MIAMI — On a partly cloudy afternoon, three small planes took off from a Miami airfield and flew south over the Florida Straits toward Cuba.
Only one came back.
What happened to the other two is no mystery. The planes, flown by the Miami-based Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, were destroyed that February day in 1996 by a Cuban MIG jet-fighter.
Officials in Havana viewed it as a justifiable effort to defend Cuban sovereign territory from unauthorized aircraft.
To the Cuban exile community in Miami, it was premeditated murder.
Now, five years after the deadly confrontation, a jury is being asked to hold someone accountable for the deaths of the four men in the planes. But it isn't the MIG pilots, military commanders, or even Fidel Castro facing trial in federal court here.
Instead, the lead defendant is an alleged Cuban spy, who infiltrated the exile community in Miami and reportedly helped the Cuban military set a lethal trap for the pilots. They called it Operation Scorpion.
The trial of Gerardo Hernandez and four other accused spies suggests that, at least in Miami's Little Havana, the cold war is still raging. Testimony, which began in December and may run through March, has verified some of the worst fears of Miami's Cuban-American residents.
The 'Wasp Network'
The Cubans are said to have discussed a plot to kill a suspected CIA agent by mailing him a book with a bomb in it. They allegedly talked of undermining the influence of the Cuban exile community by making threatening phone calls to Miami leaders, and considered carrying out various acts of sabotage.
"Cuban agents in Miami is something we have warned of repeatedly," says Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "We aren't so crazy after all."
Much of the evidence has come from some 1,400 pages of decoded e-mails and dispatches sent by what once was a 14-member spy ring - code named Red Avispa, or Wasp Network - that apparently operated in Miami since the early 1990s. The group was under FBI surveillance at least from 1995 until the ring was broken up in 1998. Four of the alleged agents fled the US and are believed to be in Cuba. Five others have pleaded guilty in exchange for lesser sentences.
Federal prosecutors charge that Mr. Hernandez and other members of the alleged spy ring operated as Havana's "eyes and ears" in south Florida. They attempted to gather intelligence about US military facilities in Miami and Key West, and infiltrated Cuban exile groups.
Defense attorneys counter that the Cubans never obtained any actual US secrets and caused no harm to US national security. Instead, they argue that the group was sent from Cuba to monitor Miami's increasingly militant Cuban exile community, including armed groups calling for the assassination of Mr. Castro and the overthrow of the Communist government.
Two of the alleged spies became paid FBI informants, providing the Bureau with inside details about the exile groups' plans and operations.
Some analysts see the presence of Cuban spies in Miami as a justifiable act of self-preservation by Havana. "If Cuba didn't have people in this country checking out what is going on here, I don't think Fidel Castro would be alive today," says Jane Franklin, author of "Cuba and the United States, A Chronological History."
Espionage as self-preservation?
Her book details a long list of plots to kill Castro or undermine his government, dating from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. She says if defense attorneys are able to present enough of this history to the jury, the government's case may be in trouble.
In a broad sense, the trial pits Havana's world view against that of Cuban exiles in Miami. And there is no middle ground. A verdict by the 12 jurors - none of whom are Cuban-Americans - could have significant repercussions on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Many in Miami's exile community see the case as a first step toward an eventual indictment of Castro. But others say the trial may aid Cuba's government, by creating a forum in which defense attorneys will put the Cuban exile community on trial, including Brothers to the Rescue.
Brothers to the Rescue was formed in the early 1990s to help rescue Cuban rafters fleeing the island. By 1995, as the number of rafters decreased, the group became increasingly confrontational, several times violating Cuban airspace to drop leaflets over Havana urging rebellion.
Defense attorneys say Brothers to the Rescue provoked the MIG attack by ignoring prior warnings from Cuba. They add that Washington was aware of the provocations and did little to prevent them.
Franklin agrees. She says if the US was faced with repeated unauthorized overflights of Washington by foreign planes, they would likely be shot down, too.
"At a certain point, the Cuban people were making fun of the government for not dealing with this," Franklin says. "It is no wonder that finally something happened and, unfortunately, people got killed."
But Ms. Perez says the Cuban MIG pilots were outside Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit and should have issued radio warnings prior to destroying the unarmed civilian planes. "The Cuban government is responsible," she says. "It is the Cuban government that is on trial for the murder of American citizens."
The full extent of Hernandez's role in the shootdown is still unclear.
Prosecutors say he provided a flight plan to Cuban officials and that Cuba's Miami agents were warned not to fly on Brothers to the Rescue flights on Feb. 24, the day of the shootdown. In addition, they say, Hernandez was congratulated and promoted to captain after the shootdown.
If convicted of the murder conspiracy charge, Hernandez faces life in prison.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society