I’m thrilled to learn that Netflix has released Wasp Network with Penelope Cruz and Gael García Bernal. If ever there’s a true story that needed telling on the big screen, this is it… and in the course of justice, too, I may add.

In my blog post of four years ago, I reviewed The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the superb book by Brazilian journalist Fernardo Morais that became the basis for the movie. Not that the story needed any embellishing for the big screen. The factual events send shivers down my spine. (That said, as is the want of movie directors, there are a few elements that are purely fictional in the film, made to sex up the movie but merely adding confusion.)

The tale is uncannily close to my own heart not simply because of my affection for Cuba and for the injustice served upon the ‘Cuban Five’—the five intelligence agents at the core of the story. But also because the seminal event upon which the story is based—namely, the shooting down of two U.S. quasi-civilian planes by a Cuban MiG jet on 24 February 1996—took place three days before I shipped my BMW motorcycle to Cuba on a private vessel from Key West. I was caught up in my own small way in the maelstrom, which caused passage of the “Helms-Burton Law” that made permanent the U.S. embargo and removed the presidential prerogative to end it. As I wrote in the Preface to my book, Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba, “It was a fascinating time to be there. Cuban MiGs had just shot down two private planes operated by a Cuban-American organization, Brothers to the Rescue, over the Straits of Florida. Washington was at the boiling point, and the understandably edgy Cubans had heightened their internal security.”

If you’re not familiar with either the book, the movie, or the story, here are the essential details…

Early ‘90s… Cuba’s nascent tourism industry has been undergoing frequent terrorist attacks by Cuban-American radical exiles in Florida, such as bombing hotels in Havana, machine-gunning tourist beaches from high-speed boats, etc…. This coincided with dire economic times in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulting in the “rafting crisis” under President Bill Clinton, when tens of thousands of Cubans fled Cuba for Florida on homemade rafts… One of the Cuban-American organizations founded at that time (in 1991) was Brothers to the Rescue, which the Bush Sr. administration gave ex-military planes to overfly the Florida Straits and locate rafters…

After the rafting crisis resolved, Brothers to the Rescue began illegally flying under the radar (literally) into Cuba and dropping propaganda leaflets over Havana… Castro warned the USA that the flights had to be stopped or they would shoot down future planes (not least for the reasonable fear that they’d begin dropping bombs)… Castro had already infiltrated several dozen intelligence agents (the ‘Wasp Network’) into the various Cuban-American organizations to identify future threats by the more radical terrorist extremists, such as Alpha 66 and Comandos F4…. Two of the intelligence agents were infiltrated into Brothers to the Rescue and became pilots… In February 1996, Gerardo Hernández, leader of the Wasp Network, passed word to Havana that three Cessna Skymaster aircraft of Brothers to the Rescue were to fly illegally into Cuba… They did so, and after they left Cuban airspace two were shot down by a Cuban MiG jet, filling four Cuban-Americans…

This was U.S. presidential election year, folks. Remember Gore v Bush? That’s how important the Florida vote is, and the critical voting block in this swing state is the Cuban-American vote. Here’s what I wrote in Mi Moto Fidel as I motorcycled through Cuba in the weeks immediately following the incident:

“Cuban news reports had been giving the incident prime coverage and were bubbling over with indignation over the incendiary reaction in Washington. The shooting had happened at the peak of the Floridian primaries, and Republican presidential hopefuls were leaping over one another trying to win the Cuban-American vote. Senator Jesse Helms, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had harnessed the anti-Castro momentum to push his stalled Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act through Congress.

President Clinton had threatened to veto the legislation, more commonly known as the Helms-Burton Bill, but then got sucked into the political vortex. The act had shredded Clinton’s carefully calibrated policy of encouraging democratic change within Cuba, forcing him to make a sharp right turn. He had just promised to sign the legislation, which would add draconian elements to the existing embargo and hand the reins on Cuba policy to Helms, an unrepentant Cold Warrior who had threatened to take Castro out ‘in either a horizontal or vertical position.’ Details of the law were being widely publicized in Cuba, accompanied by cartoons depicting Helms as Hitler and the Devil. Meanwhile, the Castro regime was still claiming that the two paramilitary planes had been shot down inside Cuban airspace: the MiG pilots, it claimed, had been defending national sovereignty.”

The chief Cuban-American terrorist was Luis Posada Carriles, a thuggish former CIA operative who was found by Cuba and the FBI to be responsible for bombing a Cubana Aviación airliner out of the sky in 1976, and for the hotel bombing campaign in Havana in 1995-96 that left one Italian tourist dead. (I’m happy to see that Wasp Network portrays these facts more or less truthfully.) Cuba had long wanted Carriles arrested…. The FBI wanted to arrest him also, but the high-ranking Cuban-American congressional reps, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (later Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee) and Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart (nephew-in-law of Fidel Castro!) were able to thwart all such efforts and treated Carriles as a hero.

In 1997, Castro gave Nobel Prize winning-author Gabriel García Márquez a file of evidence against Carriles to give personally in secret to Bill Clinton… He did so… Castro invited the FBI to Havana to view the Cuban files on Carriles… Clinton sent a FBI team… When they returned to the USA, however, instead of arresting Carriles (as Castro had ostensibly hoped) they broke up the Wasp Network, which they’d had under surveillance since its inception (as I profiled in my prior blog post, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a double agent working within Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence had provided the information tipping off the CIA and FBI to the Wasp Network as soon as it was established)…

Alas, Carriles remained a free man on USA soil until he died a natural death a few years ago… Gerardo Hernández was sentenced in a federal court in Miami and given a double life term plus 32 years, and the other four Wasp Network spies who were arrested were also given sentences in the USA from 13 years to a life-term (five others spilled the beans to the FBI and to this day live under Witness Protection in the USA)… It was a massive injustice that stirred the nationalist spirit of Cubans in their defense as los cinco héroes (the five heroes), and an international cause célèbre of major consequence.

It’s the true, juicy, ready made-for-movie details that give added intrigue to this tale… not least, how Juan Pablo Roque defects to Miami after swimming to Guantánamo Naval Base, and is then employed as a Brothers to the Rescue pilot… then “re-defects” by flying back to Cuba the day before the Brothers to the Rescue shootin… leaving behind his unsuspecting and bewildered U.S. wife as he returns to his Cuban wife (!) and comes clean as a Cuban intelligence agent. Phew! Good stuff!

Yes folks… the real-life details are convoluted. And the movie even more so, as it tries to cram it all into less than two hours, slicing, dicing and taking liberties as it does so.

Plus, there’s a much deeper story here that involves Fidel Castro’s true motivations. Buy Mi Moto Fidel for my take on that, and learn how Cuba’s secret police took me in for interrogation shortly after I had my shocking epiphany.

Lowell Thomas Award Best Travel Book mi moto fidel motorcycling through castro’s cuba

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.