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Why is a Cuban spy who was nabbed in the US and freed in a prisoner swap visiting Moscow?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, right, decorates Gerardo Hernandez, one of the "Cuban Five," during a ceremony held in front of the coffin with the remains of Simon Bolivar in Caracas on May 5, 2015. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A Cuban spy who was captured and imprisoned in the U.S., and later released in a prisoner swap with Cuba, has been making official visits overseas, including to Russia, for the island’s government, raising questions about his role, especially after his trip followed visits by the head of Cuba’s intelligence and security services.

During a two-week trip that started mid-May, Cuba’s Minister of the Interior, Gen. Lázaro Alberto Álvarez Casas, met with the Vietnamese minister of Public Security, China’s minister of Public Security and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, whom he had previously met in Havana in March.

Closely tracking Álvarez Casas with his own tour to Vietnam, Laos and Russia was Gerardo Hernández, the former spy who currently heads a Cuban organization with no foreign-policy mandate. Media reports and government statements placed Hernández and Gen. Álvarez Casas in Vietnam at the same time, and possibly also in Russia, though their trips have not been officially linked.

Hernández was the leader of a Cuban espionage ring, known as the Wasp Network, dismantled by the FBI in South Florida in 1998. He was convicted of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder for his involvement in Cuba’s shoot-down of two planes owned by the Cuban exile organization Brothers to the Rescue in 1996, in which four people were killed. Hernández was sentenced to life in prison, but was released by President Barack Obama during a prisoner swap in December 2014 after serving 16 years.

Welcomed in Cuba as a hero, Hernández was appointed in May 2016 as vice-rector of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs higher education institute, from which he had graduated in 1988. In September 2020, he was named general coordinator of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR, the organization created by Fidel Castro to take state surveillance to every street block on the island.

But beyond the cooperation of CDR members with the police, the organization lacks resources and has little power, giving Hernández’s primarily a symbolic role even if, as head of the CDR, he has secured a seat at the National Assembly’s executive arm, the Council of State.

Officially, Hernández was invited by Russia’s Public Chamber, an organization created by Putin to bring civil society under state control, critics say.

During his tour, the former spy has met with Laos Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gen. Chansamone Chanyalath and a powerful Russian senator, Dmitry Kuzmin, and performed ceremonial activities usually carried out by high-ranking government officials, like laying wreaths at monuments.

Past CDR presidents rarely had contact with foreign officials, much less embark on an international tour. And the fact that Hernandez’s trip included a Moscow stop when Cuban and Russian intelligence services are getting closer has raised questions about the purpose of the visit.

Is the former spy back in the game, or is he just using his influence to advance his political career?

Chris Simmons, a retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it is unlikely Hernandez has been given an intelligence role because, traditionally, spy services distrust officers who have been caught. After all, he said, “the Wasp Network failure is on him.” That he was given a “non-sensitive position,” like heading the CDR, would suggest as much, Simmons said.

But from the very beginning, Hernández was an “anomaly,” Simmons wrote in his book “Castro’s Nemesis: True Stories of a Master Spy-Catcher,” where he shared details of the Wasp spy ring and the operation to dismantle it.

Not only was Hernández, a lieutenant, a case officer for Cuba’s Directorate of Military Intelligence in an operation that was mostly run by the rival Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Intelligence, but as the ring’s leader he oversaw officers of higher rank, suggesting that Cuban intelligence services placed “extraordinary trust” in him, Simmons wrote.

“He is different,” Simmons told the Herald, adding that perhaps Hernández might have cleverly played his cards and tried to put the blame for the spy network’s capture on the island’s Interior Ministry.

In any case, “they made him a national hero, so now there is no way for him to disappear quietly,” Simmons said. After serving 16 years in prison and refusing to cooperate with U.S. authorities “he can play the ‘you owe me card’ even if he is not trusted. Politics might well be a way for him to take care of his family.”

Addressing directly the criticism he has received on social media, where he is frequently making statements against the United States and the “enemies” of the revolution, Hernández justified his foreign tour by saying that under his command, the CDR will now put more emphasis on “international relations.”

“People are criticizing in social media that the CDR is on a working visit to Vietnam… to Laos, or that we are in Russia now,” he told the Cuban wire service Prensa Latina in an interview from Moscow on Thursday. “We aim to adjust the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to the times we live in. International relations are an important element of our work.”

The Moscow visits by the Interior Ministry’s top general and the former spy take place at a time Cuba and Russia have increased economic and military cooperation, and the island’s leaders have been more vocal in their support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cuba’s handpicked president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, recently called Putin “a friend” and vowed his “unconditional support to Russia in its clash with the West.” On Saturday, when he turned 92, Cuba’s ultimate authority, retired Gen. Raúl Castro, told Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev in a phone call that he “supported Russia’s actions in the situation concerning Ukraine” and he “expressed certainty in our victory,” Medvedev said on Twitter.

According to the Russian state news agency TASS, Gen. Álvarez Casas, the Cuban interior minister, traveled to Russia in late May to participate in “an international meeting of high representatives in charge of security issues” that included Venezuela’s Secretary General of the National Defense Council, Jose Adelino Ornelas Ferreira.

“Patrushev discussed cooperation between the law enforcement and security agencies of Russia and Venezuela,” the report says, “Talks with the Cuban interior minister focused on regional stability.”

Gen. Álvarez Casas, who oversees the police and intelligence services and is under U.S. sanctions for human rights violations on the island, also signed an agreement with General Viktor Zolotov, director of the Russian National Guard, to fight terrorism and crime more “efficiently,” the Guard said on its Telegram channel.

The pace of the high-level exchanges has intensified to the degree that it is harder to keep up with the comings and goings between Moscow and Havana. Last week, the director of Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service, Colonel-General Dmitry Aristov, signed a judicial cooperation agreement with the head of Cuba’s People’s Supreme Court in Havana.

Last Friday, Hernández was still in Moscow, visiting a church and meeting a Russian filmmaker, according to his tweets. He previously met with Cubans living in Moscow and members of Russian “solidarity committees” with Cuba, the sort of activities usually carried out by diplomats.

He even read some poetry in Russian during the event with the solidarity committee members, Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported.

“Our two peoples have historical ties,” he said in the Prensa Latina interview. “In these moments that we are living, Russia is also a sanctioned country…. We live in a world where the good guys must help each other.”


© 2023 Miami Herald

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