HAVANA (AP) — A second member of the "Cuban Five" returned to the Caribbean island and a hero's welcome Friday, a day after leaving a prison in the United States, where he spent 15 years behind bars on spy-related charges.
Fernando Gonzalez arrived at the Havana airport around noon local time and was greeted by his mother and wife. State television showed President Raul Castro saluting Gonzalez, shaking his hand and then pulling him into a long bear hug.
In brief comments to local reporters, Gonzalez thanked Cubans for their support during his long incarceration. He said he had been in the custody of U.S. immigration officials since walking out of jail on Thursday, and only truly felt free when he set foot on the tarmac in Havana.
"It's a happiness that is difficult to describe," he said, but added that "a piece is still missing" — his three fellow agents still behind bars in the United States.
Foreign journalists were not allowed access to cover his arrival.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez in Washington confirmed that the agency "removed" Gonzalez from the country Friday, but did not comment further.
Gonzalez, 50, and four others were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.
Prosecutors argued at trial that they sought to infiltrate military bases and monitored militant Cuban exile groups opposed to the communist government in Havana.
Havana hails the men as patriots and "anti-terrorist" fighters, and maintains they were only keeping tabs on the exile groups to prevent terrorist attacks in Cuba. It says they were no threat to U.S. sovereignty, and calls the long prison sentences unjust.
Rene Gonzalez — no relation — became the first to finish his sentence in 2011. He returned to Cuba last year after serving part of a judge-imposed period of supervised release and renouncing his American citizenship.
"Those of us who love (Fernando Gonzalez) and admire him celebrate him today," Gerardo Hernandez, who is still in prison, said in a statement published by Cuban media.
"Convinced that our struggle (to be released) is reinforced by another standard-bearer, we send him a big hug," he said.
Hernandez is serving a life sentence for murder conspiracy in connection with the 1996 killings of four "Brothers to the Rescue" pilots whose planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets. The organization dropped pro-democracy leaflets over Cuba and assisted Cuban migrants trying to reach the U.S.
Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, lamented that Gonzalez was released the same week that Cuban exiles commemorate the anniversary of the downing of the planes.
"Gonzalez and his fellow convicted spies have blood on their hands for following orders from the Castro brothers, who will use this release from prison as a propaganda coup," she said in a statement.
A celebratory concert in honor of the Cuban Five was planned for Saturday night at the University of Havana, with about 10 musical acts on the bill including the popular salsa group Los Van Van.
Gonzalez was originally sentenced to 19 years, but that was reduced on appeal along with the sentences of two others.
Antonio Guerrero is the next scheduled to be released, in September 2017.
The case of the Cuban Five has sometimes been linked to that of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who was arrested in Cuba in 2009.
Gross says he was only working to set up Internet access for Cuba's tiny Jewish community, but a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years under a statute covering crimes against the state. Cuba considers programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development project that Gross was contracted for to be attempts at undermining its sovereignty.
Cuba has suggested it might swap Gross for the Cuban Five, but Washington has rejected any such deal.
AP Legal Affairs Writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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