Obama, Give Me Five
On November 12th, the three of us traveled twelve hours by bus from Havana to reach Holguín, site of the 9th International Colloquium for the Freedom of the Five. Holguín is located at the eastern end of Cuba, 85 miles west of Guantanamo. Our bus, nicknamed the Granma, was part of a fleet bringing delegates from around the world to the Colloquium, which was organized by ICAP (The Cuban Friendship Institute). Held from November 12-16, 2013, the goal of the Colloquium was to strengthen the unified international strategy to win the release of the men from U.S. prisons where they have been held for fifteen years.
The Cuban 5, Rene Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González were arrested in Miami in 1998. The mission of the Five was to infiltrate and monitor the activities of anti-Cuban exile groups operating in Miami. Always fully supported by the U.S. government, these groups had been responsible for numerous bombings and other violent terrorist activities inside Cuba for decades, resulting in the death of nearly 3,500 Cubans and the injury of many more. (see www.thecuban5.org for more information). The aim of these anti-Cuban groups was to destroy the Cuban revolution and the radically different society that it was struggling to create. During the course of our visit we heard testimony from many Cubans who had family killed or injured in these attacks. The Cuban 5 were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the U.S. after a sham trial which ignored all of the evidence in their defense. The trial took place in Miami despite repeated efforts to change the venue because seating an impartial jury was impossible in the highly prejudicial political atmosphere.
Like many of the other 272 delegates from 51 countries, we three brought our own particular experiences of struggle against U.S. imperialism to the Colloquium. Linda is a former political prisoner who served 16 years in Federal prison before she received a commutation of her sentence by President Clinton in 2001, and we had all participated in the campaign for her release. The three of us had also been deeply involved with the successful clemency campaign for eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners whose sentences were commuted by Clinton in 1999. This history helped us recognize that now is a critical moment in winning freedom for the Five, with the focus of political pressure directly on President Obama. Obama has the constitutional power to release the Five and a moral and judicial obligation to do so since they are innocent. We hoped that our experiences with previous campaigns could be of use.
We were also very excited because we knew that René González, one of the Five, was finally allowed to return to Cuba in May 2013 and would be participating in the Colloquium in Holguín for the first time. René completed his 15-year sentence in October 2011, but was detained in Miami as a condition of his parole until April 2013, when he was permitted to return to Cuba for his father’s funeral. He was allowed to stay in Cuba permanently only when he renounced his U.S. citizenship.
René and Olga Salanueva, his wife, received a tremendous, loving welcome from the people of Holguín and the delegates to the Colloquium. René‘s strong, visible presence confirmed the truth of the refrain – Si Se Puede! (Yes, it can be done!) — which was repeated again and again throughout the Colloquium.
René’s uncompromising description of the crimes of the United States against the Cuban people made it clear that his years in prison had only sharpened his understanding of the destructive nature of the U.S. system. “The arrest of the Five was a shameless act, an act of revenge which reflected the power of imperialism to make people suffer without caring about the consequences. “ He described how the Five were deliberately isolated from their families and surrounded by the disinformation presented by the U.S. media and its criminal legal system for the first couple of years. However, the Five never lost confidence that their families, the Cuban people, and eventually the world would learn the truth and support their efforts to defend Cuba against terrorism and aggression. Since his sentence was the shortest, René was released first. “I had always dreamed that all of us would be released together,” he explained. Since that dream was not realized, part of him still remained in prison with his comrades. Working for their freedom was now central to his life, and Olga confirmed that he was up at all hours of the night, working on some aspect of the campaign. As Ramón wrote in his message to the Colloquium, “We were ‘born’ Five and we will eternally be Five!”
The organizers of the Colloquium understood that successful campaigns are not developed primarily in conference halls. Many sessions of the Colloquium were held in Holguín’s universities engaging with students and teachers; in the CDR (Committees in Defense of the Revolution) neighborhood associations; and in nearby municipalities where delegates had a chance to get to know members of the community, talking, eating, singing and dancing together. A highpoint for the three of us was our visit to the municipality of Rafael Freyre, named for a man who died in 1953 after being imprisoned and tortured with his comrades defending the Bayamo barracks at the same time as the historic attack on the Moncada barracks. At a townhall meeting, we listened to students offer poems, statements and songs about the Five. One girl told how her class planted trees on the fifth day of each month. A member of the Women’s Federation described a blanket that women of the community had collectively sewn together with embroidered messages for the Five. It was overwhelming to see how, in truth, they are among the millions of Cubans who know all the details about the 5 and lovingly talk about concern for the 5 and their families.
