This op-ed was published by The National Review on July 11, 2020.
By HRF’s Senior Legal Associate Roberto González and Junior Legal Researcher Zoe Gladstone
The Netflix film Wasp Network, directed by Olivier Assayas and with a cast including popular stars Gael García Bernal and Penélope Cruz, purports to recount the true story of The Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five or the Wasp Network, were members of a group of Cuban intelligence officers dispatched to Miami in the early 1990s to spy on and sabotage Cuban exile organizations and U.S. facilities, including the Southern Command, Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, and Homestead Air Reserve Base. And although the director delivers a thrilling narrative, he deceives viewers unfamiliar with Cuban history.
The film portrays the spies as courageous heroes who were just defending their homeland and the members of Cuban exile organizations, along with some of their leaders, as terrorists. This approach devoid of nuance and attempts to rewrite history in an irresponsible way, since the Cuban Five were universally understood as a spy network that produced actionable intelligence enabling the Cuban government to commit extrajudicial killings, which makes the movie fall short of being accurate in many ways.
First, it does not contextualize the relationship between Cuban exile leaders — many of whom were forced to flee as refugees — and their homeland, nor does it show why certain members of the Cuban diaspora chose to establish civil-society groups abroad. These individuals were driven from their home country largely owing to their own government’s ruthless repression.
The Cuban Revolution pushed millions of people to leave the country as Fidel Castro proceeded to persecute and punish those who engaged in dissent, thousands of Cubans were imprisoned, beaten, and executed. Yet the director of Wasp Network has no qualms about letting his characters refer to legitimate political dissidents with the official label of “worm” in Spanish (which the English subtitles translate as “traitor”).
Many Cubans in exile began establishing organizations like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and Brothers to the Rescue — both depicted in the movie — that were dedicated to a democratic transition on the island. The Cuban regime noticed these activities, they suspected these organizations of planning to conduct guerrilla warfare against the government and even plotting terrorist attacks. Subsequently, the Cuban interior ministry commissioned several agents and tasked them to infiltrate some of these organizations in Miami as well as U.S. government facilities. The exact number of spies that operated in Florida is still unknown. Ten were arrested and tried in the U.S.; five of them pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. The remaining five are the ones Havana later lionized as the “Cuban Five.”
A second problem with the film is that it blurs the lines of where peaceful humanitarian work ends and armed incursions and terrorist attacks begin. While some exile groups, like Alpha 66, openly justified the use of violence to dismantle Castro’s totalitarian Communist system, other exile groups — namely Brothers to the Rescue, a nonprofit founded in 1994 — pursued benevolent missions that the film merely skims over. Unfortunately, the activities of the former and the latter are dishonestly confounded.
While spreading propaganda internationally about the implementation of universal health care and education in Cuba, Castro deprived the Cubans themselves of economic opportunities or liberties. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered into what was euphemistically called a Special Period, which included heightened food-rationing and gasoline shortages, among other hardships.
The economic and social crisis in Cuba resulted in the plight of thousands of Cubans trying to escape to the United States on makeshift rafts. Tragically, while trying to cross the ocean, hundreds died and many were attacked by sharks. From 1991 to 2003, Brothers to the Rescue was dedicated to the search and rescue of rafters stranded in the Florida Straits. At its height in the early ’90s, they flew over 32 weekly missions, spotting more than 17,000 Cuban rafters and, in the process, helping to save their lives. They were also engaged in dropping pro-democracy leaflets from planes over Havana as a nonviolent form of protest. This, of course, entailed violating Cuban airspace as a form of civil disobedience against the regime.
Shockingly, on February 24, 1996, Cuba downed two Brothers to the Rescue planes while they were over international waters. Missiles launched by a Soviet-made MiG-29 military aircraft obliterated the two planes, killing the four people on board. It is imperative to recall that those four men — Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario Manuel de la Peña, and Pablo Morales — were unarmed, defenseless, and over international waters when attacked. In taking this action, the Cuban regime sent a clear message to others engaged in civil-society protest efforts that this method of dissent would carry heavy consequences. It was the intelligence provided by the Wasp Network in Florida that enabled the regime to carry out these killings of four Cuban Americans.
A commission of the Organization of American States condemned the 1996 shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes and concluded that the Cuban regime actively violated international law. By killing them, Cuba denied the victims their right to a fair trial under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other international laws. The Cuban Air Force made no attempt to notify or warn the civilian planes or give them an opportunity to land, nor did it try to use other interception methods. These actions were in clear violation of international law. The International Civil Aviation Organization confirmed that the civilian planes were over international waters when they were shot down, posing no imminent threat to the Cuban regime.
What’s worse is that extracts from the radio communications between the MiG and the military control tower in Havana record members of the Cuban Air Force celebrating after the disintegration of the civilian planes, which left no recoverable remains.
Wasp Network becomes straight propaganda in its portrayal of this incident. It shows no sensitivity toward the victims of the downed planes or their families. Instead, it glorifies the actions of spies who were themselves involved in criminal activity. It tries to retroactively endow spies whose deception cost human lives with a sense of honor.
Netflix’s millions of subscribers might be enticed by a star-studded cast to watch this ostensibly historical drama. Many will be deceived by its pro–Cuban regime propaganda. The Cuban people, in their ongoing struggle for freedom and respect for the rule of law, deserve support and solidarity from the international community. More important, they deserve to have their stories told truthfully, not rewritten by Hollywood to serve the ruthless agenda of a 60-year-old military dictatorship.