The United States released the second member of a group of five Cuban prisoners—known as the “Cuban Five”—from an Arizona prison on Thursday. Fernando González, 54, was convicted in 2001 of spying on military bases and Cuban exiles in South Florida, and is expected to be deported back to Cuba within days.
René González, a native of Chicago with dual citizenship, was the first member of the group to be freed in 2011, and returned to Cuba last year. The other members, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labaniño, will complete their terms in 2017 and 2024, respectively. The last member, Gerardo Hernández, is serving a double life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder after two planes flown by a Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, were shot down in 1996.
Over the last decade, the “Cuban Five” have been at the center of diplomatic tensions between the U.S. government and the Castro regime. The Cuban government allegedly offered to release the jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for the freedom of the five Cuban prisoners, but Washington rejected the deal, saying that Gross did not engage in any intelligence-gathering on the island. The Cuban government jailed Gross on charges of committing crimes against the state, and he remains in prison.
González’ release comes two weeks after a national poll found that the majority of Americans support normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebuked the possibility of a “unilateral” release of jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on Wednesday amid growing concern by the United States over his health. Josefina Vidal, the top Cuban diplomat for North American affairs, said that the Cuban government has communicated the terms of Gross’ release to U.S. officials numerous times but did not receive a response. These terms would likely include concessions on the Americans’ part regarding the Cuban intelligence agents—known as the Cuban Five—who are currently serving treason and espionage charges in a Florida prison.
Wednesday’s heated exchange comes less than a month after Gross’ lawyer filed a petition with the United Nations Special Rapporteur claiming that his client has been denied adequate medical attention, “which constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” Since the filing, U.S. government officials and Gross’ relatives have stepped up pressure regarding his release, citing concerns over a mass that developed on Gross’ right shoulder earlier this year that, they claim, could be cancerous. Vidal denied the cancer rumors, saying that Cuban doctors conducted a biopsy that came out negative.
For the moment, Gross will continue to serve the 15-year prison sentence received in 2009 for handing out laptops in Cuba. At the time, he was on assignment as a subcontractor for USAID tasked with setting up wireless Internet connections for Cuba’s Jewish community as part of a $40 million-a-year program to promote democracy on the island.