Imagine you could turn back the clock to before 9/11, I suggest to American audiences when I read from my most recent book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.
What if the United States had had its own intelligence agents inside Al Qaeda? What if those agents had uncovered the plot to attack the U.S.? What if, as a result, 9/11 hadn’t happened?
How would Americans feel about those agents? They’d be heroes.
But if they’d been successful, of course, most Americans would never have heard of them. That’s the nature of the clandestine intelligence world.
So let’s throw a wrench into this alternate history scenario, I say. Imagine U.S. authorities had informed Afghan officials what its agents had discovered. And the Afghan government had turned around and arrested… not the terrorists who’d been plotting the attacks but the American agents trying to stop them?
Americans would, understandably, be outraged. And their government would move heaven and Afghanistan to get their agents back.
Which is why, I then say, Americans should also understand why Cubans will not rest until every last member of their “Cuban Five” is home again with their families.
The capsule version: During the 1990s, the Cuban government dispatched a network of intelligence agents to south Florida to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups plotting terrorist attacks against Cuba. In 1997, those exile terrorists set off explosives at more than a dozen tourist hotels in Havana, killing a Canadian.
In early 1998, the Cuban agents uncovered a significantly more sinister plan: blow up an airplane filled with beach-bound tourists. The Cuban government, concerned it couldn’t stop that plot itself, shared the information its agents had gathered with the FBI.
The FBI arrested… not the terrorists but the Cuban agents.
In 2001, not long after 9/11, the Cubans were all sentenced to long terms in American prisons. Three of the five, who are national heroes in Cuba, are still in jail, including one serving a double-life plus 15-year sentence.
As I was researching the book, I remember being struck by just how hypocritical we all are — as individuals, as businesses, as governments — and how different our perspectives would be if we occasionally stood our version of reality on its head and attempted to see the world as the “other” sees it.
Consider Ukraine. The dominant western media version is that a popular revolution this spring toppled a corrupt, pro-Russian regime. But that corrupt “regime” was actually elected in 2010 with 48 per cent of the vote (a significantly higher percentage than Stephen Harper’s Tories got in 2011), and the “popular” revolution involved a violent coup.
When the traditionally pro-Russian Crimea in eastern Ukraine then voted 96.77 per cent to break away and join the Russian federation, western powers denounced the referendum as Moscow-rigged. But rather than propose a fairer vote to determine the actual wishes of the Crimeans, the West simply supports the Ukraine military’s violent suppression of its separatists.
In mid-July, when the rebel forces apparently misfired a rocket, blowing a Malaysian civilian plane out of the air and killing 298 innocents, Harper cabinet minister Chris Alexander was quick to the microphones to denounce this “brutal act of terror against perfectly innocent civilians.”
But if shooting down that passenger plane — which was almost certainly tragically mistaken for a military target — could be described as a terrorist act, how would you characterize the killing of 1,500 innocent civilians in Gaza during this summer’s more than 5,000 “targeted” Israeli air strikes?
Speaking of Israel, how do we describe the 1,100 foreigners who travelled there from their own homelands to join the Israeli Defence Force to fight and sometimes die for a country and a cause that is not theirs? We have no problem knowing what to call young Arab men who travel to Islamic countries to sign up with foreign fighting forces. We now arrest them for even thinking about it. But how different really are they and their motivations?
I’m not suggesting one view is right, the other wrong, only that the world — including the business world — is far more complex, nuanced and grey than we usually acknowledge. Seeing those hues occasionally might help us see our world more clearly.
This article was first published in Atlantic Business Magazine.
Photo: Jimmy Álvarez/flickr