Cuban Five comes to South Africa

July 23rd, 2015
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By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

The Cuban Five were in South Africa recently. They came to the country to thank South Africans for the role they played in their release.

De Rebus had the opportunity to attend an alliance international symposium, which was held in Braamfontein and spoke on the role of international solidarity as a tool for justice focusing on the case of the Cuban Five and the way forward.

The event was attended by a number of representatives from different South African trade unions who delivered speeches. The general ambiance was joyful with delegates breaking into struggle song and dance after every speaker.

The Cuban Five spoke about their experience in prison and Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero junior, son of Antonio Guerrero, spoke about their experiences as members of the family with loved ones in prison for such a long time.

The first of the Cuban Five to speak was Rene Gonzalez. He said it has been a very long journey but that he would not change anything about it as it has been a great experience meeting so many ‘awesome’ people who are so full of love and spirit and who care so much for Cuba.

Mr Gonzalez shared the experiences that took him to the United States (US) in 1990.

‘I went to Cuba as a five-year-old child in 1961. When I was seven years old, Havana was shaken when someone came from Miami on a boat with a canon and shot at a hotel in Havana. I remember planes coming from Florida to burn the Cuban cane fields. I remember Cubans being abducted by gangs from Florida. So, when I was approached by the Cuban government to go back to my country of birth and infiltrate the troops in Miami that had been inflicting damage on the Cuban society, I did not hesitate, neither did my four brothers.

‘So I had to go back to the US, which I had never thought about. I joined an organisation, which comprised of all kinds of guys including old CIA agents and pilots from Cuba. In 1998 the Cuban government decided to share with the US government information it had on the plots of terrorisms in Miami. Fidel [Castro] asked Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Márquez to go talk to then US president, Bill Clinton, to open a channel of communication and trust between the two countries. Mr Márquez went to Washington and as a result of that conversation, in May 1998, the FBI sent a delegation from Washington to Havana, which met with Cuban officials in order to share information and start working against terrorism. They met for three days. Before leaving the country they promised the Cuban party that they would go to Washington and analyse the information and will then go after the terrorists. But the fact is, four months after the meeting we were arrested. Somehow the meeting, which could have led to the corporation of the two countries against terrorism, led to the anti-terrorist guys being arrested and the terrorists remaining free in Miami; free to keep committing their crimes and that is how the case of the Cuban Five started,’ he said.

The Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández and Fernando Gonzalez at an alliance international symposium held in Braamfontein in early July.

The Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández and Fernando Gonzalez at an alliance international symposium held in Braamfontein in early July.

Speaking on the trial, Mr Labañino started by saying: ‘Thanks to solidarity, we are here today.’ He said that the trial was a very long one, which lasted about seven months. He then pointed out some crucial issues of the trial. Mr Labañino said the trial was held in Miami and that the prosecutors in the case acted as criminals as they changed everything in the trial, which led to them misguiding the jury. ‘They lied, when we were arrested we were taken straight to the FBI headquarters where we had a conversation where they tried to convince us of becoming snitches for the Americans. They told us to forget about Fidel Castro and that he would abandon us. They told us to forget about the revolution as it would do nothing for us. They offered us new identities, and an island in the Carribean, they offered us money and anything we wanted.’

Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of Cuban Five Ramón Labañino speaking of her experience while her husband was in jail at a symposium held in Braamfontein on 2 July.

Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of Cuban Five Ramón Labañino speaking of her experience while her husband was in jail at a symposium held in Braamfontein on 2 July.

Mr Labañino said from 12 September 1998 to 17 December 2014 the US government always tried to break them through their families, especially their wives. ‘For instance, Hernández’s wife could never come visit him, Rene’s wife too, who was even arrested because they asked her to cooperate with the government and she refused. They told him, “René if you do not cooperate with us, remember your wife is in Miami. She was subsequently arrested and spent three months in jail”.’

Mr Labañino added that everything in their case was classified. Their lawyers had to pass security clearance and not just anybody could be their lawyer. All the evidence was placed in a high-security room in Miami. ‘Even a recipe book that they found in my house was classified,’ he said.

Mr Labañino said they filed approximately ten motions asking the US government to move the trial out of Miami but their request was denied. ‘The judge in our case acted as another prosecutor. Every motion we filed was denied. Every motion the US filed was approved,’ he said.

