MIAMI — They were known as the Cuban Five, members of a spy ring that descended on South Florida in the 1990s and infiltrated exile groups and military installations.
They, along with other members of the ring, tried to make themselves indispensable to the exile groups whose secrets they stole. One of the operatives worked at the Naval Air Station in Key West, while another worked undercover in Tampa.
“They were very good,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, the founder of the Movimiento Democracia, one of the exile organizations that was infiltrated. “When you trust somebody who you honestly believe is struggling for the good of your people, and suddenly you see that person was actually an agent of the oppressor against your struggle, of course you feel betrayed.”
Another operative, who managed to avoid being one of the Cuban Five by fleeing back to Cuba, had even married a local woman from his church.
Once their cover was blown in 1998 and federal agents broke apart the ring, several members pleaded guilty to various charges, but the Cuban Five went to trial instead. They were convicted in 2001 and sentenced to long prison terms.
In Cuba, they were known as the Five Heroes. Their photographs were displayed on billboards throughout the country and their case became a cause célèbre at home. As the years passed and courts in the United States reduced the sentences of some of the men, Cuban officials clamored for their return, arguing that the infiltrations had been necessary to monitor potential terrorist actions planned against Cuba from Florida.
Various activists in the United States and abroad also began advocating their release. After two of the men served their terms and went back to Cuba, those efforts concentrated on the remaining three.
On Wednesday, those men — Gerardo Hernández, 49; Antonio Guerrero, 56, an American citizen; and Ramón Labañino, 51 — were released and flown to Cuba as part of the sweeping and extraordinary shift in the relations between Washington and Havana.
As part of that shift, Alan P. Gross, the American contractor detained in Cuba in December 2009 on accusations of being a spy, also returned home on Wednesday, landing at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.
“I’m free,” he told his two adult daughters in telephone calls from the plane, shortly before speaking with President Obama.
It had been just hours since Mr. Gross, who spent most of the last five years locked in a cramped cell at a military hospital in Havana for at least 23 hours a day, had received word from his lawyer that he was to be released. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Mr. Gross, 65, had said.
Also released on Wednesday, according to a senior American official, was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban who had provided information that helped lead to the breakup of the spy ring and other Cuban espionage operations in the United States. His release was first reported by Newsweek.com.
Multiple news accounts in recent years have identified Mr. Sarraff as a former Cuban intelligence officer who has been in prison in Cuba on espionage charges since 1995. The accounts named him as a possible candidate to be freed if the United States and Cuba were ever to agree to a spy swap.
The news of the Cuban prisoners’ release was most significant in the case of Mr. Hernández, who had been serving two life sentences and was the only one of the group charged with conspiracy to commit murder. American investigators accused him of having previous knowledge of the Castro government’s plans to shoot down two exile organization planes that regularly flew missions near Cuba. The planes were shot down in 1996, killing four anti-Castro volunteers.
“They did not have to give up Gerardo Hernández,” said Maggie Alejandre Khuly, whose brother, Armando Alejandre Jr., was one of the volunteers who was killed. “It’s very poor negotiations when something is stolen from you — Alan Gross — and to regain stolen property, you have to give up more in return. Cuba is getting everything. It doesn’t make sense.”
Richard C. Klugh, a Miami lawyer who represented the five spies, said that two of his clients, Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Guerrero, were suddenly transferred last week.
“Gerardo was moved from an extremely violent, terrible prison to Butner, N.C., so there was some hope that was something going on,” Mr. Klugh said. “Gerardo is the one for whom this is the most emotional. He and his wife were essentially newlyweds and have been separated for 16 years, and it’s extremely emotional.”
Mr. Guerrero, 56, who was born in South Florida and studied engineering in Ukraine, was scheduled to be released in 2017. Mr. Labañino, 51, is a native of Havana who studied economics at the University of Havana. Originally sentenced to life plus 18 years, he was resentenced to 30 years, and was expecting to be released in 2024.
“I just spoke to them on the phone, and you cannot imagine the emotion,” Dimitri Dimis, a member of an international committee dedicated to obtaining the release of the men, said by telephone from Havana. “It’s amazing! We were just at the White House protesting in June. We had another one planned for 2015, and we will happily no longer have to plan any more protests.”
In 2009, Mr. Gross lived in Potomac, Md., and traveled to Cuba on a contract with the United States Agency for International Development for a project to improve Internet access for the Jewish community there. He took with him cellphones, wireless devices, computers and network equipment. On the final night of his fifth visit there that year, Mr. Gross was arrested and told he was being investigated for smuggling contraband.
Graphic | How America’s Relationship With Cuba Will ChangeWhich travel and trade restrictions will be eased or eliminated.
On Wednesday, he called Mr. Obama’s surprise announcement that the United States would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba “a game-changer, which I fully support.”
For Mr. Gross, a New York native who trained as a social worker and then traveled the world as an international development specialist, his release was the end of an ordeal that at times seemed hopeless.
“It’s good to be home,” he said at a news conference in Washington, appearing gaunt but cheerful in khakis and a blue shirt. “It’s the best Hanukkah I’ll be celebrating in a long time.”
In captivity, Mr. Gross lost more than 100 pounds, five teeth and most of the sight in his right eye, as well as some mobility, after being confined to an 8½-by-11-foot cell. He contemplated suicide, telling recent visitors that he would not celebrate his birthday next year in Cuba.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of and referred incorrectly to one of the men freed, a former Cuban intelligence agent imprisoned in Cuba on espionage charges since 1995. He is Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, not Sarraf, and he is Mr. Sarraff, not Mr. Trujillo.
Frances Robles reported from Miami, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from Washington.
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