It was the last full weekend in August. Finally, we heard that four members of our family were granted visitor status at the Federal Correctional Institute McKean in Bradford, Pa.
We decided to make a camping trip out of this unique opportunity to visit René Gonzalez, a prisoner there, with whom we had been corresponding.
Bradford is about seven hours northwest from our home in Philadelphia. The family piled into the car on Friday after work with tents and sleeping bags.
Saturday morning we arrived at the lobby of the prison. Everyone was nervous; the shining sun was the only bright thing about approaching this barbed-wire-covered, ultra-fortified, bleached block complex. Everyone passed through the metal detector and we each received a stamp on the hand with invisible ink. Each adult was allowed a small amount of cash to purchase food from the vending machines.
At every door, our ink-stamped hands were checked again with a black light. After a short walk in the sun between two structures, we entered the visiting area where they checked us again and assigned us seats. Forty-five minutes later, in walked René.
We had learned about the circumstances leading to his imprisonment last summer while we were participating in the Pastors for Peace caravan to end the blockade of Cuba. My sons and I had the honor of hearing Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, describe the events that led to the brutal and unjust arrest and imprisonment of the five anti-terrorists.
The authorities threw everything they had at these five agents of peace. Their crime was preventing vicious criminals from launching violent terrorist attacks against human targets on the island nation of Cuba. The trial, held in the center of anti-Cuban South Florida, was an exercise by the prosecution in how to prevent the exposure of truth to the jury. The jury itself was threatened in the local newspapers if it dared return a not guilty verdict. Even then, guards and other employees of the court who witnessed the complete trial were shocked at the sham guilty verdict.
Sept. 12 marked the fourth anniversary of René’s imprisonment, the first 17 months of which were spent in solitary confinement in a Miami torture chamber.
We had seen René’s picture many places, so his smile helped us recognize him. The proud father of two daughters, ages four and 18, his fatherly qualities were obvious and abundant. He immediately made the children feel at ease. His own wife and children are refused a visa to enter the U.S. to visit him.
The four hours we had to visit with him seemed to just disappear. We shared experiences, our fears and joys, hopes and sorrows, little things that only seem important at this moment, big things that are essential for understanding and survival of the human race.
Small children played and laughed around us, concealing the brutality of the environment, piercing the fog of oppression that permeated every nuance of the adult relationships. Men caged and severely restricted in every movement and experience.
We walked over to the soda machine to buy lemonade and I had to pick up the bottle for René because the rules forbade him from crossing the red line on the floor about two feet from the machine.
We spoke of the irony that saturates the circumstances of his imprisonment in the Alleghenies of western Pennsylvania. These same mountains sheltered and protected abolitionist John Brown. It was here that freedom was won for many during the great struggle against slavery. The town of Bradford is filled with monuments to the industrious energies of generations of working people at paper mills, factories, gas wells and coal mines.
We spoke of the tragedy of the terrorist attack on this country last year. The Cuban people have a thorough understanding of and empathy for the victims of such an attack, having been attacked so often by the collection of terrorists who use South Florida as their base.
We talked about the other four and their conditions of solidarity and steely determination to maintain the integrity of the Cuban people against the lies about their character and motivations. Righteousness in the face of arrogance, truth in the face of lies, and courage in the face of cowardliness are all exposed in the life experiences of these five and their struggle in the United States.
We were inspired as we parted with this giant of a people who accept as their moral compass human responsibility. René Gonzalez, patriot of Cuba, is a breathing example of cooperation for the benefit of all. The U.S. government may choose to cage and abuse this ambassador of a just and peaceful world; we left dedicated to the struggle of emancipation from just such oppression.
Stephen Paulmier is a printer, a member of the Graphics Communications International Union and a reader in Philadelphia.