Call to Free the Five resounds in Toronto

TORONTO, Canada — Over 200 friends of Cuba from throughout North America gathered here, Nov. 9-11, to hear legal updates, retool strategies and rededicate themselves to the liberation of five Cuban men jailed in the United States.

At a press conference, Cuban Ambassador Ernesto Senti described the presentations, panel discussions, informal gatherings and separate meetings of U.S. and Canadian solidarity networks as a “high moment” in the struggle for the Five.

The conference, called “Breaking the Silence,” was organized by two Canadian national coordinating groups and the U.S. National Network on Cuba. Cuban officials based in Canada and Havana participated.

Lead appeals attorney Leonard Weinglass reviewed developments in the appeals process on behalf of Gerardo Hernández, Ramon Labañino, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero and René González. The five men had joined private paramilitary gangs in Florida in the 1990s to provide Havana with advance notice of terrorist plots against the island.

“Very confident” is how Weinglass characterized his expectation that an appeals court decision expected in early 2008 would back, at least partially, defense claims of “prosecutorial misconduct.” Earlier, the same conservative court rejected the prisoners’ argument that prejudice marred the original trial.

The case is at a “critical juncture,” said Weinglass, pointing out, however, that the appeals process may last for years.

Jurors, he explained, follow the law “if they have to,” but try to square evidence with their own experience. “That’s where you come in,” he told over 400 listeners at an evening session, alluding to the political climate surrounding the case. In fact, conference deliberations did center on strategies for informing and persuading a much wider section of the public about the case and its implications.

Continued efforts to cast the U.S. government as hypocritical for having criminalized the Five’s anti-terrorist efforts while waging a “war on terrorism” were applauded. For example, Montreal resident Livio Di Celmo contrasted Canada’s “anti-terrorist” troop presence in Afghanistan with Canada’s refusal to regard Cuban American paramilitary groups as terrorist organizations. His brother Fabio, an Italian citizen, was killed in a bomb attack on a Havana hotel by such groups in 1997.

Canadian lawyers Paul Copeland and Bill Sloan explained how political contamination of judicial proceedings, exemplified by the case of the Five, threatens the legal rights of all. Who would not agree that 17 pretrial months spent by the Five in solitary confinement is cruel, asked Weinglass.

Retired Judge Claudia Morcam pointed out that condemnation of the “arbitrary detention” of the Five — a UN judgment rendered in 2005 — led the Detroit City Council last year to call unanimously for their freedom.

Speakers held up respect for family and women’s rights as a message that carries wide acceptance. Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of prisoner Ruben Labañino, movingly described the suffering of Adriana Pérez and Olga Salenueva, long denied visas for entry into the U.S. and prevented from visiting husbands Gerardo Hernández and René González. Palmeiro also reported on interference with her own family’s visits with Ramon at his Texas prison.

For Nova Scotia author and historian Isaac Saney, the prisoners’ cause takes on universal significance as an example of perennial struggle in the Americas to realize the right to national self-determination and the associated right of self-defense.

Discussion turned to action. Plans were laid for an international outpouring of demonstrations, press communiqués and political actions immediately following the appeals court announcement of its pending decision. Speakers called for stepped-up agitation in cities and regions throughout both countries and augmented pressure put on legislators and government officials at all levels.

Plans are afoot for establishing local organizations focusing specifically on the Five, examples being the D.C. Metro group recently formed in Washington and the Fabio Di Celmo group in Montreal. The point, all were agreed, is to break the “information blockade.”

In British Columbia, stepped-up public meetings, literature availability, and one-to-one talk sessions may be working. Now, reported Noah Fine, hands rise when new listeners are asked if they have heard of the Five.

For Vancouver activist Tamara Hanson, work for the Five should be a “way of life.” “Make it a political issue, make it a campaign,” she advised. In Canadian cities, supporters of the Cuban Five have been carrying out regular demonstrations outside U.S. consulates throughout 2007.