At the Freyre townhall, one Cuban American delegate explained how her family had emigrated from Cuba to Key West Florida 55 years before. Over time she came to experience the many injustices of life in the U.S. and had become an active member of the José Marti Association in Miami, which has become a potent force in challenging the agenda of Miami’s right-wing Cuban organizations. Linda was then introduced to the gathering as a symbol of the slogan Si Se Puede! Because Clinton had been successfully pressured to release Linda as well as eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners, there was hope that Obama could be compelled to do the same for the Five.
In an emotional speech, Linda made it clear that the Cuban revolution had helped inspire her anti-imperialist politics from early in her life. In the years since her release she had continued to work for the freedom of political prisoners in the U.S. and also for the human rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Conditions in the U.S. made it very challenging to sustain the work for political prisoners, many of whom have remained in prison for decades. Being in Cuba now for the first time, she recognized how crucial the organized, massive support of the Cuban people was in building the strength of the campaign for the Five’s freedom. One of the women leaders who had represented the community at the 8th Congress of CDRs gave Linda a commemorative button from that Congress. She had worn that button every day, and entrusted Linda to take it to Washington DC, to represent the people of the Rafael Freyre municipality and their demand for freedom for the Five.
From the women leaders who facilitated the townhall in Rafael Freyre, to the mothers, wives, daughters and nieces of the Five, we were repeatedly impressed by the forceful, central role of Cuban women in sustaining the fight to bring the Five home. Mirta Rodriguez, Antonio’s mother, had just returned from an arduous trip visiting her son at Marianna prison in Florida. She described how strong Antonio’s spirit was and how he told her that he knew they were doing everything they could to win their freedom. “ He could be patient,” she said, but after fifteen years she could not. Her outrage at their continued incarceration and her call to increase the effectiveness of the campaign was reiterated passionately by all the other family members who spoke.
The final declaration of the 9th Colloquium summarized the key demands and the actions the delegates would take to heighten our efforts. The proclamation called upon delegates from all countries to actively support the third annual Five Days for the Five in Washington, D.C., which will be held from June 4 – 11, 2014. Initiated by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Five, this series of events will include a rally in front of the White House on Saturday, June 7th, an educational and cultural program on Saturday evening, and intensive Congressional lobbying on Monday-Wednesday, June 9-11. As occurred last year, elected parliamentarians and activists from all over the world will converge in Washington, D.C. to pressure Obama to do the right thing and free the Five, while building public awareness and solidarity with them. We encourage community organizations to endorse the event and urge you to join us. (see www.thecuban5.org for more information).
In his final speech before thousands of residents of Holguín gathered at the city’s monument to Che Guevara, René expressed his confidence in the growth of solidarity across the globe. He described how the isolation that the U.S. government first tried to impose on the Five became ineffectual. “One step at a time, letter by letter, international solidarity became our strongest tool. Letters, first drops then rivers, became our safeguard.” He noted that Gerardo had called for a “jury of millions” to counter the corrupt verdict of the Miami jury that had convicted them. “Now this hope has been exceeded by the millions in Cuba and those around the world who have joined together to demand freedom.”
We know from long hard experience that there are no easy or sure victories when it comes to fighting for justice from the United States. Along with many other political prisoners, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez, Lynne Stewart, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, and the Guantanamo detainees remain captive in U.S. prisons despite lengthy efforts to free them. But our trip to the 9th Colloquium has reinvigorated our belief in the capacity of a unified people to keep struggling for what is just, despite all obstacles. Freedom for the Cuban 5 will strengthen the fight to free them all.
Linda Evans is a former political prisoner and a founding/active member of All of Us or None, a grassroots organization fighting for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people.
Diana Block is the author of Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, and a founding/active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
Amanda Bloom is a social justice activist and a Physician Assistant at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California.