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It was nearly nine o’clock that Wednesday December 17, 2014 when I saw a tweet by Rene Gonzalez, one of the five Cuban spies who had been imprisoned in the United States for over a decade. THEY RETURNED! I had to look twice. Could it be true? I quickly started searching in newspapers and digital media for any news about the Five, as they were known in Cuba, but all pointed to Rene’s tweet. Minutes later, in three consecutive tweets Rene presented concrete evidence to allay any doubts. The papers for the release from prison of Gerardo, Ramon and Antonio were signed. They were free.
Previously, on December 4, Gerardo was abruptly transported from the maximum security prison in Victorville, California where he had spent most of his 16 year prison term and taken to a penitentiary center in Oklahoma City. Without knowing why he was there he was put in the “hole”, another term for solitary confinement in a cell with no window or contact with other prisoners, subjected to brutal and inhumane treatment by the guards. He was left there for eleven days. On December 15, he was suddenly transferred to a prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina. He was not even given time to gather and bring the few personal possessions he had accumulated over the last 16 years in prison.
Across the country in Florida, Antonio was awoken at five o’clock in the morning on Monday December 15, in his prison cell in Marianna, a medium security penitentiary. He was only told to pack his personal items, nothing more. He complied, not knowing where he was being taken or why. He was then transported in a private jet to the prison hospital in Butner. There, he thought he’d have to adapt again to a new surrounding and make his life in that prison.
That same day, Ramon, still registered under the false name he used during his intelligence mission in the United States, Luis Medina, was also taken from his cell in Georgia to the prison hospital in Butner. He wasn’t given any instructions or information about the reason for his transfer. It was not until the next day, on December 16, that all three – Gerardo, Ramon and Antonio – met face to face in the same place, and they knew from that moment on they were going home.
They found it impossible to contain their happiness. Between smiles, jokes and hugs, US officials got so nervous that when they brought the three of them to the plane on the early morning of December 17, they forced them to speak English. Perhaps the feared Castro-spies would still be conspiring against the country that had deprived them of their freedom for the past 16 years. In a final blow, as the plane approached their homeland, the authorities covered the windows of the plane. They couldn’t even see the arrival into Cuba.
Antonio was first off the plane. He wanted it to be Gerardo, but because of the way they had been seated on the plane, it just wasn’t possible. The humid air from the tropical island entered him like a breath of love, and at that time, he said, their haunted past just evaporated. Suddenly they saw their family and exploded with joy. Antonio, with his mother Mirta in an embrace of infinite love; Ramon covering his wife Elizabeth with affectionate kisses; and Gerardo, caressing his beautiful wife, Adriana, with her belly full of life. In a symbolic, nationwide embrace, President Raul Castro was there to receive them, alongside the other two former Cuban spies, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez, who had been released months earlier.
GERARDO AND ADRIANA
Gerardo Hernandez was given two life sentences plus fifteen years in a high maximum security prison in the United States for espionage-related charges.
Gerardo is a handsome man, with a friendly and youthful face. He is more reserved than the other four, and appears to deeply ponder his words before saying them out loud. When I saw him for the first time at the International Press Center in Havana, we hugged and he told me he always read my writings when he was in jail. We talked for a long time in a rather large room, accompanied by Ramon and Rene.
His relatives were in the room and everything had the feel of an informal interview. He told me about the motives behind his clandestine work in Miami and details of his operational activities. He was the team leader, the head of the “Wasp Network” whose agents infiltrated anti-Castro groups to discover and prevent their violent actions against Cuba. He used a false identity during his seven years of intelligence work in the United States until his arrest on September 12, 1998. Gerardo was in charge of coordinating and processing the intelligence information he collected from the agents who had penetrated anti-Castro organizations in Florida. He then would send it all to Havana through various secret methods. Gerardo was the link between the undercover agents and the Cuban government.
After a while, I asked Gerardo if I could accompany him to his house to talk to him with his wife, Adriana. I wanted a more casual, comfortable and familiar atmosphere to better understand their story. Graciously, he accepted my request and we got in his car and drove off. We arrived at his residence that warm day, and Gerardo went in first to let Adriana know we were there. When I entered, the first person I saw was Gema, then three months old, in a little bassinet in the foyer. She was beautiful. Her gorgeous round face and the depth of her clear blue eyes were captivating. “What a beautiful Gem”, I exclaimed, and Gerardo answered, “Yes, she looks like her Mom”. Adriana, entered the room and greeted me warmly. She is a very pretty woman who exudes remarkable internal strength. She offered us a drink to freshen up and we went into the courtyard to sit down and talk.
