Trial and terror

Published : Nov 18, 2011 00:00 IST

The Cuban Five, a file picture. (From left) Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Gerardo Hernandez. - LEO RAMIREZ/AFP

The Cuban Five, a file picture. (From left) Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Gerardo Hernandez. - LEO RAMIREZ/AFP

Cuba wants the 50-year-old U.S. economic blockade to be lifted, but its immediate priority is securing the release of the Cuban Five.

THERE were misplaced expectations in the international community that the discredited American policy towards Cuba would change after Barack Obama took over the presidency from George W. Bush. However, though the Obama administration has introduced a few changes, most of them cosmetic, it has kept the punitive economic blockade on the island intact. Washington has allowed terrorists responsible for the killing of innocent civilians to roam free on American soil while incarcerating innocent Cubans who exposed terror plans being hatched in Miami. The international community has repeatedly condemned the unjust five-decades-old economic embargo on Cuba. Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno told the United Nations recently that the embargo had caused losses worth more than $975 billion since it came into force in 1962. The United States sanctions all international companies doing business with Cuba.

The figure does not count the physical, emotional and social costs of the blockade to the Cuban people for almost half a century, which has no previous records in the history of any nation under siege, Moreno told the U.N. General Assembly in a recent speech. As an illustration of the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions, he gave the example of the Dutch bank ABN-AMRO, which was fined $500 million for having financial dealings with companies doing business with Cuba. In the annual vote taken last year in the General Assembly on the issue, 187 countries voted in favour of an immediate lifting of the blockade: only Israel supported the U.S. The blockade is a unilateral and immoral policy, increasingly rejected by the people of the United States and the international community, the Cuban Minister said.

The Cuban government and people want the blockade to be lifted at the earliest, but their immediate focus these days is to ensure the release of Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzales, known internationally as the Cuban Five. Their case has been a cause celebre worldwide. International solidarity committees demanding freedom for the Five have sprung up all over the world, including India. Within the U.S. itself, there have been growing and vociferous demands to free the five Cubans who were jailed in September 1998 and then convicted in 2001 by a Florida court on the spurious charge of spying on U.S. military facilities. They were given excessively long sentences, put in separate jails in different parts of the country with periods of solitary confinement, and routinely denied visits by their family members, who are residing in Cuba.

International civil rights groups such as Amnesty International have called into question the fairness and impartiality of the trial. A U.N. Working Group reviewing the case came to the conclusion that the trial was not conducted in an atmosphere of objectivity and impartiality. The U.N. report also stated that the Cuban Five were wrongfully held in solitary confinement for 17 months after their arrest and that their lawyers were deprived of the opportunity to examine all the available evidence before the U.S. government invoked the Classified Information Protection Act.

Rene Gonzales was freed in early October after 13 years in prison. But this did not translate into freedom for him. A judge has ordered him to serve an additional three years of probation in the U.S. before he can return to his home and family in Cuba. He will be forced to live in Miami, which is home to fanatical and violent right-wing Cuban exiles. The Cuban government has angrily reacted to this latest legal shenanigan by the Obama administration. Havana has warned that Washington will be responsible for the consequences if Rene is harmed in any way.

The judge who gave the latest ruling added a caveat prohibiting Rene from visiting places where individuals or groups such as terrorists are known to frequent. This, according to Cuban officials, is a tacit acknowledgement that the U.S. government knows about the presence of terrorists on its territory. The two killers of the former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Lettelier were let out of a U.S. prison after having served only seven years. Lettelier and his secretary were murdered on a busy Washington thoroughfare by agents of Augusto Pinochet in September 1976, a few years after the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile.

It was well known that the job assigned to the Cuban Five by the authorities in Havana was only to monitor the activities of the right-wing anti-Cuba terror groups operating with virtual impunity from U.S. territory. Terror activities against Cuba from American soil had markedly increased in the 1990s, with hotels frequented by foreign tourists in Havana being targeted. President Raul Castro revealed last year that 5,577 Cubans had either died or had been left permanently disabled as a result of terrorist acts in the past 50 years. Mercedes Lopez Acea, a Polit Bureau member of the Cuban Communist Party, said in a recent speech that the acts of terrorism against Cuba had been perpetrated with the sponsorship, complicity and direct participation of the U.S. authorities. She emphasised on the historical truth that Cuba had suffered the most from the scourge of terrorism that originated from the U.S.

