In 2000, five Cuban men who had been operating as spies in the US were sentenced to terms stretching from 15 years, to two consecutive life sentences. Counter-revolutionary activities had been monitored by Cuban espionage in Florida for decades, with only a smattering of arrests. That is until February 24, 1996 when two aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue volunteers were shot down by Cuban military aircraft. America claimed they had been retreating from Cuban airspace and were in international waters by the time the were downed, killing four crew. Bill Clinton demanded the US ramp up their own investigation, and the five men were rounded up and indicted on conspiracy charges.
Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon’s impressively thorough documentary has extensive access to all five men, and several other key players in this lengthy, tangled cases. Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González are all open and candid about their recruitment, their actions, and their incarceration. They also interview some family members and friends, including their crusading defence lawyers. The anti-Castro faction is also well-represented, most prominently José Basulto, hostile to the core to the Cuban regime, and the founder of Brothers to the Rescue. Also given plenty of screen time is the bellowing former US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Guy A. Lewis, who believes that the men should still be in jail, conveniently omitting shady and underhand American involvement worldwide.
The documentary is smoothly cut together, covering a lot of complex political ground in an informative and interesting way. Particularly well done is the comparison of the glamorous Cuban spy show In Silence It Had to Be Done, the most popular show on the island, and the actual life of the members of the ‘Wasp Network’. The five discussing their less than glamorous covert activities while their all-action onscreen counterpart plants bugs, drives fast cars, and gets into all manner of scrapes makes for an amusing, ironic juxtaposition. It’s the little stylistic flourishes that sets Castro’s Spies slightly above most other worthy documentaries.
While there is the attempt at providing a balanced oral history of the time, ultimately the sympathies of Castro’s Spies falls pretty clearly with the members of the Wasp Network. As one of them points out, there was no way that five guys who weren’t even being paid (because someone being paid could be paid more to turn) could be a genuine threat to the US. All they were trying to do was to provide enough evidence to send a timely warning that an invasion from their massive neighbour was imminent. It’s true that from the other perspective Basulto isn’t an entirely hateful figure; Communist Cuba was far from a Utopia, and Brothers to the Rescue did some great work rescuing rafters escaping to the States. But perhaps it’s because Castro’s Spies is an entirely Irish production, there’s always a sense that they’re siding thoroughly with the underdog punching up against a larger neighbour.
Biases aside, all five of the main interviewees are warm and fascinating subjects, and absolutely unrepentant for their globally small but personally shattering part in the cigarette end of the Cold War. Their stories are compelling, as is the history of the period, told in a brisk, accessible style.
Screening as Part of Glasgow Film Festival from Fri 26 Feb 2021