“I want to show you something first”, said Gerardo, carrying a plant in his hands. “One day we went to a place around here and they gave us this bonsai”. He showed it to me closely, holding it up high. “You see, my wife is a bit small in stature, but very beautiful, and I always called her bonsai. In the letters I wrote her from prison, I would always refer to her as Bonsai”. They both laughed. “Because of this, the Americans thought that she was a spy and her nickname was Bonsai”, Gerardo said while chuckling. Sure, they can laugh now at the absurd treatment they received from US authorities, but in reality the lengthy separation Gerardo and Adriana suffered was excruciatingly painful.
Leaving the bonsai in the garden, Gerardo picked up little Gema in his arms and walked over to a large comfortable chair and sat down. Adriana sat on the arm of the chair, gently leaning on her husband as though she never wanted to let him out of her touch. Looking at that beautiful, young couple with their aura of happiness, preciously holding their adorable baby girl close between them, I wanted to know how this all happened. “Tell me how it all began and how we got to this point”, I asked, nodding my head towards Gema. The story of Gerardo and Adriana is a true love story.
“I was studying international relations”, began Gerardo, “and I had to take three or four guagaus (buses) to get to my school. One day, at the bus stop I saw a very beautiful young woman and fell right in love with her. It was love at first bus”, they laughed. “I was immediately tormented, I could not think of anything else but her and that night I wrote a poem. It was called ‘A woman whose name I do not know’, because I didn’t even know her name, I only knew I loved her”.
“I was 16”, added Adriana, “and he was 21. I was not interested in him. I was into my studies and did not want to be distracted”. But Gerardo was insistent and persistent. He tried his best to coincide again with Adriana at the bus stop, but it took him a lot of time, patience and coordination to make it happen. All the while, he carried the poem he had written for her in his pocket. He was determined to find her again and not let her get away without at least trying to talk to her. A few days later, Gerardo’s wish came true, he ran into Adriana at the bus stop and handed her the poem he had written about her.
“The poem became reality. It said we were going to meet again and fall in love”, revealed Adriana. “One day we went to sit on the boardwalk overlooking the sea. We were watching the boats. Gerardo signaled to my left and told me to look at a big boat out in the water. Then he pointed towards the other side, saying an even bigger boat was there. When I went to look that way, his face was right next to mine and we kissed. In that instant, I fell in love with him”.
They married when Adriana turned 18 in 1988, and months later, Gerardo went to fight in Angola with the Cuban internationalist brigade. He was awarded for his bravery and skills, and Cuba’s intelligence agency took an interest in him. Shortly thereafter, Gerardo was recruited as an intelligence officer and commissioned to lead a special mission in the United States. Adriana knew nothing about his real work. She thought he had joined the ranks of Cuban diplomacy, as he had told her, and when her husband had to go abroad before they had even been married and lived together for a year, she thought he was going to work at the Embassy of Cuba in Argentina. “It was the special period in Cuba, we had severe economic difficulties in our country and families could not accompany the diplomats abroad”, she explained.
In reality, Gerardo had left for Miami under another identity. He began his new secretive life as a Puerto Rican named Manuel Viramontez. Gerardo coordinated a team of Cuban agents who had infiltrated several groups of exiles in Miami that were known for their violent actions against Cuba. Different from the glamour of James Bond films, Gerardo’s work was tedious and meticulous. Once he received intelligence from his agents through intricately arranged clandestine meetings, he would verify, process and then communicate the information to headquarters in Havana. Then, he would follow through with whatever instructions were sent back to him. He was only able to visit Cuba and Adriana two or three times maximum during each year. He would travel to Cancun, Mexico as Manuel Viramontez, where he was met by Cuban officials who then gave him his real passport to return home to visit his wife.
In the mid-nineties, after several years on this mission, separated in distance from each other, Gerardo and Adriana talked about their desire to start a family and have a child. “We could never find the time and right circumstance to do it”, said Gerardo. “We always thought the time would come later”.
But a few years later, something totally unexpected happened. On September 12, 1998 at 5:30 am, a dozen heavily armed FBI agents entered his humble apartment in Miami and arrested him. “I told them my name was Manuel Viramontez and I was Puerto Rican, an American citizen. They told me they knew who I really was and what I was doing. I said nothing else”.
For months, Adriana heard nothing from her husband. No letters, no calls, no visits. The news of his arrest hadn’t come out publicly because he wasn’t using his real name, nor did he reveal it to the FBI. Finally months later, after much worry and despair, officials from the Interior Ministry in Cuba knocked on her door and asked to come inside. They told her about Gerardo’s real work and his unfortunate arrest. He wasn’t alone, they informed her, several others were arrested with him. She was told to not say anything to anyone else in her family. “It was difficult because no one could know that Gerardo was imprisoned in the US. I had to act like everything was normal”, she related.
