International labor pushes to free the Cuban Five

Both internationally and within the United States, organized labor is now taking up the struggle to free the Cuban Five, with major unions in Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean organizing projects to educate their members and the public and exert pressure on U.S. authorities.

The “Cuban Five” are Cuban agents who, in the 1990s, had settled into the Miami, Florida area to carry out surveillance of right wing Cuban exile organizations that had organized terrorist attacks in Cuba in which many died.

Cuba, which had on many occasions asked that the U.S to crack down on these terrorist groups, handed over information collected by its agents in Florida to the F.B.I. But instead of arresting the terrorists, the U.S. authorities arrested the five, who were sentenced to long terms in federal prison after a farcical trial in Miami.

Rene Gonzalez, one of the original Five, has since been released after serving his sentence, but the group, which has held together steadfastly, still calls itself “The Cuban Five.” The remaining four still imprisoned in the United States are Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labaniño, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez.

Since then, a large-scale national and international movement to “Free the Cuban Five” has grown up. In Washington D.C. from May 30 through June 5, supporters of the Cuban Five carried out numerous activities under the rubric of “Five Days for the Cuban Five.” The activities, organized by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, included lobbying visits to Congress, panels, press events, cultural events and a protest at the White House. Important presentations were made by civil rights leader and author Angela Davis, Wayne Smith (President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Cuba), farmworker leader Dolores Huerta, and a host of activists, intellectuals and parliamentarians from more than a dozen countries.

Internationally, major support for the Cuban Five has been organized through the labor union movement, with many national union federations, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions and Britain’s Trades Union Congress, playing a leading role. In the United States too, there are more and more Cuba solidarity activities, and especially activities in support of the Cuban Five, being undertaken by unions including SEIU, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the San Francisco Central Labor Council.

On June 3, as part of the “Five Days for the Cuban Five” mobilization, labor activists gathered at the union hall of Local 140 of the American Postal Workers’ Union, AFL-CIO, for a discussion with U.S., British and Canadian unionists on the importance of the Cuban Five struggle for U.S. and international labor, and initiatives that labor is taking to achieve the freedom of the prisoners.

Participants were welcomed by Local 140 President Denise Briscoe and by Carl Gentile of the American Federation of Government Employees, both of whom have been involved in organizing union-sponsored trips by elected labor officials to Cuba, with a focus on Maryland and the District of Colombia.

Presentations were given by British, Canadian and U.S. trade unionists.

From Britain came Rob Miller from the British Trades Union Congress (T.U.C.). Miller heads the Cuba Solidarity Committee which operates within the 1.5 million member T.U.C. and counts on major support from UNITE, the very large British industrial and general union which has close relations with unions in the United States including the Steelworkers through their joint “Workers Uniting” partnership. The aim is to create a “jury of millions” to reverse the unfair decisions of a bigoted Miami court which originally convicted the Cuban Five.

Dennis Lemelin, national president of the 50,000 member Canadian Union of Postal Workers, pointed out that as a public union, his union must be aware of international events. In the past, this has meant that it was heavily involved in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and other international solidarity campaigns. Its Cuba solidarity work is a continuation of that.

Santos Crespo, president of local 372 of the New York City Board of Education Employees (AFSCME), who had written an eloquent letter to President Obama calling for the freedom of the Five, pointed out the relevance of the issue for U.S. workers, and the new opportunities for raising the Cuban 5 issue within U.S. labor. In the past, the power of right wing Cuban exiles in labor circles has made it difficult to successfully bring up the issue, but this influence is fading.

Speakers at the event made clear that they see that the treatment that has been meted out to the Five falls into the category of “an injury to one is an injury to all” above anything.

All speakers urged the participants in the session to immediately become active on the issue of Cuba and the Cuban five in their own workplaces and union locals, approaching the issue as one of solidarity between working people in the United States and working people in Cuba. They urged a rank and file outreach in which major time is invested in talking to ordinary workers and union members. Social media should also be extensively used.

Richard Grassi contributed to this article.

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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.