Rafael Rodiguez Cruz is a civil rights lawyer in the US town of Hartford in Connecticut. He is a board member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and has visited one of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert, who was condemned to 15 years imprisonment in the federal penitentiary of Edgefield, South Carolina, for defending Cuba against terrorist attack. In this interview for Resumen Latinoamericano he describes his conversations with Rene and his views on the wall of silence surrounding the case.
How is it that a civil rights lawyer from Hartford became involved with the case of the five Cubans locked up in US prisons?
I became involved as a humanist and attorney. I don’t like abuse and here we have serious abuse. The case of the Five, as you know, also carries vital importance for the civil rights of the US population, whether or not they support the Cuban Revolution. During the entire trial, including the arrest, methods were employed that clearly violated the due process of law as is known and understood under United States’ jurisprudence. From the outset, the charges had no connection to the facts. The Five did not deny they had entered the US to infiltrate Cuban-American terrorist groups. Neither did they deny that they operated as unregistered agents of the Cuban government. The first is in no way a crime. The second is a minor violation which is of very little importance. Nevertheless, the Attorney General’s office invented an entire range of charges including conspiracy to commit espionage and conspiracy to commit murder–all of which should have been immediately thrown out by the court. The fact that this didn’t happen, the fact that the trial proceeded, indicates that this was a political issue–one that was agreed upon by the right-wing in Miami and the local office of the FBI.
What followed as a natural course from this was the denial of the court to move the trial to a location other than Miami. This was a basic request that the law has recognized in many cases where the possibility of a fair trial was remote.
Such requests are generally denial only in situations where it is logistically impossible to move the case for administrative reasons. If an allegation is made in New York, for example, it would be unreasonable to hold the trial in California, as the witnesses and others would have to travel thousands of miles. The request of the Five to be tried outside Miami did not present such problems as Fort Lauderdale was suggested–only 30 miles from Miami. The subsequent decision of the court to hold the trial in Miami determined its course.
A lot has been written on the trial. The essentials are that the defense won the case as to the facts and legal arguments. As a strictly legal question the case should never have come before a jury as the judge has the duty to throw out any charge that does not carry sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed. Furthermore, the Five presented evidence that they were innocent beyond reasonable doubt. The jury nevertheless, fearing Miami, found them guilty.
The real reason for all this–including the excessive sentences–is the nature of politics, which has everything to do, of course, with the Cuban-American community in Miami. Rene himself drew my attention to a situation without precedence that happened before the trial–in any criminal trial the focus in on the intent, or mens rea, of the accused. Except in very rare exceptions, without criminal intent there is no crime–whatever the facts. Here the attorney general, concerned about the obvious innocence of the accused, specifically sought to avoid a discussion of the proposal or intention the Five had confessed to because, in the words of the accusers “fighting terrorism is the true motive of the accused and this motivation should not be mentioned in the trial.” Even the attorney general admitted that there was no criminal intent on the part of the Five.
How does the Rosenberg Fund for Children assess the case?
As you know, I traveled to Cuba in November 2003 taking with me a message of solidarity from the Rosenberg Foundation demanding a fair trial for the Five and that they be allowed to receive visits from family members, in particular Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez. The similarities between the case of the Five and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are strong. In both cases the accusation of conspiring to commit espionage was used to manipulate the process and obtain sentences way out of proportion to the charges. Remember than neither the Rosenbergs nor the Cuban Five were accused of spying, but rather conspiring as there was no evidence to sustain the spying charge. They were both politically motivated cases that occurred at a moment when US public opinion was being manipulated against progressive countries and movements. With the Rosenbergs it was the Soviet Union and with the Five it’s Cuba.
As an attorney and a person linked with human and civil rights organizations, what motivated you to visit Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert?
My immediate purpose as a member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and as an attorney was to give my personal support to the request that Olga and Ivette (Rene and Olga’s six year old daughter) be given permission to visit Rene as quickly as possible. This is basic–a demand that has roots in international human rights. The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a humanitarian organization that helps the children of people incarcerated for their progressive ideas and convictions. We had never encountered such an extreme situation in which a US born citizen is deprived of seeing his wife and daughter for years.
How was the meeting with him?
