Returning to Havana on Feb. 28 after being released from a U.S. prison in Arizona the day before, Fernando Gonzalez wore handcuffs until his airplane landed. He had served a 19-year prison term, with time reduced through appeal and for good behavior.
Gonzalez and four other past or present Cuban Five prisoners are heroes in Cuba. Arrested in 1998, they had been monitoring U.S. - based anti-Cuban terrorists. Bias permeated their Miami trial.
At the airport, Gonzalez' wife Rosa Aurora, his mother Magali Llort, and two sisters were the first to greet him. Cuban Five prisoner Rene Gonzalez, in Cuba since 2013, was there, as were top Cuban leaders, headed by President Raul Castro. Family members of the other prisoners were on hand.
Speaking to the press, Gonzalez began: "There are three people not here who are the first I want to thank, my brothers Gerardo [Hernandez], Ramón [Labiñino], and Tony [Guerrero] ... and this includes also Rene. They don't know how much force, how much energy we derived from each other." His "happiness is immense, but has a missing piece. That's the piece reserved for when Ramón, Gerardo and Tony are in this same place. Then happiness will be complete." Gonzalez thanked the Cuban people, letter writers, Cuban government officials, and the Cuban press.
Gerardo Hernandez, serving two life sentences in California, sent a message: "When we were arrested, Fernando had several extra reasons to feel anguish." One was that when he was arrested, Gonzalez was providing temporary relief for another agent on leave. And Gonzalez' lawyer advised that because "of the lower seriousness of the charges against him [he should] opt out and be tried separately from the others... The response from Fernando, as well as René who received a similar suggestion, was emphatic and unequivocal no."
Because of the "professional custom of avoiding names, The Five themselves referred to Gonzalez as "the small one," Now Hernandez "remembers so many signs of greatness inherent in our brother" that he uses "Fernando the Giant" as title for his homage.
On Feb.14 an interviewer asked Gonzalez, "What five words were most in your mind?" He replied, "Cuba, family, gratitude, struggle, and liberty." "What would you tell President Barack Obama about your case?" Answer: "I would ask him as a former community activist to try to look at the Cuban reality in an unbiased way. [He would] find solutions there for many of the problems he worked to solve in the streets of Chicago ... He would see the efforts of our people to have a just society and that's what we the Five were defending."
Gonzalez believes fellow prisoners respected him because he confronted "hate that the U.S. government uses to abuse those it regards as political enemies" and because "Cuba stands up to and has resisted the power of the U.S. government."
Asked about his generation's role in Cuban history, Gonzalez expressed "satisfaction in fulfilling what I consider my duty and doing so with dignity and honor. I am conscious of the historical reason why I [was] a prisoner: it's a matter of punishing Cuba. "That's where the serious injustices committed in our case come from."
From the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, Ramon Labiñino, serving 30 years, saluted "Freedom [for] our brother Fernando Gonzalez.
"We, the Five, live his experience as our own." He recalled the "happy day we decided to join ourselves together to never let them defeat us. The fight gains strength, triumph is certain," Labiñino concludes.
From prison in Florida, Cuban Five prisoner Antonio Guerrero, with a 22- year sentence, spoke by telephone with his mother Mirta Rodriguez. She was at the airport.
"I told her, 'Tell Alarcon, [former National Assembly head who was speaking with Gonzalez], to give me a chance.' [So,] we spoke of many things," [even about] my flower [painting] project. [I told Gonzalez] I was going to need his and Rene's help.'Forget it!' was the answer. That's Fernando, 100 percent Cuban and faithful still."
Lest warm feelings for things Cuban turn viral, media misrepresentations crop up to cool down enthusiasms. True to form, Reuters claimed Fernando Gonzalez was imprisoned "for spying on Cuban-American exile groups in Miami." In truth, none of the Five spied. Conspiracy to commit espionage did put three of them in jail.
Reuters supposes the Cuban Five "attempted to spy on U.S. military installations." In fact, only Antonio Guerrero monitored official U.S. operations. He worked as a janitor at a Key West Air Force base and reported on airplane traffic. Reuters trivializes the Five by noting they had "little success."
Photo: Signs in support of the Cuban Five are common in Havana. In English, the sign says, "They will return." Now, Fernando Gonzalez is one of those who have, indeed, returned. Carlos ten Brink // CC 2.0