Jailing Manning, burying the Cuban Five

Listening to her conscience, Private Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, released U.S. military and diplomatic reports to the public. Manning’s 35-year sentence is longer by far than sentences handed out to other whistleblowers. A “government secrecy specialist” told the New York Times that Manning’s sentence “reflects the gravity of the case and the government’s perception of the damage that was done.” She will be eligible for parole in eight years.

Comparison of Manning’s sentence with sentences received by the Cuban Five prisoners, whistleblowers of another sort, is revealing. Sentences and convictions are unjust on both sides. But in terms of years of incarceration, the Five seem to have caused more vexation to the U.S. government than Manning did.  What did prisoner Gerardo Hernandez do to receive two life terms plus 15 years? Why life sentences (reduced on appeal) for Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero?

Prosecutors charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage, not with espionage. They also charged Gerardo Hernández with conspiracy to commit murder in the shoot-down deaths of four Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue pilots on February 24, 1996. Legal observers say he was blameless.

Arrested in 1998, the Cuban Five were in Florida to monitor and report on preparations for terror attacks against Cuba, and to warn of any U.S. military attack. They targeted private Cuban-American paramilitary groups, although Antonio Guerrero did watch movements of military aircraft at a Key West Naval Air Station, where he was employed. U.S. military and intelligence officials testified at their trial that the Five posed no threat to U.S. national security interests. Convicted on relatively minor charges, prisoner Rene Gonzalez was released in 2011.  Fernando González, similarly, will be freed early in 2014.

Manning’s case and that of the Cuban Five are poles apart in terms of damage done to U.S. government policy interests. Yet U.S. rage, as measured by sentence length, landed largely on those who did the least. Why was that?

The fact that right-wing Cuban émigrés have a hold on U.S. policymaking on Cuba and even media coverage was one factor. Maybe, deep down, anti-communism still holds sway, despite hoopla on anti-terrorism. And Cuban social achievements, espousal of Latin American unity, and fight for national independence may have been unsettling enough for retribution, with the Cuban Five serving as proxies.

But importantly, the prosecution, trial, and sentencing of the Five took place in a void. There was no sizable popular movement at their side, nor any trace of sympathetic public opinion. The fate of Gerardo Hernández and his comrades could as well have been decided on a distant planet. At their trial in Miami, restraints were off. Vengeful, cruel instincts had charge.   

Studied neglect of Cuban realities had set the stage. In general, stories of people’s lives, hopes, and struggles in countries under foreign domination get short shrift in the intruding nation. U.S. media coverage and public curiosity about daily life on the island shrank once Cuba charted an independent course and worldwide criticism of the U.S. blockade mushroomed. U.S. dissidents’ habitual concentration on single issues contributed to neglect of Cuba.

A movement did mobilize, however, on behalf of Private Manning, one based largely on rejection of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and admiration of Manning’s courage. Jailers released Manning from eight months of solitary confinement following demonstrations. The Cuban Five prisoners endured 17 months of pre-trial isolation. While Manning’s judge could have issued a 90-year sentence, she settled on 35 years, far less than the 60 years sought by prosecutors. The prospect of organized outrage may have been daunting.  

Had the cause of the Five been linked to a political movement, lawyers could have widened their audience. Court proceedings can give voice to historical context and defendants’ purposes. The trials of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, for example, advanced political education. Lawyers and supporters of the Five would have had a stage for highlighting contradictions between the much-vaunted U.S. rule of law and what really happens. Not least, equal justice under the law serves to unify disparate political tendencies.

The common thread by which agitation for the Five is tied to other issues would be anti-imperialism. Their case has roots in soil giving rise to struggles for immigrant rights, racial justice, and labor rights, and against military interventions. To establish such linkages is not easy, but the Cuban Five prisoners and their families have faced a mountain of suffering and there is little choice but to begin.  

Right now, the job at hand is to pressure the U.S. president to pardon the Cuban Five prisoners. As noted recently by a New York Times editorialist, “President Obama’s use of the pardon power remains historically low.” So he needs to be pushed.

How else but through large numbers standing up and speaking out?

Photo: Activists gather in Washington, D.C. for a five-day lobbying and protest event focused on freeing the Cuban Five prisoners, June 2013. (Earchiel Johnson/PW)





W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.