Cuba

Rally for the other four

Print edition : November 01, 2013

CubanS wearing yellow clothes participate in a campaign on September 12 in Havana. Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP

A poster of the Cuban Five and yellow ribbons is seen in Havana on September 12. Photo: YAMIL LAGE/AFP

Havana and other cities were festooned with yellow ribbons to symbolise Cubans' yearning for the their heroes' release.

Cuba's President Raul Castro (left) talks to Rene Gonzalez, the only one of the Five who is now free, on September 11. Photo: ENRIQUE DE LA OSA/REUTERS

A girl dressed as Obatala, a Saint in the Yoruba religion, holds a live pigeon during a march in Havana on September 12. Photo: Franklin Reyes/AP

A poster calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to release the four prisoners.

Cuba commemorates the 15th year of incarceration in the United States of four of its five citizens who were unjustifiably sentenced to life on charges of terrorism by a U.S. court.

For the people and the government of Cuba the top-most priority now is to get the remaining four of their compatriots languishing in prison cells in the United States for the last 15 years back to their country. In the second week of September, Havana and other major cities were festooned with “yellow ribbons” to symbolise the yearning of the Cuban populace for the return of their heroes. The idea of commemorating their 15th year of incarceration in a style more in keeping with American traditions was the idea of Rene Gonzalez, the only one of the “Five” who is now free. Yellow ribbons, which have deep cultural significance for Americans, were tied on cars, houses and trees in the second week of September. Many Cubans were dressed in yellow. The historic lighthouse in Havana Bay was festooned with a gargantuan yellow ribbon.

This correspondent was present at a concert in honour of the Cuban Five held in the Karl Marx auditorium in September. Popular Cuban singers, including Silvio Rodriguez, even sang the perennially popular American song “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree”, which was composed to honour soldiers and prisoners of war coming back from the battle front. In the front row, seated along with the close relatives of the Cuban Five, was Raul Castro and the top leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. After the show, Raul Castro warmly embraced Gonzalez and the close relatives of the Cuban Five. At this juncture, the release of the four Cuban patriots seems to be the top-most foreign policy priority of the Cuban government. The government has been working diplomatic back channels for this.

The U.S. public is largely unaware of the case involving the five as the mainstream media have completely shut it out of their discourses. “The symbolism of the yellow ribbon has a strong impact in the minds of Americans. It is a message of love that appeals to the emotions,” said Rene Gonzalez. “We are trying to send a message to say that we are human too,” he added. Gonzalez, who also held American citizenship, was conditionally freed on October 2011 after serving his 1ife term. He was allowed to return to Cuba to attend the memorial services for his father in May this year. The court had earlier refused him permission to return to Cuba, requiring him to serve a three-year probation sentence in the U.S. following his release.

The Cuban people are united in their conviction that unless the remaining four Cuban patriots are released without delay, the terrible miscarriage of justice will not be undone. Gonzalez, speaking on September 10 at the Jose Marti Memorial in Havana, said that though he was now physically free, he would only feel truly liberated once all the remaining four were also out of the inhuman American prison system, a “cemetery of live people”. Despite living with people having mental and physical problems, the Cuban Five, as one of them noted in a letter, “have not become insecure but have on the contrary become serene”, knowing fully well that they have the backing of the Cuban people. Gonzalez said that the Five had jointly determined that they would not allow “their spirits to be broken by the most powerful nation in the world”.

The Cuban people as well as the government want the international community to be fully sensitised about the case, which they emphasise is a political one, and the fact that the Cuban Five are political prisoners. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions had ruled as illegal the arrests of the Cuban Five. Over 350 committees have been formed all over the world, including in India, demanding the immediate release of the “Five Heroes”.

Special functions, protests and vigils were held all over Cuba and in many cities in the U.S. to mark the completion of 15 years in prison of the Cuban Five in the second week of September. Supporters of the Five held a vigil near the White House. Danny Glover, Hollywood actor and a champion of progressive causes, told Consortium News that the case of the Five “expresses the dilemma of the U.S. with Cuba”—the inability to come to terms with Cuba’s sovereignty and the will of its people. Glover, along with the noted American documentary film-maker Saul Landau, is among the many prominent people who have been trying through the media and activism to get justice for the Five. Landau, who made critically acclaimed documentaries on Cuba, Chile and the revolutionary movements in the American continent, passed away in early September. Gerardo Hernandez wrote a moving letter to Landau praising him for his efforts. The letter reached him days before his demise.

The heroic story of the Cuban Five started with an event that occurred in front of the famous Havana sea front, the Malecon, on February 24, 1996. Two small planes operated by a terrorist group based in Miami were shot down by the Cuban defence forces deep inside Cuban air space. Earlier, there had been several other instances of small planes flying from Miami violating the airspace over Havana and other cities and brazenly dropping anti-government propaganda leaflets. Terrorist groups, mainly comprising right-wing Cuban exiles tacitly backed by the U.S. government, have been engaging in violent acts since the 1960s. Even those advocating the normalisation of relations between the two countries have been violently targeted.

Andres Gomez, a Cuban-American residing in Miami, told this correspondent that he was lucky to be alive. Many of his friends who had stood up to the violent activities of the Cuban émigré community in Florida were eliminated. “Acts against the Cuban state are being tolerated by the American authorities. Leaders of pro-Cuban movements and Puerto Rican independence movements have been murdered in the past. Those committing terrorism against Cuba are running free,” said Gomez.

