HAVANA A Cuban intelligence agent who spent nearly 23 years in the U.S., 13 of them in prison, said Monday that he does not "have a grudge against the United States as a country" and is just glad to be reunited with his family.
Rene Gonzalez spoke with CBS News just an hour after emerging from the American Interests Section in Havana where, accompanied by his American lawyer, he filled out forms to renounce his U.S. citizenship as a condition for remaining in Cuba permanently. After his arrest in 1998, Gonzalez' wife Olga was expelled from the U.S., also accused of being a spy and not allowed back in to visit him.
Now Gonzalez faces other challenges. Some, like getting used to sharing his bed with his "wife and dog," he sees as easy. The 56-year old whose parents brought him from the U.S. to Cuba when he was four years old began his career as a spy by posing as a defector. He flew an allegedly stolen crop duster to Florida in 1990 just as the island entered an economic crisis brought about by the collapse of its patrons - the former Soviet Union and eastern European communist bloc countries.
The Cuba he returns to is very different. Fidel Castro is no longer president. Raul Castro is serving what he has declared to be his last five-year term as the top leader. The paternalistic state that once provided cradle-to-grave protection for all citizens is now telling the population that they have to earn their own way. The government, hoping to reduce its burdensome payrolls, is encouraging the formation of a still-limited private sector. And although it's to be expected that the government he went to prison for will look out for him, Gonzalez expects to get a job.
"One of our main occupations in prison [was] trying to be connected to the Cuban reality," he said.
He had lots of time during his probation to follow the reforms in Cuba on the Internet and voices belief in the need to make these changes.
"It's a delicate moment. We have to take some risks," he said. "But at the same time I believe it's a decisive moment for the Cuban Revolution, for the socialism that we need and of course I have to try to learn more because I can't come here from there and say that I'm 100 percent in touch with the Cuba that has changed so much but I'm willing to learn, to listen, to watch and to join the new society."
Unrepentant if modest about the role he has played for more than two decades, Gonzalez expressed determination not to regret giving up his U.S. citizenship.
"It was a conscious decision. It wasn't that emotional. I've been preparing for this for maybe two years," said Gonzalez.
"We tried to do this even before I left the prison," he said, accusing prosecutors of turning down his prior requests so as "to punish me a little bit more."
The U.S. District judge in charge of his case ruled last week that he could remain on the island if he renounced his U.S. citizenship. It's a procedure that must take place at a U.S. diplomatic office in a foreign country. Gonzalez took advantage of the judge's permission to attend his father's funeral here to complete the paperwork.
"I'm not happy about it," said Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago, referring to being forced to choose between his U.S. citizenship and returning to live in Cuba. "But it's a no brainer when you have a family that you want to be together with".
Gonzalez is one of five Cuban agents convicted in 2001 of spying on U.S. military installations and Cuban exile groups. Reviled in Miami where their trial was held, the five are honored as heroes and anti-terrorists in Cuba where their faces are visible on posters in streets, offices, schools and hotels across the island.
One of his four co-defendants, Fernando Gonzalez, is scheduled for release from an Arizona prison next February. Another, Antonio Guerrero, is not due for release from a Florida prison until 2017. The remaining two are serving much longer prison terms - one a double life sentence.
The wives and mothers of the five men have played a prominent role in an international campaign dubbed "Free the Cuban Five."
"My wife set a high standard. I hope I can live up to it," said Gonzalez as he described his intention to join the fight for freedom for the remaining four members of the so-called Five.
Asked if he felt that he abandoned them by leaving the U.S., Gonzalez declared, "On the contrary, I believe my return gives them hope."
Describing himself as "a Cuban patriot" and expressing no regret for his role as a foreign agent in the U.S., Gonzalez said the other four men are happy for him. "I believe that here I can do more for them. We are brothers. We think the same."
Upon release from prison a year and a half ago, Gonzalez was ordered to serve three years supervised probation in Florida.
"My probation was something irrational. I'm the only guy in the world whose probation was defined not only by the law but by the threat of violence from terrorist groups," he told CBS. Gonzalez describes his probation as living a clandestine life out of fear of retaliation from the anti-Castro groups he spied upon. Havana blames these groups for a rash of hotel and restaurant bombings in Cuba in the 1990s.
One of the things the former pilot and flight instructor says he will miss in the United States are the friends - like the man who offered him shelter during that time, even if it meant living under what he described as "a self-imposed house arrest" and having to work as a caretaker. To protect his whereabouts, Gonzalez says, he could not "even get a driver's license".
There are indications that Cuba would like to trade Alan Gross, an American sub-contractor serving a 15-year sentence in Havana for smuggling illegal communications equipment into the island, as part of a regime-change program for the remaining four Cuban agents. So far, the U.S. has rejected any such exchange, claiming Gross is unjustly imprisoned.
Asked about Gross, Gonzalez said, "I don't want to be tough on the family or anybody. I believe they don't go anywhere by claiming innocence and at the same time suing the U.S. government. I believe that [the lawsuit] has damaged them in front of U.S. opinion."
Speaking about comments on the Internet following a televised interview with Alan Gross' wife Judy, Gonzalez said, "I saw with sadness that the reaction was kind of cold. They didn't connect with her. It would be better for them to admit what he did you know and try to look for a humanitarian solution. It's on the table so that would be my advice for them. I don't have anything against Mr. Gross. I wish him well."