Who are the Cuban Five?

The Cuban Five intelligence officers – Gerardo Hernandez‚ Ramón Labañino‚ Fernando Gonzalez‚ Antonio Guerrero and René Gonzalez – were arrested in the US in September 1998 and convicted of crimes ranging from espionage to murder.

The five were sent to the US as part of a network to investigate the activities of militant Cuban exile groups plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime. They were later convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage‚ conspiracy to commit murder‚ acting as an agent of a foreign government and other illegal activities in the US.

One of the Cuban Five was released in 2011 (René González), one in February 2014 (Fernando González), and in December of the same year, the US swapped the remaining three members for an American intelligence officer held by Cuba, after most endured 16 years of incarceration.

Their sentences ranged from 15 years to life. The trial of the Cuban Five attracted widespread controversy, because it was held in Miami, where Cuban dissidents were viewed as heroes. Various organisations issued separate reports, in the years to come, expressing concerns about the fairness of the trial.

The charges

Mr Labañino said the Cuban Five were charged with conspiracy charges. ‘These are the kind of charges commonly used when they know they do not have evidence, when they know they cannot prove anything. For you to get convicted of conspiracy the only thing the government needs to do is to say that there is an agreement between two or three people to do something,’ he said adding that the punishment for conspiracy charges is life sentence.

Mr Labañino said he is grateful the truth will eventually come out. He said that is the one thing that this trail taught him and that he is grateful for that lesson.

The five were sentenced as follows:

  • Mr Hernández, two life sentences plus ten years;
  • Mr Labañino, one life plus 18 years;
  • Mr Guerrero, one life plus ten years;
  • Mr Fernando González, 19 years; and
  • Mr René Gonzalez, 15 years.

In subsequent months, they were moved to five separate prisons scattered across the US.

Gerardo Hernández said they were all sentenced differently because of the different charges or counts against them. He said the first 17 months of their incarceration were spent in solitary confinement.

Mr Guerrero discussed the appeal process. He said that they were sentenced in 2001, which was when they submitted their appeal application. Mr Guerrero said in an historic and unprecedented victory in 2005 the three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit issued unanimous decision, overturning the convictions of the Cuban Five. A new trial was ordered within 18 months.

Family experience

Ms Palmeiro said her husband and the rest of the Cuban Five had to leave without saying anything to their families for obvious reasons as it was part of their job. ‘They gave up everything, their careers and seeing their children grow in Cuba. When we learnt what they were really doing, our lives changed drastically,’ she said.

Ms Palmeiro said when her husband was arrested, her youngest daughter was only one, and the eldest was five. ‘I had to become mother and father to my daughters. In the middle of all this we had to start a new life. We had to educate the community about the Cuban Five case and explain to them that my husband was not a spy and that he was a good person,’ she said.

Antonio Guerrero junior, son of Cuban Five’s Antonio Guerrero spoke about growing up without a father at a symposium on the role of international solidarity as a tool for justice.

Antonio Guerrero junior, son of Cuban Five’s Antonio Guerrero spoke about growing up without a father at a symposium on the role of international solidarity as a tool for justice.

Ms Palmeiro said they knew from the beginning that it was a political trial because any other person in this situation would have been deported from the US.

‘In this long period of time some people died like Rene’s brother and father. Gerardo’s mom also died, and some took ill. It was not enough for the US government to just deal with them, they used us too to cause more suffering and pain. There were children, mothers and fathers involved, as well as us, their wives who also spent many years incarcerated, but in a different kind of prison. Although we were “free”, our souls were in prison with them,’ she added.

Mr Guerrero junior told those in attendance that he was 14 years old when his dad was arrested, adding that it was very hard to grow up without the presence of his father. He did, however, say that he was still growing and that he was grateful that his dad was with him now.

Communism

Retired Constitutional Court justice, Zac Yacoob, said that the Cuban Five case was an example of utilising the law in making sure that justice is met and they are released. He added: ‘What happened here is a broad definition of communism. There is no evidence that they committed any act of violence, they were acting on behalf of the Cuban government so that the government can take action on murderers. Everything that happened in apartheid political trials here in South Africa, happened in the Cuban trial.’

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele NDip Journ (DUT) BTech Journ (TUT) is the news editor at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (Aug) DR 7.

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