“I am confident that the truth will win out someday, and justice will be done, but even if that is not the case, rest assured that I will always feel the same way. When you have a cause to fight for, a people to defend, a family that supports you, and a person you love, and who loves you back; when you know you can’t let them down, you can face up to anything, no matter how difficult it is, with all the serenity and dignity in the world.”
-Gerardo Hernandez, serving two life sentences plus 15 years as one of the Cuban Five, from a letter to his wife two days after sentencing in December, 2001
I don’t remember when I first heard of the Cuban Five. I know I read about them in the newspapers when they were convicted of espionage about a year and a half ago in a Miami, Fl. courtroom. And since then I’ve seen various emails and articles written by U.S. progressives about this latest injustice perpetrated by our “criminal justice system.” I’ve read enough to know that these were trumped-up, political charges having nothing to do with espionage but, instead, another in a long line of attacks on the Cuban people’s right to have a government of their own choosing.
About a month ago the Cuban Five were mentioned again in the newspapers, this time in connection with seemingly repressive actions taken by the Cuban government against hijackers of a ferryboat and those given the name of “dissidents” by the powers-that-be in the U.S. The conjecture made in the newspaper articles was that the Cuban government might have rounded up and quickly tried and sentenced 75 “dissidents” in the hope of using them as bargaining chips to gain the release of the Cuban Five.
I was deeply concerned by the execution of the three ferryboat hijackers. I also felt that, first, the number of people arrested and tried, and second, the sentences of from six to 28 years, were excessive. And I was concerned because the newspapers said that the trials were closed to foreign journalists, with the impression being given that the trials were essentially closed to the public.
Several weeks later, following research and after reading many statements and points of view on this subject from progressives that came my way via email, I feel much more sure about where I stand, how I see this set of issues.
It is clear that these actions by the Cuban government did not come from out of nowhere. There were a series of provocations by the U.S. government specifically directed against Cuba at a time of great political tension internationally because of the aggressive and militaristic U.S. war build-up. The specific chronology of events, as delineated by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque at a press conference on April 9:
-On February 24th James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, convened a meeting with Cuban “dissidents,” most if not all of them on the U.S. payroll, and makes statements “aimed at provoking the Cuban government and people.” Since coming to Cuba last fall Cason has traveled around the island meeting and playing an organizing role for the pro-U.S. “dissidents.”
-February 28th: The Cuban Five being held in federal prisons around the U.S. are all put into solitary confinement with, apparently, no word as to how long they will stay there.
-March 7th: The U.S. State Department confirms that the Five had been in “punishment cells” for nine days.
-March 12th: Two days after being sent a diplomatic note asking him “to cease his openly provocative actions. . . Mr. Cason organized a new conspiratorial meeting in his own residence.”
-March 14th: Another meeting is organized by Cason, this one lasting all day.
-March 18-19: The Cuban government arrests 65 of the “dissidents.” The Cubans describe them as “mercenaries” because of the money they take from the U.S. government. According to the Cuban government, “the arrests took place as a result of the unbearable situation we had been placed in by Mr. Cason’s provocations and irresponsible behavior.”
-March 19th: A Cuban DC-3 is hijacked to Florida, and “news is leaked to the press that the authorities [in Florida] were willing to grant the hijackers bail.”
-March 31st: Another hijacking, this one of an AN-24.
-April 2nd: The ferry was hijacked. According to the Cuban government, the U.S. government, in violation of usual U.S. procedures and immigration agreements between the two countries, “said that they were not willing to act in this case as they had always done and so we took action and solved the problem.”
-April 3-7: The trials of the now-75 “dissidents” take place. The trials are open to the public; “on average about 100 people per trial attended the hearings. . . mostly family members, witnesses and expert witnesses. . . The courts decided that they would not be open to the press.”
There is one other piece of information essential to putting Cuba’s actions within their specific context.
There is an immigration agreement between the U.S. and Cuba. Under it both countries agreed that at least 20,000 Cubans could legally emigrate to the United States every year.
The agreement year begins on October 1. Between 1999 and 2002, the number of visas given by the U.S. after the first five months of the agreement year, up until March 1, was 11,600, 10,860, 8,300 and, in 2002, 7,237.
As of March 1, 2003 a grand total of 505 visas had been granted.
Clearly, there has been a conscious decision by the Bush Administration to slow to a trickle the emigration process. This is exactly what the right-wing Cubans in Florida want. They want to provoke an immigration crisis, destabilize Cuba and “create an incident between Cuba and the United States, [hoping to get] the United States to use aggression against Cuba.” And all of these developments took place during a period when the Bush Administration was engaged in a military build-up in the Gulf that then led to the Iraq invasion. At the same time the Bushites were loudly proclaiming their right to militarily intervene anywhere in the world as part of their “war on terrorism.” Cuba is one of the countries on the U.S.’s terrorist list.
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In this context, the actions taken by the Cuban government are understandable. This is not to say they are laudable. I continue to be disturbed by the use of the death penalty in particular. Why couldn’t a message have been sent to other potential hijackers by sentencing the April 2 hijackers to life in prison? And why so many “dissidents” rounded up? Why not just the leaders?
I believe that the Cuban government should seriously consider reducing at least some of the sentences on the 75. I believe that this willingness to take into account the critical reaction they have received from many supporters around the world would help to repair some of the political damage that has been done.
For those of us in the United States, what should we be doing?
Obviously, as indicated by the paragraph above, I think we should be open about our criticisms. But we have other responsibilities.
We need to get out the truth, the whole story about what led up to the executions and the trials.
A part of that truth is the story of the Cuban Five, five men who were unjustly convicted in a Miami courtroom, five Cuban patriots and heroes.
When were these five arrested and charged with espionage? According to Leonard Weinglass, speaking at a National Lawyers Guild conference last October, it happened in 1998 when the United States, responding to Cuban urgings, finally “sent the number two man in the FBI together with a delegation to Havana. They sat down with their Cuban counterparts, and they were given four large, loose-leaf volumes of information, each volume over three hundred pages in length. They were given two hours and forty minutes of videotapes and eight cassettes of audiotapes that had been compiled on the terrorist network [of right-wing Cubans] that existed and was operating out of Miami [and which had carried out armed infiltration and bombings throughout the ‘90s.] The FBI delegation thanked them for the information and told them they would get back to them in two weeks. . . Instead, within 90 days, they had rounded up a group of people in southern Florida. . . who were gathering this information on the criminal activities on these groups in southern Florida, and they charged them with espionage in the United States for their work.”
So much for a “war on terrorism.”
The United States has been conducting a low-intensity war against Cuba for 44 years. Going against the opinion of virtually the entire world, Israel excepted, it keeps in place a destructive economic embargo. There have been scores of attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro, numerous acts of economic sabotage, the blowing up of Cuban civilian airliners, bombings of tourist hotels, violations of Cuban airspace, lies and more lies, and the financing of anti-government activism.
Despite this, and despite the economic devastation created when the USSR collapsed, Cuba continues to survive as a struggling model of an alternative. By no means a perfect society, it has far and away a higher standard of living than any other country south of the Mexican border, as well as universal literacy, a first-class health care system and many other positive attributes.
Cuba is a country in need of defense—critical, but respectful defense–by all people who value justice and human dignity, especially by those of us in the belly of the beast which has caused so much hardship for Cubans and people all over the world.