HAVANA (AP) — A Cuban intelligence agent who spent 13 years in a U.S. prison said Monday he still has affection for America and hopes to see the two countries reconcile, but added that he does not regret for a moment his decision to spy for Cuba.
Rene Gonzalez also told The Associated Press he would welcome an exchange of prisoners that would send a jailed U.S. government subcontractor home in return for freedom for four other Cuban agents serving sentences in America.
Speaking soon after renouncing his U.S. citizenship, Gonzalez called on President Barack Obama to show "courage" in changing U.S. policy toward the Communist-run island.
"I would like to think that the North American government will meet the hopes of the whole world, which is telling it to change its policy toward Cuba," Gonzalez said. "Courage is what President Obama needs now."
The interview, conducted in the presence of his lawyer and a Cuban government representative, was Gonzalez's first since U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard ruled Friday that he could remain on the Communist-run island in return for renouncing his U.S. citizenship.
Gonzalez had asked for permission to do so several times, but the U.S. government initially refused.
Lenard had earlier granted the 56-year-old leave to travel to Cuba to attend a memorial for his father, the second trip home he had been allowed to make since his release in 2011.
Earlier Monday, Gonzalez arrived at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Havana accompanied by his wife and children to renounce his citizenship. He waved as onlookers shouted his name from surrounding buildings, then spent about 30 minutes inside completing the necessary paperwork.
Under U.S. law, Americans who choose to renounce their citizenship must do so at an overseas consular office. They are warned that the move is irrevocable, and must pay a $450 fee. Gonzalez's request must still be sent to Washington for approval, at which point he would receive a certificate of loss of nationality.
Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago before moving to Cuba as an infant, is one of the so-called "Cuban Five." The men were convicted in 2001 of spying on U.S. military installations in South Florida as well as exile groups and politicians.
Gonzalez was released about a year and a half ago but ordered to stay in the U.S. while he served a three-year probation. The other four agents remain in jail.
The Five are celebrated as heroes in Cuba, with their faces staring down from highway billboards and restaurant shrines. Their case has received renewed attention since the 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who is serving a 15-year sentence after he was caught bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy building program.
Cuba has suggested it would be willing to free the 64-year-old Maryland native in exchange for the five agents, something Washington has rejected, at least publically.
In the interview, Gonzalez said such an exchange would be "a good gesture on both sides in order to improve relations between Cuba and the United States."
He said he hoped his release would give hope to the other four agents and their families.
Of his four co-defendants, 49-year-old Fernando Gonzalez, also known as Ruben Campa, is scheduled for release from an Arizona prison Feb. 27, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Antonio Guerrero, 54, is set to walk out of a north Florida prison Sept. 18, 2017. The other two are serving much longer sentences.
Gonzalez flew to Florida in 1990 on a crop duster that he had supposedly hijacked in order to defect. In reality, he was a Cuban agent from the start.
Finally reunited permanently with his wife and two daughters, Gonzalez insisted on Monday that he had never second-guessed his actions.
"Nobody made me do it. They told me the risks, and I said 'Yes,'" he said. "I did it as a Cuban patriot and I don't have any regrets ... I've never doubted myself for a second."
Gonzalez insists his activities never aimed to harm the United States or its people, but only to protect Cuba from a wave of bombings perpetrated by militant exile groups that aimed to sabotage the island's tourism industry. An Italian man was killed.
He said he took no pleasure in renouncing his citizenship, though he has always felt more Cuban than American.
"I have family in the United States and I left many friends there," he said. "It is a country with a history that is admirable ... One realizes that there is more that we have in common than what separates us."
Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP