Cuban Five’s Rene Gonzalez freed, push continues

Rene Gonzalez, one of the “Cuban Five” who have been imprisoned in the United States since 1998, is now free and back in Cuba. But the remaining four still have many years in prison ahead of them, unless people of conscience in the United States can make our case to the U.S. public so that enough pressure is exerted on the Obama administration to achieve their freedom.

Over the years, the real story of why the Cuban 5 were arrested, why they were tried in Miami in spite of the very prejudicial atmosphere there, and why they were given such draconian sentences, has emerged.

The Five were part of a network of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who were keeping under surveillance right-wing Cuban exile groups in South Florida who had been launching terroristic attacks on Cuba for years. The most famous was the bombing of a Cuban passenger airliner in 1976, which resulted in the deaths of 73 passengers and crew. But more recently, there had been bombings aimed at tourist destinations in Cuba, in one of which an Italian traveler, Fabio de Celmo, was killed. Cuba had repeatedly asked the United States government to crack down on the groups sponsoring these actions. The two masterminds of the airliner bombing, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, were neither prosecuted for it in the United States, nor extradited to Cuba or Venezuela (where the terroristic act was planned). Bosch died in 2011 but Posada, a former CIA asset, is living comfortably in Florida.

The Five were not spying on the U.S., nor doing anything to harm the interests of U.S. citizens. In fact, the information they gathered was handed over to the F.B.I. by the Cuban government itself, with the request that it be acted on.

However, the U.S. security agencies had themselves developed unhealthy relations with the self-same extremist exile groups and leaders. Supporters of the Five point out that one of the top F.B.I. officials in the area, Hector Pesquera, shared much of the ideology of the right-wing Cuban exiles. Evidently it was his idea to move against the Five, and he had some trouble persuading then-Attorney General Janet Reno to go along.

So the Five were arrested, subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and other abuses, put on trial and given draconian sentences. Objections by defense attorneys that the Five could not get a fair trial in right-wing, exile-dominated Miami were brushed aside. Later it was found that the U.S. government was subsidizing some of the Miami journalists who made the biggest uproar about the Five.

The guilty verdicts were handed down on June 8, 2001.

Gonzalez was given a 15-year prison term for “general conspiracy and conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent.” Since October 27, 2011, he has been out on parole. He was able to briefly return to Cuba to visit his dying brother last year: This was allowed by a judge over the protests of the U.S. government. This year, he was allowed again to go and visit his family after his father died, and the U.S. did not object to his appeal to stay there, on condition he renounce his U.S. citizenship (he was born in Chicago and had dual citizenship).

Ramon Labañino Salazar was convicted of general conspiracy, conspiracy to commit espionage, false identity and conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent. He was given life in prison plus 18 months, but on appeal this was reduced to 30 years. So he has 17 years to go.

Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez was found guilty of general conspiracy, conspiracy to commit espionage, and conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent. After appeal, he ended up with a sentence of 21 years 10 months, so he has about 9 years to go.

Fernando Gonzalez Llort was found guilty of general conspiracy, conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent, and False Identity. After appeal, he ended up with a sentence of 17 years, leaving him with four years to serve.

The most tragic case is that of Gerardo Hernandez. He was originally charged with general conspiracy, conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, false identity and conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent. But seven months after his arrest the government added two murder charges.

This was because on the flimsiest of evidence, the government claimed that Hernandez had known that the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft that had been illegally penetrating Cuban air space at rooftop level to drop leaflets and religious medallions would be shot down by Cuban fighter jets on February 24, 1996, and therefore was complicit in the act. In fact, everybody, including the U.S. government, knew that such an event was likely; U.S. authorities could have easily prevented the incident by revoking the “Brothers” license. Hernandez did not have any ability to stop this.

But nonetheless, he was given two life terms plus 15 years as a result of this farcical trial. To add to the pain, the government has consistently refused to let his wife, Adriana Perez, visit him in jail.

These are people who should be given medals instead of being buried alive in U.S. dungeons. Three of them (Gonzalez Llort, Rene Gonzalez and Hernandez) participated as volunteers in the Cuban mission to defend Angola against aggression by apartheid South Africa. All of them have maintained a front of total solidarity, although there surely must have been attempts to play them off against each other. Being told that Gonzalez was now free, Hernandez insisted that they are not now the “Cuban Four”, the Five will be the Five forever.

There is a worldwide movement to Free the Five, which has organized activities in their support in many countries and counts on the support of many distinguished friends of human freedom, including artists like Danny Glover, labor leaders like Dolores Huerta, poets like Alice Walker and no less than ten Nobel Prize winners.

One of the ideas for achieving the freedom for the Five has been a humanitarian exchange for Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for illegal activities in support of the destabilization of that country. The Cuban government has hinted broadly that it is open to such an exchange, but the United States has not so far responded.

From May 30 to June 5, there will be “Five Days for the Cuban Five” in Washington DC., with many speakers and cultural events.

Photo: Rene Gonzalez, center, with daughter and unidentified man. (AP)


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.