Women fly flag for Cuban Five
Sept. 30, 2007
Reprinted from The Sunday Independent (South Africa)
Meet Irma Gonzalez: she's 23 years old, she's Cuban and she's on an unenviable mission - to free the Cuban Five.
Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert, her father, along with Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez Llort were convicted on charges for which it is maintained there is no evidence.
As the five languish in jails in the United States, their families and the Cuban government fight an uphill battle for justice.
Gonzalez has come to South Africa with Adriana Perez, the wife of Gerardo Hernandez, and Magali Llort, the mother of Fernando Gonzalez Llort.
The three men whom they represent were among the Cuban forces who, at the end of 1987 and the beginning of 1988, fought in Cuito Cuanavale, in Angola, alongside the MPLA for 137 days. They succeeded in driving South African Defence Force troops back into Namibia.
Understandably, Southern Africa has a special charge for this visiting group, who are hosted here by the South African leg of the Friends of Cuba Society; Angola and Namibia are included in their itinerary.
Gonzalez has been nominated as spokesperson for her proficiency in English, for her powers of articulation and possibly for her coolness. Her call for solidarity from the "noble people" of the world and an appeal to their "humanity" is anything but cool; her address to a 700-strong gathering of workers at the Cosatu Central Committee meeting in Johannesburg last week was passionate.
She also reminded the people's parliament in the Western Cape of the shocking plight of the five, who are imprisoned because the US believes they pose a threat to "national security". But, in fact, in Gonzalez's words, they were "trying to save Cuba".
The story of the five has become an international talking point. It is marked with what the defence calls "overblown and over-hyperbolic pyrotechnics".
This is how it goes. Following a spate of terrorist bombings on the Cuban tourism industry in the 1990s, Cuba took action. It sent the five to Miami to infiltrate exiled Cuban groups bent on bringing the revolutionary state to its knees.
They sent information back to Cuba, including intelligence that there were plans by the exiled Cubans to bring down a US plane. The Cuban government compiled a dossier for the FBI.
Two weeks later, on September 12 1998, the five were arrested in Florida by FBI agents. The charges related to them acting as unregistered foreign agents and conspiracy to commit espionage in the US. They were thrown into a prison in Miami where they served 18 months in solitary confinement, awaiting trial.
In June 2001 they were convicted of those charges by a federal court in Miami and sentenced in December 2001. They are collectively serving four life sentences and 75 years.
In the trial and in subsequent appeals, the defence has maintained that the five never spied on the US. They had set out to "monitor" and gather intelligence about the actions of CIA-backed groups, including Brothers to the Rescue, Omega 7 and Alpha 66.
These groups and others have claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on the island. Such attacks are estimated by the Cuban government to have claimed more than 3 000 lives in the past 40 years and to have cost the economy $54 million (about R324 million).
In August 2005 a three-judge appellate panel of the 11th circuit court of appeals in Atlanta overturned the convictions and sentences of the trial because of "prosecutorial misconduct" and because the trial was held in Miami.
They said the publicity of the trial was prejudicial to the five. Miami was all strung out in the wake of the Elian Gonzalez fiasco.
In 2000, six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, travelling from Cuba to Miami, survived the capsizing of a boat in which his mother and 10 passengers died. The US Cuban exile community tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from returning to Cuba, where his father was waiting for him.
The second appeal came from the US prosecution. They argued for the original sentencing to be reinstated.
In October 2005 a full panel of the 11th circuit court in Atlanta reinstated the sentences and agreed to review aspects of the original trial.
In August 2006 the court of appeals in Atlanta overturned the decision of the three-judge panel to overturn the sentences, as well as the request for a retrial. They said there was no violence or intimidation in Miami at the time of trial. They ratified the sentences.
In August 2007 the defence as well as the prosecution was given 30 minutes each in an oral hearing at the 11th circuit court of appeals in Atlanta. The focus of the defence was on the right of a country to defend itself and on the excessive sentences.
The prosecution insists that the five had entered the US illegally in order to steal military secrets. The defence says the US government had admitted previously that it did not have sufficient evidence to support the accusations of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
Leonard Weinglass, a defence attorney for the five, said at the time of the arrests that the Pentagon had issued a statement saying that national security was never in danger. At the time, the justice department issued a statement admitting that the five had obtained no secrets.
On the Amy Goodman Show on Democracy Now! last month, Weinglass said that it was the first time in US history that there has been an espionage charge that is, in fact, a charge of conspiracy to commit espionage.
"The government admitted they could not prove espionage. But even conspiracy [could not be proven]; there wasn't a single page of classified documentation involved in this case." The judgment is still pending.
Last month, Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney general, said on the Amy Goodman Show: "If you want to stop terrorism, you don't persecute the people who are trying to prevent terrorism." Talk about shooting the messenger!
Promises of visas for Olga Salanueva, Gonzalez's mother, and for Adriana Perez have notoriously come to nought.
At the time of the five's imprisonment, Gonzalez was 14; her sister Ivette, now nine, was a baby. She and her sister saw their father twice during this time. Salanueva, was less fortunate. Her husband, Sehwerert, a US citizen who had returned with his parents to Cuba "to help the revolution", was sentenced to 15 years.
He turned down an offer by the US of immunity for his family in exchange for information. Salanueva was promptly imprisoned in the US for three months.
