Castro’s Spies is a captivating and even-handed look at the Cuban Five, a group of men who lived, worked and spied on the Cuban expatriate community in Miami for the better part of the 1990s. Their arrest, incarceration and trial served as the largest multiple-defendant espionage case in the history of the United States, and their eventual release from custody back to Cuba signaled the thaw of relations between countries during the Obama administration.
Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González have become heroes in Cuba and remain controversial in the United States. The film features interviews with each of them, as well as discussions with their targets, their prosecutors, their defense lawyers and their families. It’s wide-ranging and impressively even-handed given the political subject matter. Most importantly, directors Gary Lennon and Ollie Aslin manage to pace a documentary that’s dense with information like a political thriller, giving it an immediate intensity without sacrificing substance.
As an American who knows little of Cuba beyond the basics of our country’s perspective, it’s appreciated that Lennon and Aslin integrate almost a half-century of political and cultural history from the perspective of Cuban citizens. They start in the 1950s and 1960s, when Fidel Castro’s revolution toppled the reigning United States-backed regime and ultimately found support with the Soviet Union. Many Cubans fled northward to Miami, while many more stayed in the country — some with a lot of hope for a more equitable society. Although the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is key to the story, the film focuses more on the complexities of Cuba and those who expatriated. There are, it goes without saying, strong feelings on both sides. The Cuban Five were recruited in part due to a proliferation of bombings by anti-Castro forces during the 1980s. They came to America not to spy on our government but on their former countrymen.
Some of the most fascinating details contained in Castro’s Spies have to do with the day-in, day-out work of being an actual spy. Some of the men left behind wives who had no idea their husband had not really left them; others found themselves creating new lives here, loyal only to their country back home. The mechanics of their spying entailed becoming parts of their communities and local organizations that allowed them to ingratiate themselves with local leaders on a familiar basis. Meetings and drops happened in regular places or over coded short-wave radio. New identities were created from whole cloth. Nothing was like it was in the movies, and the results of their work were rarely related to real action.
None of the men involved have any regrets. Perhaps most helpful in the entire film is that the blending of perspectives allows a real understanding of why they became spies and why they remain proud of their service. This isn’t a documentary with a specific political message (beyond being in favor of the thawing of relations). One of their major targets was José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, a non-profit organization for Cuban exiles that used planes to, among other things, help rescue rafters and refugees from their dangerous sea route to Miami. Basulto had a role in anti-Castro organizations within Cuba and was CIA-trained and -backed for a long time before founding his humanitarian organization. Lennon and Aslin interviewed him for Castro’s Spies, and his presence makes for a really interesting counterpoint to the main five men.
Castro’s Spies is a great watch. Rather than serving as a political deep-dive, the film focuses on the humanity of the men involved and the men they targeted. Whether the audience is supposed to support their return to Cuba, well, that’s up to the individual watching the film, having absorbed the information laid out. It’s rare for a feature-length documentary about a relatively current political issue to feel so balanced and so focused on making sure everyone’s motivations are relatable without taking a side on the matter.