now. They say he is at risk from possible reprisals by the Cuban exiles on whom he was convicted of spying.
“In U.S. territory, Rene is in danger, in whatever corner of the United States,” Gonzalez’s wife, Olga Salanueva, told Reuters on Thursday in Cuba. “Rene is a man who has served his time, he has a right to go home and his home is Cuba.”
A senior Cuban official urged U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to let Gonzalez go back to Havana.
“If anything happens to Rene, the responsibility will fall entirely on the U.S. government,” Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba’s National Assembly, said at an event in Mexico City.
Salanueva — whom U.S. prosecutors say was a Cuban intelligence operative linked to the spy ring who was arrested and deported back to Cuba in 2000 — said she was denied a U.S. visa to be present at Gonzalez’s release on Friday.
Gonzalez’s early morning departure from the rural Florida prison was low-key. He was taken to an unknown destination which Horowitz declined to reveal, citing safety reasons.
Cuba hails the five convicted spies as heroes and has waged an international campaign for their release. Havana argues Gonzalez and his fellow agents were working undercover in Florida to stop “terrorist” attacks on Cuba by hard-line anti-communist Cuban exiles.
Other members of the uncovered Cuban intelligence ring were also convicted of trying to infiltrate U.S. military installations in South Florida, as well as spying on exiles.
Reflecting the animosity felt toward the “Cuban Five” by Cuban exiles, Cuba-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen this week called Gonzalez an “enemy of America” and demanded “the most stringent monitoring and safeguards” surrounding his probation period in the United States.
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Gonzalez had “American blood on his hands” and remained a threat to U.S. security.
Her comments recalled U.S. prosecutors’ arguments that Gonzalez, as a member of the so-called Cuban “Wasp Network,” infiltrated a Cuban exile flying group, Brothers to the Rescue, two of whose planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets off Cuba in 1996. Four men in the planes were killed.
“If Rene is a danger for them ... why do they insist on keeping him there?” Salanueva asked.
She was quoted by Cuban state media as saying Gonzalez was “unrepentant about being an anti-terrorist fighter,” referring to his espionage activities in the United States.
The case of the U.S. contractor Gross jailed by Cuba for “crimes against the state” has raised speculation that he could be exchanged for the five. U.S. officials have so far said this is not being considered.
Salanueva suggested a swap could still be a possibility.
“If they want Gross back in exchange for the five, yes, of course, but it has to be all the five,” she said.
Gonzalez, a pilot who had previously served with Cuba’s armed forces in Angola, flew to the United States from Cuba in 1990 in a crop-dusting plane in an apparent defection.
Only later, at his arrest in 1998, did it emerge he was working for Cuban intelligence. Gonzalez was born in the United States in 1956 but returned with his family to Cuba in 1961. (Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Anahi Rama in Mexico City; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Anthony Boadle)