Finally, Gerardo’s real name became public during the beginning of his trial after an acquaintance had recognized his picture in a local Miami paper, and Adriana didn’t have to keep silent anymore about her anguish. But when she tried to apply for a visa to see him in prison, her request was denied by the US government. “They accused her of being an intelligence agent as well”, said Gerardo. “It was a way to blackmail me. They did everything to try and force us to betray Cuba and when they realized we weren’t going to, then they denied the visa to her as punishment”.
Gerardo was given two life sentences plus fifteen years, a completely disproportionate and unjust sentence (that’s another story). “They wanted me to collaborate with the US government because it would have been a major blow to Cuba. None of the officers who were arrested betrayed our country, though the US kept trying until the last moment”.
Sixteen years went by before Adriana and Gerardo would see each other again. Countless attempts to visit him throughout more than a decade were all rejected by the United States. The years were passing by and she was unable to achieve her dream of having Gerardo’s child. But she never faltered in her love for him, nor did she seek solace in other men. Instead, she fought for his freedom every day, traveling the world to plea with international solidarity groups, celebrities, parliaments and governments to join the struggle for his release.
By 2012, Adriana was 42 years old with a husband sentenced to two life terms in prison in the United States. They had been together since she was 16. She had known no other love, nor did she desire to. However, her chances of achieving motherhood were rapidly decreasing. Instead of giving up, Adriana began a low profile international humanitarian campaign to plead for her right to have a child with her husband. “I had not been charged with anything, why then were they denying me my right to have a child with my husband?”
Many around the world heard their pleas and sympathized with their situation. “I want to mention some people who have made this possible”, Gerardo told me in our conversation, Gema asleep on his chest. “Vilma Espin, who was president of the Federation of Cuban Women, had a very large role in supporting Adriana”. I asked if it was true that a US official had also helped. “Yes, it’s true. A US senator, Patrick Leahy and his wife helped us”, he said.
“They listened to me”, chimed in Adriana. “I met with the Senator and his wife and they understood the humanitarian side of my situation, and they graciously helped me”.
In early 2014, while the governments of Cuba and the United States had already begun secret negotiations to restore relations, another plan was underway. President Obama had authorized Adriana’s humanitarian petition and one day in April, a frozen capsule was taken by a US official from the maximum security prison in Victorville, California, to a fertility clinic in Panama. When Adriana arrived in Panama, she was nervous and excited about what could happen. “We did not know if it would work, the procedure was done and I left and went back to Cuba”, she said, still with an air of wonder about the miracle that came to life.
At that time, nobody knew what would happen months later between the US and Cuba. It was impossible to imagine both Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously announcing on television that relations between the two Cold War enemies would be restored. Adriana had to keep her pregnancy secret from everyone except the few Cuban officials who knew, and Gerardo. Neither she nor Gerardo were aware of the negotiations between Washington and Havana that were underway, they were only told that the pregnancy must be kept secret from the public. She was just happy to have a baby growing inside her and felt that even though she would not have her husband with her at least she would have his child.
“How did you find out about his release from prison?” I asked her. “They told me in a very delicate way, because my pregnancy was already far along (8 months) and they didn’t want me to get too excited and risk going into labor”, she replied.
On December 17, a plane embellished with the US flag landed in Cuban territory and Gerardo, a man condemned for life, was now free. The first embrace between Gerardo and Adriana was filled with intensity, happiness, tears of joy and pure love. She had resisted and stood strong for 16 years, as he had too, always faithful, loyal and committed to each other and their country.
Twenty days after his release and arrival to Cuba, Gema was born with both her mother and father present to receive her into this world. “It was the happiest day of my life”, said Gerardo, with no doubt.
“We want her to be a happy and cheerful girl like all other children, and have an ordinary life like everyone else”, Gerardo said to me, our conversation coming to an end. I watched them with a sense of transcendence. Their story is not just a personal story. It’s the story of Cuba, the story of a nation – a people – that have withstood and remained steadfast, loyal, dignified and strong in the face of the toughest and most powerful obstacles, and they prevailed. And it was all done for love. Love of country, love for the people, love for humanity.
I looked at Gerardo and gestured with my hands towards Gema in his arms, and said with an uncontainable smile, “I’m sure she will be far from ordinary”.
Within the story of the Cuban Five, there is a wealth of experiences and lessons emblematic of the greatest struggles of humankind. The sense of duty that guided each of them gave them the strength to resist through insufferable conditions. The thread woven through all their stories, that kept them strong with clear hearts and minds, was always the unconditional support of their wives, families, mothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends around the world. They were never alone, even during the 17 months they were forced into inhumane solitary confinement, the “hole”. As Antonio said, they were never really prisoners. “Every night in my prison bed, as I laid my head on the pillow knowing that I had fulfilled my duty, I knew I was free”.