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Maximum Security Prison, Turn Left After “Hooters” Sign

Highway 15 connects California’s Inland Empire with Las Vegas – accounting for the relative thickness of Saturday morning traffic. So we don’t stare too long at signs advertising Gentleman’s Clubs – showing no gentlemen, but rather attractive young women. Did you get it? If not you will. A few miles ahead the road ascends into the high desert. A billboard descends to Super Hooters (appropriately clad females presenting their gifts).

We drive past cactus littered with plastic bags and empty tract houses. Then another desert eyesore confronts us: the US Penitentiary. We calculate it has enough barbed wire to fence the US-Mexico border, with three brooding towers sheltering unseen guards with rifles. We park outside the maximum security unit.

We fill out and sign forms, wait, get called, then, remove our belts and shoes, and empty our pockets into a tray. We place coins – to buy junk food sold in the visiting room vending machines – and get our bodies X-rayed.

Saul asks a guard if he gets lonely doing “tower duty.” He shrugs. “You learn to cope. We’re in prison just like the inmates here,” he says. “Difference is we get to go home at night. Welcome to Paradise.”

A guard stamps our wrists with an invisible imprint, and we sit and wait, staring at wall photographs of President Obama, Attorney General Holder, the prison chief of California and the Victorville Warden, all men of color. Beneath the portraits sits a hand drawn sign with a bunny advertising an Easter egg hunt for prison staff. Another poster advertises National Women’s Week.

A guard escorts visitors into the fluorescent-lit visiting room laden with miniature grey plastic chairs. We wait for Gerardo Hernandez, sentenced in 2001 to two consecutive life terms for conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.

He was controller of Cuban intelligence agents who infiltrated Miami-based Cuban exile groups that plotted violence against Cuban targets. In 1997, these groups planted bombs at heavily populated tourist sites in Havana. A tourist died in one bombing.

The agents also infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, originally formed in the early 1990s to help rescue rafters leaving Cuba. After Washington and Havana signed an immigration accord, the rafter epidemic stopped. The Brothers designed new task: drop provocative leaflets over Havana. The Cuban intelligence agents discovered that the Brothers’ leader also planned to drop serious weapons from subsequent flights.

On February 24, 1996, after the Cuba had delivered in vain numerous warnings to Washington to control these unauthorized flights, Cuban MIGs shot down two planes. The pilots and co-pilots died. Cuba maintains the incident took place over its airspace, meaning the alleged crime for which Gerardo is serving time didn’t occur.

In September 1998, the FBI Bureau Chief ignored activities of certain Saudis training for their mission in the Miami area, which they realized on 9/11. Instead, Hector Pesquera, closely allied with right wing Cuban exiles, arrested the men now known as the Cuban 5. Havana had recycled their information to the FBI who had then seized illegal arms and explosives caches.

In 2001, at Gerardo’s trial, the federal prosecutor summoned as an expert witness, General James R. Clapper, Jr., (Now Director of National Intelligence). Clapper had read the material the government had seized from Hernandez. On cross examination, Paul McKenna, Gerardo’s attorney, asked if Clapper had “come across any secret national defense information that was transmitted (to Cuba)?”

“Not that I recognized, no.”

Agreeing with other expert witnesses like retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, and Army Major General Edwards Breed Atkinson, Clapper could not testify to any material seized that demonstrated espionage.

McKenna: “Would you agree on saying that having access to public information is not an act of espionage?”

Clapper: “Yes”.

McKenna: “Would you, with your experience in intelligence matters, describe Cuba as a military threat for the United States?”

Clapper: “Absolutely not. Cuba does not represent a threat.”

McKenna: “Did you find any evidence indicating that Gerardo Hernandez was trying to obtain secret information?”

Clapper: “No, not that I remember.”

Without evidence an intimidated Miami jury convicted the Cuban Five.

Almost eleven years later, we see Gerardo bouncing across the room to hug us. His smile conveyed spiritual energy we found hard to imagine living in Victorville’s “Paradise.”

“I’m serving two consecutive life sentences for conspiracy to commit espionage and murder, a longer sentence than those real spies who transmitted highly secret information to foreign powers. We didn’t deal with anything even remotely resembling classified material,” he explained.

Gerardo spoke of the recent Israeli exchange — one sergeant for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – and how the Israeli public supported the move. Two plus years ago, Cuba arrested and convicted Alan Gross for having illegally imported prohibited technology to create impenetrable satellite communication systems. Gross received almost $600,000 as an AID subcontractor to establish a secret communication network as part of a plan for regime change. (Desmond Butler AP, February 13, 2012)

Gross has served two plus years of a fifteen-year sentence in Cuba, Gerardo, thirteen plus. Diplomatic sources indicated – not confirmed — that Cuba had offered to free Gross if President Obama releases the Cuban Five. With pressure from Gross’ family and the Jewish community these reciprocal humanitarian gestures could become reality – after November, of course.

We hugged goodbye, Gerardo smiled and fisted a salute. Having imbibed another dose of the American experience, we reversed our journey without looking back at the Hooters sign.

Danny Glover is an actor and activist. 

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens at Howard University (Blackburn Center) April 19, 7 PM. CounterPunch published his BUSH & BOTOX WORLD.

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