HAVANA, Cuba — Their solemn faces stare out from government billboards across this island. Posters with their images are plastered on the walls of Cuban workplaces. Schoolchildren are taught to revere them as saints.
For more than a decade the Castro government has waged a relentless campaign on behalf of “The Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence agents serving long sentences in US federal prisons, sent by Havana to infiltrate anti-Castro groups in Miami only to get busted by US authorities.
“Libertad para los Cinco! (Freedom for the Five!)” and “Volveran (They Will Return!”) have been battle cries at Cuban government rallies ever since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
Which is why it now seems strange that there has been no hero’s welcome, no marching bands or parade — not even a photographed embrace with Fidel Castro — even though the first of the Five, Rene Gonzalez, has been back on the island since Friday, after serving 13 years in US prisons.
“Rene in Cuba” was the headline Friday of a brief announcement in the Communist party newspaper, Granma, informing readers that Gonzalez had already landed on the island “for a private family visit.”
Coming after the extensive coverage and pageantry of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, it almost seemed like a snub.
Read more: Pope brings heavy dose of religion to Cuba
Instead, it was an imperfect homecoming to an imperfect legal saga, made still messier by complex political maneuverings among Havana, Washington and Miami.
Because while Gonzalez is back in Cuba now, he can’t stay. Over the objections of the Obama administration, US federal Judge Joan Lenard granted him a two-week furlough to visit his dying brother, who is suffering from lung cancer. When the time period is up, Gonzalez must return to Florida to serve out the rest of his three-year probation period.
Gonzalez, 55, was arrested in 1998 along with the other members of the Cuban Five: Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez.
The Cuban government insisted they were sent to protect the island from terrorist attacks by militant exiles. A Miami court convicted them of attempting to infiltrate US military installments, and ringleader Gerardo Hernandez was implicated in the shoot-down of two civilian jets over the Florida Straits by the Cuban Air Force in 1996.
Hernandez is serving a life sentence, but the other three will eventually be eligible for parole.
Attorneys for the US Justice Department argued against allowing Gonzalez to go back to Cuba, saying he could get new espionage instructions from his handlers in Havana. But there was little question as to whether he’d fulfill the terms of his parole, with four of his comrades still behind bars in American prisons.
Granma’s statement Friday said as much.
“In the request submitted to the court by his lawyer, Rene indicated that he will abide by the conditions established for the visit and will return to the United States,” the announcement read.
“Despite the conditions imposed, the Cuban people, with deep respect, welcome our beloved Rene to the homeland and reiterate that we will not waver in the struggle for his, and his four brothers’, definitive return,” it said.
One possible reason for the Cuban government’s subdued reception for Gonzalez is that he may have requested a low-key homecoming, in order to spend time with family, or to avoid provoking the anti-Castro exile groups in Miami that denounced Judge Lenard’s leniency.
More from GlobalPost: The Argentine economy’s fuzzy math problem
But there is another potential factor: Alan Philip Gross, the US subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence here, has requested similar reprieve to visit his mother — who is also dying of lung cancer.
Any celebration of Gonzalez’s return to Cuba would draw attention to the Cuban government’s refusal to reciprocate the gesture for Gross.
Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in December 2009 and convicted of trying to undermine the “integrity of the Cuban state” for attempting to set up communication networks on the island that were outside the government’s control. The US government insists Gross was trying to improve internet access for the island’s small Jewish community.
In a March 7 letter to President Raul Castro, Peter J. Kahn, Gross’ US lawyer, said the health of the American prisoner’s mother had taken a turn for the worse, asking Castro for a humanitarian gesture.
“As you can imagine, Alan and she are tortured daily by the fact that they may never see each other again, and her final wish is to be able to see her son once more before her battle with cancer is lost,’’ Kahn wrote.
Judy Gross, the wife of the jailed American, echoed Kahn’s request with a statement: “I fully appreciate Rene Gonzalez’s need to visit a dying family member,” she said. “We need to remember that these are real people and real lives that are profoundly affected by these decisions.”
Cuba has indicated it wants to work out a prisoner swap involving Gross and the Cuban Five, but US authorities have dismissed such a deal. Washington bristles at comparisons between the two cases while accusing Havana of holding Gross as a “hostage.”
Cuban authorities may see little incentive for Gross to return to Cuba and complete his sentence if they grant him a temporary leave. Since Gonzalez has four companions still behind bars, any parole violation would surely hurt their chances of receiving leniency in the future.
But Gross is not a US government employee, and there would be little Washington could do to compel him to return to the island once he arrived on US soil.