MIAMI — Since Cuban Air Force pilots obliterated two planes ferrying four Miami men in 1996, Cuba's leaders have strongly disputed U.S. and U.N. findings that the fatal shoot-downs happened in international airspace.
Aiming to place the controversial killings in Cuban territory was a linchpin of the defense at the trial of five Cuban spies, one of whom was convicted of murder conspiracy.
But now, spymaster Gerardo Hernandez, serving a life sentence, has made a startling about-face: In a last-ditch appeal, he suddenly agrees that the Feb. 24, 1996, MiG assaults on two Brothers to the Rescue planes indeed happened over international waters.
With that argument, Hernandez is fundamentally contradicting the stand of the regime he has sworn his loyalty to, and which has declared him a modern-day hero of the revolution.
Brothers co-founder Jose Basulto finds the move ironic. Now, he said, Hernandez "wants to distance himself from the Cuban government — to save himself."
In his appeal, Hernandez, 45, contends that his trial attorney, Paul McKenna, mishandled his defense at a 2001 Miami federal trial by focusing so much on the shoot-down location.
Hernandez and other members of the so-called Cuban Five were part of an intelligence network sent from Havana to spy on South Florida's exile community and military installations. Their stated mission: to thwart violent campaigns by exile militants to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
They infiltrated the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, which regularly flew missions searching for Cuban rafters. They also tried to penetrate the Southern Command in Miami and the Naval Air Station in Key West.
The five have gained heroic status in their country and international support. Their faces are plastered on billboards and posters throughout Cuba. But Hernandez, who led La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network, in Miami, was the only agent convicted in connection with the shoot-down — and the only one sentenced to life.
Hernandez's appellate attorneys said the overwhelming evidence showed that the shoot-down occurred outside Cuban airspace, raising serious questions about McKenna's overall strategy.