We could talk about that for three or four hours. I knew about him from my trips to Cuba and my friendship with his family, as well as our exchange of mail and my reading of the allegations. We embraced each other as if we were old friends meeting again. Then we began to speak of Cuba and Puerto Rico as if they were the same place, as well as all the injustices being committed in this world. I was impressed by how well-informed he was about Puerto Rico’s history and what is going on there. He also stays well informed on what is going on in Cuba and the United States. We spoke for three hours.
What impacted me the most, however, was the tranquility and strength in him, his natural truth and very real convictions. His manner of speaking is so respectful and noble, as is his sharp and accurate analysis of the case of the Five. At times I had to interrupt him simply to take note of what he was saying, to hear his explanation about why the case is surrounded by a wall of silence, and of the current solidarity movement and avenues of resistance. We even spoke of Mella, Betances, Maceo, Ruiz Belvis, Fidel, Albizu, Corretjer and Agramonte.
The best part of our conversation had, of course, a legal aspect and was about the visit of Olga and Ivette as well as Adriana’s case. Actually, it was like a conversation between two lawyers as he had his list of cases and histories that he had compiled beforehand. We discussed the humanitarian nature of all this. He’s gifted with a sharp mind and an internationalist vision of both political and personal events. In the same talk he moved from relations between Cuba and the United States to chatting about the typical level of culture of someone living in the USA and that of those in prison with him–always with the same humanitarian concern, well-informed and unassuming.
I think the fact that we are both from the Caribbean and at the same time US-born (I was born in New Jersey) helped a great deal. Rene moves from one culture to another with extraordinary ease–especially in relation to those who, like him, have been victimized by the system–yet not a word or sign of bitterness for the many oppressors in the USA. He only mentioned–and I agreed with him–that this country has a system that favors the oppressors, granting them power over the lives and destiny of others.
We know that the US government has, for three years, prevented Rene’s wife, and by extension their little 6-year-old daughter Ivette, from visiting him in prison. How does Rene deal with this?
Well, Edgefield Prison is in South Carolina–a state that is very conservative with very significant racist traditions. I should mention in passing that I lived in South Carolina during the segregation years in 1958 when I was five years old. My father was a sergeant in a base where they brought people from Puerto Rico to do their military service. I could not go with my family to parks and playgrounds because they were forbidden to Puerto Ricans and Blacks. White people threw sand in our picnic hampers. The stores had signs that prohibited entry to Blacks, Puerto Ricans and dogs. My mother always warned me about these things. So, imagine. I return here almost a half century later to visit a Cuban hero unjustly imprisoned in a land that brings back quite a few bad memories. I never would have thought that I would be granted such a privilege and take every step in the name of my people including my Cuban friends.
South Carolina has changed both a great deal and very little since my childhood. It is a very beautiful state with magnificent countryside, rivers and woods, but customs persist. Local television speaks of the Cold War as if it was still on, and there were two programs in the morning attacking the Cuban Revolution’s accomplishments. To the south of where Rene is imprisoned–some 25 miles–is the Regional Antiterrorist Communications Center where military intelligence operations are purportedly coordinated for the Caribbean area. In the middle of a wood not far from this is Rene, incarcerated in a grey cement structure, surrounded of course by barbed wire, observation towers and walls designed to intimidate.
What has happened with Rene is worse than segregation. He has been given two unjust sentences. The first is the atrocious sentence of 15 years for a crime he had not committed. The second is the undeclared sentence of preventing him from seeing his wife and child. Not even the most violent criminals are deprived of such visits unless by court order. With Rene this has been done surreptitiously because neither public opinion nor any judge that respects the law would consent to this. It is abuse, and a form of torture comparable to that practiced in Iraq.
I don’t deny that my mind was filled with ideas and emotions waiting for Rene to appear in the small windowless room assigned to our visit. With the first handshake, however, I felt that I was before a spirit with all the humanity that both Rene and Cuba represent that the bars and the cement walls of the prison could not break. He put all doubts aside, told me he was well, and that he was there to guarantee that the people of Cuba would be free from terrorist attack.
I didn’t talk about the prison conditions because it wasn’t necessary. We spoke of his family, of Olguita and Ivette, of their dog Chencha, as if he saw them every day, as if he had never left Cuba. There were no tears as his love for his family cannot be locked up, cannot end within the confines of his cell.
So I forgot where I was and joined Rene and his family visiting all of Havana and Cuba–from Pinar del Rio to Bayamo…
What do you think needs to be done to ensure that Rene and his wife and little daughter see each other again?