U.S.-sponsored terrorism started with Operation Mongoose in 1962 under the auspices of the Kennedy administration. In all, 5,700 acts of terrorism have been committed against Cuba since then. According to the Cuban government, 700 of these were directed against industrial installations. Fidel Castro, writing in the third week of October, reinforced this point: Assassination plans on the leaders of the Revolution were innumerable, in fact their gross actions did not limit themselves to that. Viruses and bacteria were introduced into our country to sabotage the production of plants and animals; even worse diseases and viruses that did not exist in the hemisphere were introduced against the population.

Luis Posada Carriles, the notorious terrorist responsible for placing the bomb that killed 76 people on a Cuban passenger plane in 1976, became active again at the time the Cuban Five were in the U.S. In 2000, he was involved in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro when the Cuban leader was attending a regional summit in Panama. Carriles was released from a jail in Panama in 2004 under a presidential pardon. Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned Carriles just before demitting office. The governments of Cuba and Venezuela had put Posada on their most wanted lists. In the mid-1990s, Posada escaped from a Venezuelan jail in which he had been held for eight years in connection with the blowing up of the Cuban aeroplane. In 2005, Posada turned up in the U.S., where he spent a short time in jail.

The Obama administration has not bothered either to try him on terrorism charges or to prosecute him for the bombings of hotels in Cuba. Posada had confessed to a New York Times journalist that he had planned and financed many of the hotel bombings. The Venezuelan government had asked for his extradition, but that plea was also ignored on specious judicial grounds. Ricardo Alarcon, the Speaker of Cuba's National Assembly, called the Posada trial a stupid and shameful farce. The Cuban Foreign Ministry described the trial, which concluded earlier in the year, as an emblematic case of the U.S.' double standards in the international fight against terrorism. In the last days of the presidency of George Bush Senior, Orlando Bosch Avila, who had masterminded many acts of terrorism against civilian targets in Cuba in cahoots with Posada, was also granted an executive pardon.

Successive U.S. administrations have either actively supported or turned a blind eye to the activities of the Cuban terror groups on U.S. soil despite the government in Havana cooperating with Washington on broad counterterrorism issues. In 2005, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) delegation visiting Havana was given voluminous documents detailing the activities of anti-Cuban terror groups in the U.S. and Central America. Not a single individual named in the dossiers was arrested. Instead, the Bush administration turned its wrath on the Cuban Five, who had provided much of the information to the Cuban government on the terror groups and their network.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has continued with its subversive activities inside Cuba. The USAID's Cuba programme had risen to $250 million a year under Bush, and was funnelled through Cuban dissident groups. After it was revealed that much of the money was squandered to supply groups inside Cuba with expensive luxury goods and the rest siphoned off through corrupt practices, the Obama administration adopted a more stealthy approach by subcontracting the job of destabilising Cuba to non-governmental organisations and contractors. A contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 after being caught supplying laptop computers to dissident groups on the island. Gross had travelled to Cuba on a tourist visa despite working as an independent business and development consultant for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a company working for the U.S. government. The DAI had received USAID money for democracy development in Cuba. Organisations such as the DAI have been hired because of their willingness to run covert operations inside Cuba by subcontracting work to individuals like Gross.

In March this year, Gross was sentenced by a Cuban court for 15 years for crimes against the state. Now the Obama administration wants to trade Rene for Gross. It despatched Bill Richardson, the former Governor of New Mexico, to Havana in September to plead for the release of Gross. Havana rejected the move. Cuban officials pointed out that Rene had already served most of his sentence. Gross has been in prison for less than two years for a crime he committed, whereas the Cuban Five have been unjustly incarcerated for many years.

According to reports in the American media, the Cuban government is prepared to pardon Gross provided all the Cuban Five are released. U.S. officials have said that they would not consider pardoning the remaining four Cubans still serving time in U.S. jails.

During his visit to Havana, Richardson carried vague promises from the Obama administration about removing Cuba from the State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism and reducing the funding of its clandestine destabilisation programmes. The Obama administration had probably expected that Cuba would jump to the bait. Richardson had even kept a plane waiting to whisk away Gross.

Rene, speaking to the Cuban people after stepping out of prison, said that only one avenue of abuse, which I have been subjected to, has been closed. He assured the Cuban people that he would go on fighting until his four comrades were also freed. For me, this is only a trench, a new place in which I am going to continue fighting for justice till the five of us can return together to you, he said.

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