The documentary Castro’s Spies focuses in on one lesser-known part of Cuban history in the post-revolution era, where Fidel Castro was installed as the country’s leader. That of five volunteers who agreed to leave their home and live new lives in America, gathering information on potential threats to the country, learning on the job as Cuba had no real intelligence service. They became known as The Cuban Five and their story is told here in a way that is accessible, compelling and fascinating.
Most of what western audiences would know about Cuba’s recent history may have come from sources which do not view the political shift in a positive light. Castro’s Spies give time to get many different viewpoints across, including those who took up the cause of the revolution and could see and feel the good it was doing for the country.
This adds many new layers to this period of recent history long told in one way, opening up a spectrum of new viewpoints on and from Cuba. For example: we’re familiar with there being plenty of paranoia at the time in the US over the threat posed by Castro’s Cuba, but there was equally as much paranoia in Cuba over what they perceived as the biggest threats against them.
In the fifties Cuba had been thriving on the back of much American investment. All of that changed following the revolution, when the subsequent social policies proved bad for the middle class, who fled the country to nearby Miami. Among them were a group of radical counter-revolutionaries who sought to bring down the new regime, led by Orlando Bosch who orchestrated a number of terrorist attacks targeted at high-profile Cubans.
This led to the Cuban government wanting to install agents in Miami to keep tabs on such people. The Cuban Five were recruited after serving in the country’s intervention in Angola, given new identities and installed in Florida to keep tabs on people and places of suspicion. Their families were not told why they had gone to the United States, some believed they had deserted them and Cuba, relationships were strained when they were accused of being traitors.
They were away from home throughout all the other major moments of post-revolutionary Cuba, all of which are also covered by Castro’s Spies. This includes the “Special Period”, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost their key trading partner, and the US’s instigation of the Helms Burton Act, which further strapped Cuba financially. This ramped up paranoia in both countries but in very different ways: in America over how Cuba would retaliate, in Cuba how to prevent the country from going to pieces.
Directors Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon gathers interviews with a many different participants, including the Five themselves: Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González, as well as allies and detractors. In doing so they open up a lot of dialogue on the many different sides of the revolution. Notably among those speaking out against the Five is Jose Basulto, leader of the organisation Brothers to the Rescue.
Brothers to the Rescue were a group of expat Cuban pilots who took to the air above the Gulf of Mexico, searching for deserters trying to make it to the USA by raft. They were also of interest to the Cuban government as it was made up of a lot of counter-revolutionaries, therefore under suspicion. When Basulto was shot down by the Cuban air force in 1996, there was a dramatic shift in the narrative, as afterwards many outsiders no longer saw Cuba as a peaceful place.
This whole period remains a highly polarizing piece of recent history and it’s surprising to see in Castro’s Spies how recent they all went down and how raw all the associated feelings are. It might go some way to explain how hard prosecutors came down hard on the Five when they were all arrested in 1998.
While spying is not itself an illegal act, they were charged with a number of high crimes including the curiously-named “failure to register as a foreign agent” and “conspiracy to commit espionage” despite their being no evidence for the latter. In fact, one of the subjects in the film, an attorney who prosecuted the Five, comes across as very paranoid and a little xenophobic when discussing the presence of Cuban spies in Ameirca.
There may not be much in the way of explosive revelations that come out in the film, as we have become used to in this age of Netflix documentaries, but story is central to Castro’s Spies. It’s not out to be sensationalistic, only to tell its story well, and it succeeds in that. This film sheds new light on a multi-layered historical event and presents them in new ways, even if you’re familiar with these events. At the same time it’s very easy to get into and understand for anyone going in cold.