That’s a good question. Rene and I spoke extensively about this although I speak here only for myself. First is to continue to speak of the case to everyone–especially in relation to the visits. The United States has a long tradition in respect of family rights. The integrity of the family, expressed above all by parent-child contact, is a main constitutional right. No effort is spared to save children from terrible conditions. I believe that the case of Ivette and Olguita, as well as that of Adriana, is offensive to the decent traditional feelings of most people in the US. A similar situation occurred with Elian Gonzalez and his father. Spreading the humanitarian word on this is vital.
Given that the United States is such a large country, I would like to see more information provided to humanitarian organizations and religious groups on a local level. This worked well for us in the US solidarity movement for Vieques as many people focus their attention on locally arranged activities and less so on a national level. Perhaps they won’t read the New York Times (where a full page ad appeared in March describing the case of the Cuban Five) or regularly visit the Internet, but they can sign a petition and complain to their local representatives.
The US government has imposed a wall of silence around this case to such an extent that a number of people, organizations and friends in solidarity with Cuba both in and outside of the United States had to pay $50,000 to publish an ad telling the truth. Do you think that this March 4th ad in the New York Times was sufficient to get the word out to the people of the United States?
In my opinion the ad in the New York Times had a real impact. I said to Rene that I was surprised that the ad hadn’t provoked a response from the Cuban-American right-wing in Miami, and he said that was precisely because of this wall of silence–that they quite simply won’t talk about the case in Miami.
I think that there is still a lot of ignorance regarding the case and that we need to repeat things like placing ads in the New York Times or in other ways, adjusting for the local conditions of each town or community.
In Hartford, Connecticut, for example, the mainstream press doesn’t talk about the case but a journalist friend of progressive causes has brought it upon on a couple of occasions on local TV. On Thursday, March 13, we presented the video “September and More” that was produced in Cuba, and I spoke for half an hour on the Five and the denial of visas to Olguita and Adriana. Soon I will be on TV again to present the DVD “Five Reasons”.
The people of the United States along with the media have reacted to the images of abuse committed against prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo. Do the people of the US know about the abuses and arbitrary punishments meted out to inmates in US prisons?
No, few know about this. Everything is rigidly controlled. This is protected information.
Are there any images that show the conditions when, as in the case of the Five, prisoners are confined to solitary cells? If so, have such pictures appeared in the US press?
Again, the answer is no. As Rene mentioned when we spoke, the press is a part of this system of repression. For example, the New York Times began covering the trial because it was about the arrest of alleged Cuban spies. However, when the defense began to present its case, the NY Times reporter was withdrawn. Other media also stopped covering the case. They acted together as if on command.
Curiously, Rene and I spoke about the writings of Jose Marti on the people of the United States and how the press manipulates and misinforms them. The events of Iraq which you mentioned a moment ago show that Marti was right–that much of the information on torture in Iraq has not been exposed because of the supposed impartial press in the US, but that goodness flowers everywhere because soldiers–decent people like the Latino trooper Mejias (condemned to one year in prison for refusing to return to Iraq)–refused to participate in the torture and took risks to denounce it. The brutality exposed by the press was not well-received by the US public, which has seen the nefarious lies about the invasion of Iraq unmasked. I believe this has opened a new window to talk about the treatment of prisoners in the United States, not only in Guantanamo and Iraq, and therefore lead to more people hearing about the unjust conditions under which the Five are incarcerated and the refusal to allow Olga, Adriana and Ivette to visit; things that are occurring in their country. We need to take advantage of the moment.
What were you thinking as you walked through the iron gate separating Rene from the rest of the world?
I can tell you that without thinking. I felt very peaceful, and for some reason I thought of Che…
The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a non-for profit organization that provides financial help for the educational end emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists. To date it has given more than a million dollars in grants, including grants to progressive activists from Puerto Rico. The RFC was created by Robert (Rosenberg) Meeropol, son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953. Their sons, Michael and Robert, were 10 and 6 at the time, respectively. From November 1950 to the spring of 1951, after the arrest Julius and Ethel, but prior to their execution, Robert and Michael were placed in a shelter. In 1954, shortly after the children went to live with the Meeropols, Manny Block, the Rosenberg’s attorney died. The children were seized and placed in an orphanage. Eventually they were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol. With the creation of the RFC more than ten years ago, Robert seeks to return to the community and the world what was given to him and Michael in silence.
RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ CRUZ can be reached at: RRodriguezCruz@ghla.org