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.
SAUL LANDAU: Later you went to prison at Lompoc [California]?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes, we had a legal battle to get us out of “the hole” and into the general population. Then came the trial, and after the trial, another month back in “the hole.” Then, after the sentencing, they sent us to different penitentiaries. I was sent to Lompoc in 2003, and into “the box.” That happened in all 5 prisons on the same day. It still isn’t clear why, or who gave the order. Lompoc is a very old prison, apart from “the hole,” which is where they send people who attack guards or set fire to mattresses; for the incorrigible, “the box,” a basement below “the hole” — 10 double-doored cells. They put me down there, in my underwear, barefoot for a month. I didn’t know if it was day or night, because you’re inside for 24 hours. There’s no hour of recreation or anything. A leak dripped from the cell above. Whenever that person flushed the toilet, dirty water would run down my cell’s walls.
I complained about health dangers. But they had planned to keep us there for one year for “special administrative measures.” They had warned me I wouldn’t have any contacts, no visits, no nothing. To communicate with my lawyer, I had to submit a letter. I had to make an envelope out of a piece of paper, and seal it with toothpaste. Nothing to read, nothing to write with, nothing! That was quite a difficult month. They [prison authorities] told us we’d be there for a year, and at the end of that year they’d review our cases; we could be there indefinitely. When the guards planned to take me for a bath 3 or 4 guards would handcuff me. The other cells had their exterior doors open. The interior door was like a closed fence, but the iron exterior door that isolated you completely, was left open, so people wouldn’t go crazy. But mine was always closed. When they’d take me to shower, they’d close the other doors so no one would even see me — because one of the rules was that I could have contact with no one. I was there for a month, not knowing if it was day or night, dirty water running down my walls, barefoot, with the light on 24 hours a day; hearing screams of people around me, some of whom gone crazy. One day, a Thursday, they brought me papers to sign, saying I would be there for one year. The following Tuesday, without explanation, just as they’d brought me there without knowing anything, they took me out. We found out that lots of people had protested outside the prison. Members of Congress had inquired about us.
Landau: Under what pretext were you thrown in “the box?” How did you keep sane?
Hernandez: Pretext? None. The lieutenant who took me to the hole asked me: “Why are you going to the hole?” I said, “You’re asking me? You should be telling me.” When I asked they’d tell me, “Orders from above.” Coincidentally, this took place a month before we were to present our appeals, when we most needed contact with our lawyers on finalizing the appeal documents. We [the five] went to “the hole,” a mysterious coincidence, right before our appeal.
How could I stand it? We were acutely aware of the wide support from people trying to get us justice. That really affected us. We knew Cuba would protest, but also that friends throughout the world, including in this country, would do everything possible to free us. We did get out of the hole, finally. Indeed, protests took place in many countries, and in front of the Bureau of Prisons. Such actions really give you hope, strength. And you know you can’t turn on your comrades… people who wouldn’t fail you and hope you won’t fail them. So, you spend all day thinking: “Nothing can happen to me in here, I can’t have a panic attack, a nervous breakdown, I cannot yield, not even a little bit because too many people out there will hold that against me.” That gives you strength.
Landau: Did you think about your family?
Hernandez: The U.S. government won’t give her [wife] a visa to visit me — for 10 years. Denying me the chance to see my wife is part of this process; the interrogation, incentives to betray, months of solitary confinement, The FBI’s or Administration’s plans didn’t materialize. Initially, they thought: “Arrest these Castro agents, threaten them and they’ll grovel, because this is the richest and best country in the world. Cuba is a poor country, a dictatorship…” For the past 50 years, they’ve told Americans, “Cuba is hell — but you can’t go there to see for yourself.”
