Story of convicted spies compelling, but confounding
Reviewed by Douglas J. Johnston, Winnipeg Free Press
A CONFUSING structure, not to mention an obvious political bias, mars this otherwise useful look at a recent chapter in Cuban-American relations.
What Lies Across the Water is Canadian journalism professor Stephen Kimber’s account of the “Cuban Five,” spies arrested in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States, conspiracy to commit murder and acting as agents of a foreign government.
The five were, for a time, successful covert agents working out of Miami.
They infiltrated the Cuban-exile group Brothers to the Rescue and some obtained employment at the U.S. Key West naval air station, sending intelligence reports to Havana.
Today, all but one are in American jails.
The Cuban government celebrates them as heroes and promotes them as martyrs. The U.S government regards them as criminals and terrorists.
Kimber, who teaches at King’s College in Halifax, tries to remain neutral, but it’s clear his sympathies lie with the five, as would those of his Winnipeg-based publisher, which is known for its left-of-centre books.
Apparently this is the first book on the Cuban Five. Kimber admits in his acknowledgements it would have been be a tough sell to a U.S.-based publisher because it’s sympathetic to Cuban spies. However, there’s a far greater problem with lapsed objectivity: The book’s structure isn’t user-friendly. After crisply outlining his subject in the prologue, the book devolves into a series of nearly 100 episodic entries, titled by place and date — Havana, February, 1991; Key West, May 18, 1993; Miami, March 8, 1994. The entries date all the way back to 1990 and often don’t bear any readily graspable relation to the book’s ostensible topic — the activities, arrests and subsequent convictions of the Cuban Five.
The episodic entries are capably written, but after 100 pages of text we’re only up to 1996, and you’re still looking for a narrative thread to tie all these bafflingly disparate stories together. All these divergent episodes and players may be necessary background to an understanding of the politics of the arrest and prosecution of the five, but it would be far more preferable if they were woven, as seamlessly as possible, into the body of a coherent narrative.
Worse, the sheer number of personalities in these episodes is confounding. At the very least, the book cries out for a cast of principal characters at its outset, so when someone surfaces in the text you have some context for his or her role in the larger events as they unfold.
The hot-button issue between the U.S and Cuba is the Americans arrested the five Cuban agents in the wake of meetings between the FBI and Cuban State Security in Havana in which Cuban intelligence officers gave information about Cuban-exile group-sponsored bombings of tourist hotels to the Americans.
The Cubans see the five’s arrest as a betrayal of their in-good-faith attempted co-operation between national intelligence services.
However, this overlooks the fact the five were precisely what the Americans allege — spies — and that the U.S. was onto them long before the meetings in Havana. Moreover, Kimber acknowledges nothing was disclosed in the meetings that identified any of the five.
Where Kimber is on more solid ground is in his contention the Cubans’ sentences were unduly harsh and long. They range from 15 years to life imprisonment, and mainly not for actual criminal acts, but merely conspiring to commit them.
He also rightly criticizes American authorities for chronically looking the other way when Cuban exile groups plot insurrections and assassinations from American soil, thereby violating the U.S.’s own Neutrality Act.
Kimber’s account of the Cuban Five comes with a bit of bias. However, it’s ultimately a compelling read, but only after you doggedly surmount its difficult structure.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.