efe-epaHavana

Gerardo Hernandez looks at his watch and says: "20 years ago, at this precise moment, we were being interrogated in an FBI detention room."

The 1998 arrest of Hernandez and four other Cuban intelligence officers in the United States deepened the rift between the two countries that only started to subside in 2014, with the thaw in relations between Washington and Havana.

"We were asked to betray our principles, our ideas, and that we work for the other side. But what we did for a living we did not do it on a whim nor for adventure. We were protecting our people," Hernandez told EFE on Wednesday.

When someone mentions "the Five" in Cuba, everybody knows that the person is referring to the men captured in the US on Sept. 12, 1998, and later convicted and imprisoned.

Cuba has insisted that the only goal of its intelligence network was to prevent terrorist attacks planed by Cuban exiles against the island and its government.

Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez and Antonio Guerrero became the "five heroes" and the focus of a struggle headed by the late Fidel Castro to release them.

Two were eventually released after they completed their sentences, while the other three were pardoned in 2014 by the Obama administration as part of the negotiations to normalize relations between the two countries.

That deal also included Cuba's release of US State Department subcontractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years behind bars for subversive activities on the island, and of a Cuban-born US spy who spent nearly 20 years in a Cuban prison.

On Wednesday, four of the Cuban Five attended a moving event in Havana to mark the 20th anniversary of their arrest.

The guests of honor listened to songs written to commemorate their lives and watched a video about what became an international campaign to ensure their release.

Now, nearly four years after returning to Cuba, their lives have drastically changed: two are members of parliament since April and nearly all of them have official posts.

Hernandez is vice-chancellor of Cuba's foreign service academy, Fernando Gonzalez heads the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, Labañino is vice president of the Cuban Association of Economists, Rene Gonzalez is vice president of the Jose Marti Cultural Society, and Guerrero is a top official in the Ministry of Construction.

"The most important point is that we all continue to be soldiers. Soldiers of this revolution, soldiers of Fidel, soldiers of (Cuban President) Diaz-Canel and of our larger homeland that is Latin America," Labañino said.