HAVANA — A Cuban intelligence agent on probation after imprisonment in the United States arrived Friday for a two-week visit to see his ailing brother in Cuba, where authorities consider him and four other agents national heroes.
Rene Gonzalez, one of the "Cuban Five" spies arrested in 1998, flew to the island around noon for a "private family visit," according to an official note read on the news. It repeated his previous vows to return to the U.S. to serve out the rest of his probation.
"Our people welcome our beloved Rene to the country and will not cease in the struggle for his definitive return, along with his four dear brothers," a state newscaster said, reading from the official statement.
Cuba appeared set on playing down Gonzalez's return, with no footage of an airport greeting or mass welcoming ceremony like the ones that greeted young raft survivor Elian Gonzalez — no relation — upon his return from Florida in 2000. Word of his arrival did not come until he was already here, and was the last item on the midday news.
The Cuban Five were convicted of spying on Cuban exiles in South Florida and trying to infiltrate military installations and political campaigns. Havana says they were only trying to keep tabs on violent exile groups who unleashed a bombing campaign on the island that killed an Italian tourist. The other four agents are still behind bars.
Rene Gonzalez was freed in October but was ordered to remain in the U.S. for three years under terms of his supervised release, a ruling that angered Cuban authorities.
On March 19, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard granted Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban citizen, permission to travel to see his brother, who is gravely ill with cancer.
Lenard ordered Gonzalez to give a detailed itinerary of the trip including addresses and phone numbers, and to remain in regular contact with his probation officer. He has two weeks from the date of his departure to return to Florida.
Philip Horowitz, Gonzalez's attorney in Miami, said his client will honor his promise to return since he does not want to do anything that could jeopardize the cases of the other Cuban Five or turn him into an international fugitive.
"He is going to follow that order to the letter," Horowitz said. "Like I said from the beginning, this has nothing to do with politics. It's a humanitarian visit."
Lenard's ruling came despite the U.S. Justice Department's objections that Gonzalez might have contact with Cuban intelligence agents and get new covert tasks to perform once he returned to the U.S.
Gonzalez's return could renew hope for Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor serving 15 years in a Cuban prison. His mother has inoperable cancer, and he wants to visit her in Dallas on her birthday, April 15. Like Gonzalez, he has promised to return.
"I am pleased that our government has allowed Rene Gonzalez to return to Cuba to be with his ailing brother. I certainly empathize with his family's suffering," said Gross' wife, Judy.
"I pray that President Raul Castro will find it in his heart to reciprocate the U.S. gesture and give us a positive answer," she said in a statement. "This is Cuba's chance to show that they are serious about dealing with Alan's case on what they themselves have called a 'reciprocal humanitarian basis.'"
Though Washington and Havana have repeatedly insisted that Gross and the Cuban Five are separate cases, some have expressed hope that a humanitarian swap might be arranged.
"We have repeatedly urged the government of Cuba to release Alan Gross so he can rejoin his family," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "It would be a very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross."
Gross, 62, was sentenced under a Cuban statute governing crimes against the state after bringing restricted communications equipment onto the island. He says he was just helping the country's Jewish community improve its Internet connection, but Cuba contends the goals of the USAID program were ultimately aimed at overthrowing the government.
Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in Miami and Matthew Lee and Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.
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