Within Cuba itself, 3,478 Cubans have lost their lives as a result of terrorist violence. Terrorist groups like Commandos F-4, Brothers to the Rescue and notorious individuals like Luis Posada Carriles were given a carte blanche by the American authorities to indulge in their activities. Carriles is the man responsible for the downing of a Cuban passenger plane in 1976, which killed 73 people. He has also been implicated in many other terrorist acts in his long career. Carriles is now living his last years in comfort in a retirement home in the U.S.

On May 7, 1999, more than three years after the shooting down of the two small planes, the first of the five Cuban heroes, Gerardo Hernandez, was charged by the U.S. federal authorities with trying to commit “grave murder”. His four comrades, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez, were soon picked up for questioning. The Five were illegally held in solitary confinement for 17 months in a Miami prison. The American media immediately went on overdrive, painting the five as “spies” of the Cuban government engaged in a conspiracy to subvert the American government. At the initial trial in a Miami court which lasted for seven months, the lawyers and witnesses for the five Cubans had pointed out that their actions were never aimed against the American government.

The Cuban Five had stated under oath that they had been on a “patriotic mission” to the U.S. since 1990 to infiltrate the terrorist organisations based in Florida that were involved in terrorist activities against their homeland. It was clarified to the court that they never carried any arms, nor harmed anyone. It was evident to the American intelligence agencies that the only purpose of the clandestine activities of the Five was to warn the authorities back home of impending and planned attacks from American soil so as to protect the lives of Cubans and foreigners alike. One of those killed in a bomb attack on a hotel frequented by tourists in 1997 was an Italian national. In an interview to The New York Times, Posada Carriles had admitted to masterminding the hotel attacks.

It was evident from the outset that much of the news that was printed or broadcast at the time of the arrest of the “Five” and during the course of the preliminary court hearings was “paid news”. Now lawyers for the “Five” have produced documentary evidence for this case. The lawyers for the Cuban Five in Miami had stated that there was no possibility of the “five” ever receiving a fair trial in Miami, the stronghold of the anti-Fidel Castro Cuban exile community. At the time the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), led by the late Jorge mas Canosa, was the second most influential lobbying group in the U.S. after the pro-Israeli American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The Miami court gave the Cuban Five a draconian sentence of 70 years in jail in a judgment delivered on December 2001. The unjust nature of that trial was recognised four years later when an appeals court overturned the judgment, ruling that there was a miscarriage of justice. The three-member 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Miami judge was swayed by a “perfect storm” of pervasive community prejudice, government misconduct and extensive negative publicity before the trial began. The Bush administration, indebted to the right-wing Cuban community for his dubious victory in Florida in the presidential election, promptly went in appeal. A full bench of the 11th Appeals Court reinstated the convictions. Later court rulings reduced the sentences of Rene Gonzalez, Labanino and Guerrero.

Ricardo Alarcon, a veteran diplomat and the former Speaker of the Cuban Parliament, said at an international conference, “15 years-Basta (enough)”, that the trials of the Five “were a grotesque mockery of justice” with the Western media being “silent accomplices”. He said that the media in the U.S. had accused the Five of engaging in espionage and conspiracy though there was not a shred of evidence to back up the claim. Alarcon pointed out that American nationals accused of similar crimes were given much lighter sentences. “Private Bradley Manning is another hero who risked his life for the sake of the world. But the court which sentenced him did not charge him with conspiracy against the state,” Alarcon noted.

Martin Garbus, the lawyer for the Cuban Five, who took over the case after the demise of Leonard Weinglass, said at the conference in Havana that he had proof that the U.S. government had spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on the media in its efforts to obtain the maximum punishment for the Cuban Five. “Government money was being used to influence the media. The public at the time thought that they were reading independent reportage. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the American media,” he averred. Garbus said that National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) material released by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden would no doubt prove beneficial to the case of the Cuban Five. He said that most of the material presented by the federal authorities to the American courts was based on illegal wiretaps and snooping on emails. “The U.S. government had issued warrants [against the Five] based on illegal intercepts,” Garbus emphasised.

The lawyer for the Five had argued in court, while calling for a new trial, that the U.S. administration “through millions of dollars of illegal payments and thousands of articles published over a six-year period, interfered with the trial and persuaded the jury to convict”. Miami Herald , one of America’s leading papers, fired some of its journalists after they admitted receiving secret payments from the U.S. government. Thomas Fiedler, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former executive editor and vice- president of Miami Herald, had said that it was wrongful on the part of the media “to carry out the mission of the U.S. government, a propaganda mission. It was wrong, even if it had not been secret.”

In late September, a Federal Court ordered the State Department to hand over material in its possession on secret payment to journalists in Miami during the trial.

Noam Chomsky, speaking at a recent event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss the case of the Five, explained that in the U.S. the standard definition of terrorism applied only when terrorism was directed toward itself and not when the U.S. promoted terrorism. He cited the case of Cuba as an illustration. Other prominent Americans who have called for the immediate release of the remaining four Cubans include former President Jimmy Carter. The late American man of letters, Gore Vidal, said that the case of the Five “is additional evidence that the U.S. is experiencing a legal crisis, a political crisis and a constitutional crisis”.

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