Americans are free to do many things, but not travel 90 miles to visit that country to check the government’s claims. They planned for ‘the 5’ to switch sides, create this fantastic propaganda show: we’d denounce whatever they thought we should denounce, condemn the revolution; like they do with defecting athletes or musician. All you have to say is: “I come here seeking freedom.” The government squeezes the maximum from them; then they’re forgotten. That was more or less the plan for us, but it didn’t work. In retaliation they were going to make our lives as difficult as possible. For 10 years. Prisoners e-mail their families. They don’t let me use e-mail, not even with my wife.
Landau: What did Cuba do to the United States to deserve punishment for 50 years?
Hernandez: Cuba’s biggest “crime”: its desire to be a sovereign and independent nation. History goes back beyond 50 years. Cuba was winning the independence war against Spain [1895-98], when the United States said: “This is no good for us!” Suddenly and mysteriously, the USS Maine explodes [in Havana Harbor], the pretext for U.S. intervention to defeat Spain. Then they put the Platt Amendment in Cuba’s constitution [allowing U.S. intervention].
Go back much further: Cuba, the ripe fruit, would fall into U.S. hands; Cuba is in the U.S.’ backyard. That little island suffers the misfortune of being 90 miles from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba refused to be the U.S. spa and brothel like in the good old days when marines urinated on the Jose Marti statue. Those times remain present in the minds of Cubans. Cuba’s worst crime is to be free and sovereign — without the U.S. Ambassador dictating as he did for about half a century. That’s why Cuba cannot be forgiven; for wanting to have its own system. Remember they [U.S. companies] owned the casinos, industries, best land; they practically owned the country. That ended in 1959; something for which they can’t forgive us.
Landau: You’re being punished as a symbol of “disrespect?”
Hernandez: Yes, but there’s another fundamental element, in my opinion. The FBI was in an uncomfortable position, because it became known that the FBI had penetrated the Brothers to Rescue using Juan Pablo Roque [another Cuban intelligence agent]. He was their agent; they paid him to give them information. When this came out, the FBI looked bad to the extreme right wingers in Miami. The FBI looked for a scapegoat, so they could say: “We nabbed these five guilty ones.”
Landau: What did Brothers to the Rescue hope to achieve with your trial?
Hernandez: Mainly, an economic goal. Some of them have legitimate political views and are patriots in their own way, but many are in it for economic reasons. The anti-Castro industry is a multi-million dollar industry. For 50 years, people have lived off it: radio commentators to heads of the 3,500 organizations sucking up federal money to “achieve freedom in Cuba;” or taking donations from the elderly to buy arms for the “liberation of Cuba.” It never occurred to [Jose] Basulto to fly into Cuban airspace while people were giving him money to patrol the waters off Florida. He’d bought a few small planes with that donated money. When people stopped giving — why would they do so if the Coast Guard would send rafters back to Cuba — he thought, “I better invent something else.” That’s when he started flying into Cuban airspace… to keep money coming in.
Also, in my opinion, Basulto, who is intelligent, may have wanted to provoke a serious conflict. They dream of the day the U.S. Army would wipe those revolutionaries off the planet. Upon those ashes they’d rebuild their own Cuba; the Cuba they had before the revolution. What they haven’t been able to do, the U.S. Army would do for them. That’s why they call the Bay of Pigs a “betrayal.” They thought the U.S. Army would support them at the Bay of Pigs. That was Kennedy’s betrayal. So, I don’t doubt Basulto intended to create an international conflict. It didn’t matter how many Cubans or Americans would die. All that mattered was getting their country back, what they consider to be their country.
Landau: In Miami, there was a rumor: Basulto was a Cuban agent. All his missions ended in failure or disaster.
Hernandez: That second part is true, but the first part… I doubt it. It’s a shame that lives were lost [after the February 1996 shoot down of Brothers’ planes] but I assure you Cuba did everything possible to prevent it. They sent 16 diplomatic notes through official channels, asking the U.S. not to allow The Brothers to fly into Cuban airspace.
SAUL LANDAU is currently making (with Jack Willis) a film on the Cuban Five. His other films are available on DVD from email@example.com. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and autho of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch A/K).