Adriana Perez really wanted to have a baby. There was just one hitch: Her husband, Gerardo Hernández, was serving a double life sentence in a federal prison in California, and she was thousands of miles away in Cuba.
“We both deserve to be parents,” she told The Cuban Wives, a 2012 documentary about the plight of five Cuban spies being held prisoner in the United States and their spouses. They’ve had to postpone life plans, she lamented to the camera. And for more than a decade, the wives of the Cuban spies known as the “Cuban Five” had been fighting for their husbands’ release across the international stage.
Last weekend, as Cuba celebrated the release of the spies as part of a new diplomatic deal with the U.S., the world marveled at the fact that Perez appeared to be pregnant during a visit to parliament with her husband. From there, a strange story was revealed: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), after meeting with Perez during a trip to Cuba, agreed to arrange that she be artificially inseminated. When Hernández made his triumphant return to Cuba, it was just two weeks before his wife’s due date.
It was this helping hand that apparently “set the tone for the secret negotiations that culminated with the deal” of exchanging prisoners, according to an Associated Press report.
The case of the Cuban Five is a strange one. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Fidel Castro’s grip on Cuba appeared precariously unsupported. In Miami, anti-Castro militias thrived. They were able to purchase weapons and plot attacks on the island without much interference. To counter them, Cuba dispatched its own set of agents. They were called La Red Avispa (The Wasp Network) and claim to have successfully foiled a number of threats against the island.
But in 1998, the FBI arrested five members of Miami’s Cuban intelligence network—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, and René González—and charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage. Their sentences ranged from 15 years to life. After what was seen in Cuba as an unfair trial and sentencing, the Cuban Five became national heroes and a cause célèbre of Cuba: their posters hung on billboards, and songs about them blasted over Radio Cubana, with lyrics like “We hope that our heroes will come home soon.”
So when Alberto Antonio Dandolo heard the news of their release earlier this month following the U.S. decision to re-open diplomatic ties with Havana, he says he “literally jumped from the chair.” Dandola, an Italian, is the director of The Cuban Wives. “Of course it was unexpected,” he says. “But I strongly believed that President Obama couldn’t ignore the international request to free the Cuban Five and that this victory should arrive one day.”
He was first intrigued by the story during a meeting at the Cuban Embassy in Rome four years ago that brought together two of the men’s wives to discuss the case with international representatives. The wives have been traveling for years across the globe to bring attention to the case. After that, he decided to investigate it further.
“Too often the injustices neglect nameless faces and stories,” Dandolo writes in an email. “Without presumption but with a great resolution, my cinema wants to give back dignity to those victims lending a face to them, a name, and showing the consequences generated in their lives by the injustice.”
This restricted relationship meant that for years the wives of the Cuban Five had a difficult time staying connected with their husbands. Under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, two of the wives were denied visitor’s visas.
Meanwhile, advocacy organizations, policymakers, and, of course, their families have petitioned for their husbands’ release. The most compelling and objective testimony in the film comes from Wayne Smith, who was chief of mission of U.S. Interests in Cuba from 1979 to 1982. He lambasts the case as without evidence, an unfair trial, and damaging for the American reputation. “For the first time in history the U.N. Human Rights Commission condemned a trial in U.S. as unfair and arbitrary,” he says in the film.
While international watchdogs like the United Nations and Amnesty International had criticized the incarceration, the U.S. government maintained its legal justification. The arrests of the five came on the heels of Cuban jets shooting down two planes that had carried a group of exiles dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Cuba. Four American citizens were killed. It was during the subsequent crackdown on clandestine Cuban operators in the U.S. that the five were arrested by the FBI for plans to commit espionage and falsely identifying themselves.
One month after Dandolo began filming, the first of the five, René González, was set free. But instead of being allowed to return to Cuba after 13 years in jail, he had to spend three years of probation in the U.S. (He was allowed to move back in 2013 before the full probationary period by renouncing his American citizenship.) It was doubtless a warm reunion with his family, who are featured in The Cuban Wives. His daughter was only 6 when her father left Cuba. “They’re almost the same as most other Cuban children. They just miss their father,” González’s wife, Olga, said of their kids. This past February, another member, Fernando Gonzalez, was sent back to Cuba.
Though these men received scant attention within the U.S., they had widespread support through groups like the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five and Voices for the Five, which organized campaigns around the world. In the film, an international conference on the Cuban Five had gathered representatives devoted to the cause from countries across Latin America and Europe. “Make it so the wives don’t have to be here next year,” Gonzalez’s wife bellowed to the crowd to cheers.
Three years later, the wives have nowhere to be. Cuba and the U.S. have traded pawns—swapping the remaining Cuban Five for a U.S. intelligent agent imprisoned in Cuba as well as humanitarian worker Alan Gross—and the former prisoners and their families can start again. Beginning, any day now, with Gerardo Hernández’s baby, whose arranged birth may have first sparked life into a half-century of stagnant diplomacy.