On September 12 2007 the US state department informed both Salanueva and Perez that their requests for visas to visit their husbands had been denied - for the eighth time. The US authorities said that both women were linked to alleged espionage activity.
Ricardo Alarcon, the Cuban parliament president, says this is a lie. Salanueva remained legally in the US for two years and two months after her husband's arrest, which occurred in her home and in her presence, he said.
In that time, nothing indicated any connection between her and the charges later presented against her husband, nor was she accused of any federal offence.
Alarcon said that if the US government had any concrete evidence against Perez, it could have acted in July 2002, when she was detained for 11 hours in the Houston, Texas, airport, at which time her visa was revoked and she was prevented from entering US territory and visiting her husband in prison. Perez's husband, Hernandez, was sentenced to double life plus 15 years in 2001.
Like Salanueva, who is an industrial engineer, Perez leads an active life. "I work as a chemical engineer. But, while some of the wives can distract themselves by keeping their families together, I have no children. There was no time for me to have my husband's child. A marriage is not made for separation," she says.
Rosa Aurora Freijanes Coca, the wife of Gonzalez Llort, whose mother, Magali, is with us today, fears that it will soon be too late for her to have children. Her husband was sentenced to 19 years.
The Cuban Five, and the three women who came to South Africa from Havana, put a different slant on the US war on terror.
The women have been forced out of their lives of intimacy and privacy into the public arena to warn of the perils that await those who wish to change the world.
"We hope that people realise that what is being done to the five is irrational; it is a way to hurt the Cuban people. The worst of it is them being in prison without having done anything wrong," says Gonzalez.
"If only someone - maybe the media - could talk to these men, they would understand what has happened to them, to us," says Magali Llort.
But it is not as if the world has been idle. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian Nobel literature laureate, was Castro's emissary on this issue. He went to talk to Bill Clinton in 2001; Clinton was away in body and spirit. Marquez's unsuccessful attempt later to convince Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, who is a fan of his work, about Castro's integrity is recorded with no small amount of arrogance in her memoir, Madam Secretary.
In South Africa, the Nobel laureates came forward. Nadine Gordimer wrote a letter of protest to the New York Times. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate, has lent his name to the campaign to free the five, as have Noam Chomsky, Danny Glover and Alice Walker.
On May 27 2006 the UN working group on arbitrary detention said that the detention of the five was a violation of international norms and demanded a new trial. Also outraged are Amnesty International and the US Society of Lawyers.
Last week in the Western Cape legislature, the ANC's Zodwa Magwaza proposed a motion calling for the immediate release of the five. Kgalema Motlanthe, the ANC secretary-general, expressed solidarity. So did Cosatu and the SACP.
This solidarity sets up a counter argument in the portrayal of the good guys as villains. They are held up as an example; a message in a bottle to the feisty revolutionary island that Richard Nixon condemned as "a cancer" in 1959 when Castro wrested power from the US-friendly Fulgencio Batista regime in 1959.
When Gonzalez says the US-Cuban standoff "reaches back into the past", this recalls the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 - the military confrontation between the US, the Soviet Union and Cuba. It recalls the protests of Cuban refugees against the holding cells into which they had been shunted on arrival in Arkansas in 1980, dissent that dogged then governor Bill Clinton and endorsed his no-tolerance stand towards Castro's countrymen.
Hillary Clinton, the democratic senator and presidential hopeful, advocates a continuation of his policies and this does not bode well.
Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat senator and US presidential candidate, last month called for an end to the economic sanctions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 and 2006, "which mercilessly divide Cuban families".
Obama said he intends to grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island. He wants also to break the 50-year punishment of Cuba and crippling US blockade and to open talks with Havana.
For this, Clinton accused him of irresponsibility. In her autobiography, Living History, she writes that she had to make a point of not talking to Castro at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. Perhaps she did not see Mandela's embrace of Castro or hear that Mandela told Castro: "We owe this day to you."
Clinton, intent as she is on keeping up the political isolation of the past, is obviously looking forward as she shores up support in Florida. Florida, you will recall, was the swing state that decided George Bush's [marginal] victory over John Kerry in 2004.
You don't need a psychology degree to understand this power play. But Gonzalez is studying psychology for another reason.
She says she wants her family "to be whole" when her father returns. In an emotional limbo, the Cuban women who came to South Africa feed on crumbs thrown down by the US government. They hang on to snatched sentences that come down the telephone line.
They measure their quota of the 300 minutes which is the prisoners' monthly allowance and which includes calls to lawyers. They have no option but to carry on fighting.
Last week, they protested at the US embassy in Pretoria, days before Felipe Perez Roque, the Cuban foreign minister, called Bush "a reckless global cop" at the UN general assembly.
It is in this tradition that these women carry on their struggle.
"It forces us to overcome our feelings, which makes us stronger," says Perez. This insight moves her to tears. "Also, seeing that our husbands have not lost their humanity makes us … proud of them."
Now Gonzalez, the brave young woman whose loss of innocence has not brought bitterness, breaks down too, and the interview draws to a natural close amid this sorrow - and amid a display of resilience. Perez continues: "My husband has not lost his optimism and he gives you that support and resistance to keep on fighting, and to dream of the future. Only the future is certain."