June 26, 2020

Movie Review: Wasp Network (Netflix - 2019)

Penelope Cruz and the movie poster

The Wasp Network (known in Spanish as La Red Avispa), released by Netflix in the United States last week, depicts a fairly successful Cuban intelligence operation conducted in the Miami area in the 1990s. The effort was focused on collecting intelligence on Cuban exile groups who were planning and conducting operations against the Castro regime. 

Many of us remember the 1996 shoot down of two Cessna 337 Skymaster aircraft belonging to an exile group named the Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate). The group conducted surveillance flights over the waters between Cuba and Florida, providing humanitarian assistance to people fleeing Cuba by sea. Cuba claims that the aircraft at times violated Cuban airspace (with some validity) to drop anti-Castro leaflets over cities on the island. 

The Cuban Air Force was directed to intercept and shoot down the group’s aircraft if they violated Cuban airspace again. The Castro-approved mission was codenamed Operation Scorpion. The intelligence needed to execute the operation – dates, times, and locations of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft – was to be provided by the Wasp Network. 

It was. On February 24, 1996, a Cuban Air Force MiG-29 (NATO: Fulcrum) successfully intercepted and shot down two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international airspace. Despite Cuban claims to the contrary, it was later proven that the aircraft were truly in international airspace. If you are familiar with Soviet/Russian aircraft, you will note that the jets used in the movie were in fact MiG-21 (NATO: Fishbed) fighters – one unarmed. Okay, it’s a movie – we get the idea: jet fighter shoots down unarmed civilian planes. 

Over the years of its existence, the network provided a steady stream of intelligence to Cuban intelligence. They continued to operate until the network was rolled up (that’s the vernacular in the intelligence business) in 1998. 

I will not reveal any more about the movie so as not to spoil it. However, I will offer some comments on the production itself. 

It is very well acted – the cast includes known and talented actors. I like the performances of Édgar Ramírez as René González, Gael García Bernal as Gerardo Hernández/Manuel Viramontez, and of course, Penélope Cruz as René’s wife Olga (and for just being Penélope Cruz). 

This is the story of an intelligence operation, yet there was virtually no tradecraft presented. We caught only glimpses of the training of Gerardo Hernández and his mastery of his legend. The reference to shortwave radio communications between Hernández and his superiors in Havana could have been explored. 

The covert communications system, using numbers stations, is fascinating. Read more about numbers stations – read the link to the Cuban Five – they were part of this network. Note the entry of a transmission from Havana to Hernández that “under no circumstances” were network members to fly on Brothers to the Rescue aircraft on February 24 (day of the shoot down). 

The Cubans have been running intelligence operations in the United States for decades – this is their primary method of communications. (We used to use it as well – virtually all intelligence services did. Why? It works.) 

So how did the group get caught – the 10 remaining in the United States? At least one other member had already re-“defected” back to Cuba and admitted his role in the operation. Another had been arrested for an ill-advised bombing campaign against several hotels in Havana – he remains in a Cuban prison. It was Cuba’s reaction to this bombing operation that led to the exposure of the Wasp Network. 

The Cuban government provided hundreds of pages of evidence about the bombings and the bombers, hoping that the FBI would use the materials to arrest the perpetrators. Much to my satisfaction, they instead used to the materials to determine how the Cubans had obtained the evidence, their sources and methods – which turned out to be the Wasp Network. Good work – that would have been a nice addition to the movie. 

There is so much that happened during the existence of the Wasp Network. It could have made a six hour miniseries. In this format, too much is missing. 

I would recommend it for those interested in intelligence operations, Cuban exile groups, or simply to enjoy the excellent performances of Édgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal, and of course, Penélope Cruz. Otherwise, it can be a bit tedious and convoluted. 

Watch the trailer (YouTube) here.  Watch the movie (Netflix) here