Seventeen Months in "the Hole"
This conversation took place on April 1, 2009. Our film crew received Justice Department approval to talk with “the prisoner,” with a prison official in the room. Before his 1998 arrest, Gerardo Hernandez directed the operations of the other Cuban State Security agents who infiltrated violent groups in the Miami area for the purposes of stopping them from carrying our terrorist attacks on tourist sites in Cuba. We took complete and careful notes. (Click here to read part one.)
SL: Did you personally meet any of the terrorists, as you call them?
GH: No, I saw some of them. But I had no contact with them. Some of us [the five] were accused of being illegal agents. I had a false identity — Manuel Viramonte. I compiled information the other agents delivered to me, those who had maintained their own identities, like Rene Gonzalez. He kept his own name. He stole an airplane from Cuba. Someone like that can count on gaining the trust of, and can approach an organization. Not so in my case since I didn’t even have a real story. So my mission was to compile information the others gave me and send it to Cuba.
SL: During the day you worked as a graphic artist?
GH: I was more of an independent contractor. At least that was the [cover] story. I did a few illustrations for a newspaper, but it was just to maintain the image.
SL: So you supervised those who had infiltrated violent groups? Explain how you did this.
GH: It’s not appropriate to give too many details, right? But in the trial documents it shows we had agents with access to these [terrorist] organizations. Their function was to protect Cuba by learning countless pieces of information regarding terrorist plans of these organizations.
For example, Rene joins the Brothers to the Rescue and he hears a comment from Basulto that they have a weapon ready to test on targets in the Everglades. They fire it and it works. Now they try to find a place in Cuba to fire it. Well, I’m alerted through previously arranged methods of communication, like a beeper. I’d call him and with coded language we’d arrange to meet. We’d take precautions and meet and he’d tell me about them testing this weapon.
Or Alpha 66 is planning an expedition to fire weapons at the Cuban coast or they want to put a bomb on a plane full of tourists going from Central America to Cuba. I’m not making this up. I’d try to encourage them to find out more while not taking unnecessary risks. I then sent this information to Cuba and Cuba would respond telling me to do this or that, to seek information through this means or that. Basically, that was my job.
SL: Describe what happened the day the FBI arrested you.
GH: It was a Saturday [September 12, 1998]. I was sleeping. It was about 6 AM. I lived in a small, one-room apartment. My bed was close to the door. I remember hearing in my sleep someone trying to force open the lock. I heard a loud sound as they knocked the door down. It was a swat team. By the time I sat up in bed I was surrounded by people with machine guns and helmets and all you would see in the movies. They arrested me, handcuffed me, and looked in my mouth. I guess they had seen a lot of James Bond movies and they thought I would have cyanide in my mouth. So they checked to make sure that I wouldn’t poison myself. I asked them why they arrested me. They said, “You know why.” They put me in a car and took me to the office of Head of the Southern Florida FBI Bureau on 163rd Ave. here in Miami. There the interrogation began.
We were put in separate offices each one of us. They sat me in an office, handcuffed me to the wall. There they interrogated me. I had the “honor” that Hector Pesquera came to see me. He was the director of the South Florida branch of the FBI, and he was Puerto Rican. And my assumed identity, Manuel Viramonte, was Puerto Rican, too. I told him I was from Puerto Rico and so he started to ask me questions about Puerto Rico. All kinds of questions. Who was the governor in such-and-such a year? Where did you live? What bus did you take to get to school? What route did you take? And when he saw that I was able to answer these questions he got really upset. He slammed his fist into the table and said, “I know you are Cuban and you are going to rot in prison because Cuba isn’t going to do anything for you.” Then not him specifically, but the others who took part in the interrogation, started to try all sorts of techniques. They would say to me, “You know how this business works. You know that you are an illegal official. You know what it says in the books, that Cuba will never recognize that they sent you here with a fake passport. They’ll never recognize you, so you will rot in prison. The best thing you can do is cooperate with us and we’ll offer you whatever you want. We will change your identity, give you a new bank account.” They said whatever, so that I would rat on the others. They would say: “Here is the phone. Call your Consulate.” Strategies designed to get me to turn. So this is what happened to all 5 of us separately. Later they took us to the prison, the Center of Federal Detention in Miami and put us in “the hole.”
SL: For how long?
GH: 17 months. The first five were hard for the 5 of us of course. Those with false identities didn’t have anyone to write to; nor did anyone write to us; no one to telephone. Sometimes we were allowed phone calls, the guards would open the little window in the door, and put the phone there. “Aren’t you going to call anyone? Your family in Puerto Rico?”
“No,” I would say, “I’m not going to call.”
But why?” they’d say, to be cruel, because they knew I wasn’t Puerto Rican and wouldn’t use the phone. Those were difficult months.
SL: Describe “the hole?”
GH: It’s an area that every prison has, where they put prisoners for disciplinary, or for protective purposes if they can’t be with the rest of the population. The Miami call was on the 12th floor. The cells are for 2 people, but we were alone in ours, individually for the first 6 months – with no contact. Later our lawyers took legal measures so that we could meet in pairs. In those first 6 months in “solitary confinement” we had a shower inside the cell so you can bathe whenever you want. But you get everything in the cell wet when you take a shower. You’re in the cell 23 hours a day. And one hour a day of recreation where they take you to another place. In Miami it was practically just another cell, but a bit bigger and with this grid through which you could see a little piece of the sky. You could tell if it was day or night, and a bit of fresh air would come through. That was what they called “recreation.” But often we didn’t go because they’d take too long handcuffing you, checking your body, your cell, to get you there and back. Sometimes they’d put us all together in the cell; so during that hour we could talk. The regimen was strict. They used to punish prisoners who commit a serious indiscipline. There we were 23 some times 24 hours a day, inside those 4 small walls, with nothing to do. It’s very difficult from a humane point of view. And many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds, start screaming.
SL: Did you do something bad?
GH: No, we were sent there from the beginning. They told us it was to protect us from the general population. But in my opinion, it had more to do with their attempt to get us to turn. After fear and intimidation didn’t work they thought: “Well let’s put them in solitary for a few months and see if they change their minds.”
The only thing to read was the Bible, and even for that you had to submit a written request to the chaplain. I made the request, to have something to read, and got a bible. When they brought it to me — I don’t know if it was a coincidence or what — but it had some cards inside, including the telephone numbers of the FBI. Just in case I had forgotten, right? As if, “Well, this communist guy is asking for the Bible…he must be about to turn.” That’s how I imagine they were thinking, or scheming.
SAUL LANDAU is currently making (with Jack Willis) a film on the Cuban Five. His other films are available on DVD from firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and autho of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch A/K).