Terrorism in the belly of the beast

Father Geoff Bottoms, president of the London-based UK Free the Five Committee, visited two of the Cuban Five political prisoners in the U.S. recently. We publish his report as part of an “International Month of Action” in solidarity with the Cuban Five, Sept. 12-Oct. 6.

In their cells at U.S. penitentiaries Victorville, Calif., and Beaumont, Texas, Gerardo Hernandez and Ramon Labanino receive a mountain of mail each day from all over the world.

Together with Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, these Cuban political prisoners known as the Cuban Five are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to two life terms in prisons throughout the U.S. for defending their country against terrorism.

They were convicted on charges ranging from being undisclosed agents of a foreign power to conspiracy to commit espionage and murder, following a flawed trial in Miami where the anti-Castro Cuban American community’s enormous political influence prevented a fair hearing.

Though the intelligence they gathered on right-wing terrorist groups in Miami — groups responsible for 40 years of attacks against the Cuban people — was shared with the FBI under a secret agreement with the Clinton administration, the administration arrested the Five on Sept. 12, 1998, instead of rounding up the real criminals.

Pressed by the same right-wing elements, the so-called Miami mafia, FBI chief Hector Pesquera pulled the plug on the agreement. This happened while 14 of the 19 terrorists allegedly responsible for the 9/11 attacks were plotting in Miami and could have been exposed.

While the charges against the Five varied, prominent U.S. military officials testified at the trial that the Five had not accessed any classified information or threatened the U.S. national interest.

Hernandez was found guilty of conspiracy to murder in the downing of light aircraft that provocatively invaded Cuban airspace in 1996, although no evidence to support his involvement exists.

Transferred late last year to Victorville, Hernandez, like Labanino, spends most of each day answering letters. The rest of the time he works for $10-18 a month emptying rubbish bins and polishing railings, which he finds preferable to the job they offered him: repairing transmissions on military humvees returning from Iraq.

Similarly, Labanino cleans the laundry rather than make uniforms for the U.S. military.

Obviously, the prison pay the two men receive is insufficient to cover their immediate needs and expensive phone calls home. They occasionally receive a small remittance from the Cuban government.

Twice a week, Hernandez calls his wife Adriana, who gives him both inspiration and strength, especially as they have not seen one another since his arrest. She and Olga Salanueva, wife of Rene Gonzalez, are barred from the U.S. on grounds they threaten the national interest.

Ironically, last April 12, the CIA-sponsored and wanted terrorist Luis Posada Carriles appealed for political asylum in the United States through his attorneys in Miami. After he lived openly there for over a month, the Bush government, bowing to growing public and international pressure, detained and charged Posada with illegally entering the U.S., although his hearing was deferred in an attempt to play for time.

Venezuela has formally requested Posada’s extradition to face trial for the 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455 in which 73 people were killed. The Bush administration so far refuses to honor the U.S.-Venezuela extradition treaty.

Throughout all this, Hernandez and Labanino remain focused as they savor the day when the freedom of the Five will be celebrated in Cuba together with all those who have campaigned for their release. Despite an adverse appeals court ruling on Aug. 9, the two men remain both optimistic and realistic about the ultimate victory, believing that reason, truth and justice are on their side and that of their compatriots.

Meanwhile terrorism continues to lurk in the belly of the beast.