MIAMI (AP) — One of the convicted spies known as the "Cuban Five" will be able to permanently remain in Cuba in exchange for renouncing his U.S. citizenship, a federal judge ruled Friday after U.S. officials dropped their initial opposition.
Rene Gonzalez, 56, has been in Cuba since April 22 to attend memorial services for his father, who died last month. Gonzalez was released from U.S. prison in October 2011 but was still serving three years' probation, which the Justice Department had previously insisted must be completed in the U.S.
This week, however, the Justice Department reversed its position, leading to U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard's ruling accepting Gonzalez's offer to give up U.S. citizenship.
Reached in Havana, Gonzalez told The Associated Press he was thrilled but wanted a chance to review the judge's decision.
"First I have to read the order," he said. "If the order is real, it will be a great relief to me."
It was not clear what effect, if any, the decision would have on the status of Alan Gross, an American contractor jailed in Cuba. Officials in Cuba have indicated they might release Gross in exchange for the liberation of the Cuban Five. The four other members of the Cuban Five are still imprisoned in the U.S. and also must serve probation terms if they are released.
The U.S. has said the cases are not linked and the State Department declined comment Friday. Cuba's government issued a brief statement under the headline "Rene can stay in Cuba." The statement lays out the steps Gonzalez must take in order to renounce his U.S. citizenship, but makes no mention of whether the decision will affect the Gross case or have any larger impact on U.S.-Cuba ties.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, said it was "tragic" that Gonzalez would go free in Cuba while Gross remained imprisoned, but she said the spies should not be involved in a deal for him.
"This decision is a dangerous mistake that may jeopardize our national security," she said. "I sincerely hope that there is no quid pro quo being discussed regarding the five convicted Cuban spies and the Alan Gross case."
Gross, who's from Maryland, is serving a 15-year-sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Gonzalez and the others were convicted in 2001 of being part of a ring known as the "Wasp Network," tasked by Cuba's communist government with spying on U.S. military installations in South Florida, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to the government of then-President Fidel Castro.
The men are celebrated by some as heroes in Cuba, which has portrayed them as agents dedicated to preventing violent attacks against their country by Miami-based militant exile groups. Still, one member of the group was convicted of murder conspiracy for the 1996 downing by Cuban fighter jets of a plane operated by "Brothers to the Rescue," which dropped pro-democracy leaflets over Cuba and assisted Cuban migrants attempting to reach U.S. shores.
Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago, served about 13 years behind bars for convictions on charges of conspiracy against the U.S. and illegally acting as an agent of a foreign government.
Of his four co-defendants, 49-year-old Fernando Gonzalez — also known as Ruben Campa — is scheduled for release from an Arizona prison on Feb. 27, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Antonio Guerrero, 54, was set to walk out of a north Florida prison Sept. 18, 2017. The other two are serving much longer sentences.
The timing of Gonzalez's citizenship renunciation was not immediately clear. His attorney, Phil Horowitz, said it would occur sometime before May 16.
"It is a big deal. It's been a long road," Horowitz said. "Now he's going to be able to rejoin his family on a permanent basis."
Gonzalez, who will remain a Cuban citizen, has a wife and two daughters in Cuba.
The Justice Department explained its turnabout by saying that since Gonzalez was already in Cuba, there was no longer concern that he would use a promise of citizenship renunciation to improperly return to the island. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eduardo Sanchez also noted in a court filing that a person must be on foreign soil to give up U.S. citizenship.
"Given that the defendant is now present in Cuba, the FBI has concluded that the security interests of the United States are furthered if the defendant, while already in Cuba, is allowed to voluntarily renounce his United States citizenship and thereafter does not return to the United States," Sanchez wrote.
Horowitz said Gonzalez, who was previously allowed a temporary visit to Cuba when his brother fell ill, will comply with all the U.S. conditions.
"I can't imagine him traveling to the U.S. or the U.S. allowing him to return," Horowitz said.
Associated Press Writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.
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