By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban agent who served 13 years behind bars in the United States for his role in an espionage ring began the process of renouncing his U.S. citizenship on Monday so he can stay in Cuba in a case that has long plagued U.S.-Cuba relations.
Rene Gonzalez, who was born in Chicago and held dual U.S.-Cuba citizenship, told reporters after emerging from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that he had filled out forms and answered questions, and that the process was not yet complete.
He will still have to formally renounce his citizenship before officials at the U.S. diplomatic post and then await approval, which he said should happen before May 16.
"I feel happy to be in Cuba, to be with my family and incorporate myself to the society I belong to," he said as bystanders in the streets and on apartment balconies above applauded and called his name.
When he first arrived at the U.S. diplomatic post in a black government car, Gonzalez waved to the three dozen or so onlookers and clasped his hands above his head in victory. He was dressed informally in a short-sleeve blue plaid shirt and black pants.
Gonzalez was one of five men convicted in a controversial 2001 trial of conspiring to spy on Cuban exile groups and U.S. military activities in Florida as part of an espionage ring called the "Wasp Network."
He was the first of what Cuba calls the "Five Heroes" to complete his sentence and return to the communist-led island.
The 56-year-old Gonzalez, who has a wife and two children in Havana, left prison in October 2011 and has been serving a three-year probation in Florida. He returned to the communist-led island temporarily on April 22 to attend a memorial service for his deceased father.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard had granted the visit a few weeks ago on condition that he return to Florida within two weeks. But on Friday, in ruling on a motion by his lawyer, she said he could stay in Cuba for good if he renounced his U.S. citizenship.
By doing so, he foreswears the right to return to the United States, where he spent the first few years of his life.
NO OBJECTION FROM U.S.
In a reversal of its previous position that Gonzalez had to complete his full three years probation, the U.S. government did not object.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, speaking to reporters on Monday during a visit to Brazil, gave no indication that the resolution of the case would effect the status of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence in Havana for illegally installing Internet service for Cuban Jewish groups.
Some had hoped it might help Gross get more lenient treatment, but Rodriguez said Gonzalez had served his sentence, while Gross, jailed since December 2009, has not.
"It's a case of application of the law. I see no relation therefore between the two cases," he said in Brasilia.
Cuba has hinted at a possible swap of the "Cuban Five" for Gross, but the United States has rejected the idea.
Rodriguez, repeating what the government has disclosed before, said Cuba has told Washington it is open to talks to find a humanitarian solution to the cases of Gross and the four Cubans.
The Cuban Five case is little known outside the Cuban exile community in the United States, but the Cuban government has made their release a national cause, plastering the country with pictures of the men, with the word "Volveran" - they will return - beneath their images.
Cuba says the agents were unjustly convicted and excessively punished because they were only collecting information on Cuban exile groups planning actions against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
The trial was held in Miami, center of the exile community and hotbed of opposition to the Cuban government, particularly former leader Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro.
One of Gonzalez's co-defendants is serving a double life sentence for his part in the shooting down of two U.S. planes in 1996 flown by an exile group that dropped anti-government leaflets over Havana. The other three are serving out sentences that range from 18 years to 30 years.
"One has to continue fighting to get them out of jail. It's an injustice, it's a crime that they are prisoners," Gonzalez said.
"We need them in Cuba," he said.
(Reporting By Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana; Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Philip Barbara)