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Defending Ana Belen Montes and Other Prisoners of Empire

Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre | CC BY 2.0

The campaign to gain freedom for 60 – year old prisoner Ana Belens Montes needs a boost. Arrested in September 2001, Montes confessed to relaying U. S. government information to a Cuban handler. Montes, whose family origins are Puerto Rican, is serving a 25 year sentence at the high – security Carswell Federal Medical Center for women at Ft Worth, Texas. Prisoners there have psychiatric needs or are facing execution. Montes apparently does not suffer from a psychiatric illness.

She was the Cuba expert for the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. She worked there as an analyst for 16 years and received no pay from Cuba’s government for her espionage work.

The campaign on her behalf centers on humanitarian considerations. It gained steam after December 17, 2014 when the last three of the Cuban Five political prisoners returned to Cuba and many Cuban Five supporters turned their attention to Montes.  She has gained support through publicity about harsh prison conditions.  Indeed, prison regulations prohibit her receiving emails, packages, and telephone calls; once a week she is allowed to call her mother. Only a handful of people have been able to visit her. Confined to her cell, she is isolated from the general prison population.

In late 2016 Ana Belen Montes learned that she had breast cancer. Surgery took place, but little information about her condition and treatment has been available. The British Medical Journal Lancet recently concluded that “compassionate release programs in the USA are poorly managed” and that “potentially eligible inmates [are] not being considered for release.” There were reforms, but they won’t benefit Montes because even now humanitarian release doesn’t apply until prisoners are at the end of their illnesses.

Lawyers have explored executive clemency as a tool for remedying excessively long sentences. But Montes’ sentence is not extra-long, according to U. S. norms. One report speaks of six spies serving shorter sentences than hers, another one reports on five spies serving between 23 and 34 years, and yet another tells of eight convicted spies sentenced to 24 years or more.  It turns out that prisoners serving 12 years or less spied for countries friendly to the United States, while all but three of those serving longer sentences worked for Soviet Bloc nations – or in one case, revolutionary China.

It’s clear that any appeal to precedent or to official guidelines on humanitarian release will do little toward securing early release for Ana Belen Montes. The possibility remains, however, of a presidential pardon or commutation of Montes’ sentence. After all, the Constitution gives the president almost unlimited discretion in issuing pardons.

For that to occur, a highly visible, united, and powerful upsurge of popular pressure is required, and that’s not on the horizon. Heightened pressure could also lead to Montes’ oppressive prison conditions being alleviated. The Cuban or Puerto Rican solidarity movements presently are supplying most of the people-power for efforts on her behalf. Their contributions are admirable, but the campaign’s reach is limited.

Potential allies stay away as they attend to other political interests. The difficulty, it seems, lies with activists’ focus on this or that single issue, none of them having to do with political prisoners. So the question is: what must be done to strengthen the recruitment of people dedicated to freedom for Montes and other prisoners, and to protecting them in prison?

As a magnet for recruiting supporters, anti-imperialism would be the grounding for an expanded campaign. That Montes was part of that struggle is clear from what she told her sentencing judge: “I obeyed my conscience rather than the law. … I felt morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.” She added that, “All the world is one country.”

A model for a new campaign is at hand. International Labor Defense (ILD) labored between 1925 and 1946 to defend victims of aggressive capitalism, including jailed activists and unionists, and the racially oppressed. The organization provided prisoners with lawyers, supported them while they were incarcerated, and buoyed up their families. Its reach extended nationwide, with local chapters.

ILD launched highly visible, large-scale campaigns and promoted international solidarity.  Sympathizers abroad agitated for U. S. prisoners and ILD reached out to foreign prisoners and unions, particularly in Cuba and Mexico.

ILD was anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and pro-labor. Although ILD originated with the CPUSA, other left-leaning organizations or unions supplied many of ILD’s leaders during its early years. Famously, ILD saved the lives of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black Alabama teen- agers who in 1931 were charged with rape and sentenced to die. ILD orchestrated court proceedings over the course of years and had a hand in demonstrations across the world.

If ILD existed today, ILD and Ana Belen Montes would, presumably, be a match. One was and the other is anti-imperialist and internationalist. One had and the other has high regard for Cuba’s revolutionary potential.

But ILD required funding and lots of activists to do the work and both are in short supply these days. That ILD could specialize in political-prisoner work was due to sponsorship and support from larger organizations – mainly the CPUSA – with broader political agendas, including anti-imperialism. Such groups are far weaker now.

Though there are difficulties, the need is clear: U.S. imperialism is a scourge upon humanity, and someone who threw a monkey wrench into its machinery is in big trouble. The choice about what to do is straight-forward: stick with more of the same – and it’s not working – or turn to something new – that is to say, something old.

First, in line with ILD’s experience, left political parties and other activist groups with an anti-imperialist bent would encourage their own people or outsiders to engage in collective advocacy for political prisoners. Specializing, they would gain skills and experience. Meanwhile, local groups, harking back to ILD chapters, would prepare to educate communities and activists about the historical context of political prisoners and about contemporary prisoners.  Soon they would be agitating on their own: writing, speaking out, and taking action.  Local groups would develop relations with each other.

To make good on plans like these would be a daunting task. Further, they are speculative, even utopian. But they represent strategic thinking that fills what otherwise is a void of possibilities. Whatever the campaign looks like from now on, it has requirements. It must recognize, one, that the fight for Ana Belen Montes, and other prisoners, is lagging, and, two, that solidarity with their cause is central to resisting imperialism.

Addendum: Prisoner expresses his debt to ILD  

Nate Shaw, a member of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, told his life story to author Theodore Rosengarten, who shaped it into a magnificent autobiography, published in 1974. The title is All God’s Dangers. There, Nate Shaw recalls 12 years of imprisonment in Alabama, beginning in 1932.

Shaw organized his neighbors to resist deputy sheriffs who, at the behest of local creditors and big landowners, were about to seize sharecroppers’ tools, animals, and crops. There was gunfire and Shaw was taken away.

Says Shaw:

“They arrested me in December 1932 … And in three days here come the International Labor Defense people, two of em, white people … I knowed that they come out of the northern states. And in the next day or two in comes Lawyer Stein… he come to the jail every three weeks from then on for five months, until my trial … he come there and told me one time, ‘Shaw, you the best man we got, we goin to stick with you … We may can’t pull you out of it but we goin to stick with you.’ O, they hated his guts …

“Now what he done, I wouldn’t swear to it … But I know by the fact that they never did give me no trouble at all through prison that he done something. And the ILD sent me five dollars a month the whole time I was in prison. And they was helpin my wife too. That’s what the organization believed in – takin care of a man’s family when he’s pulled away from em. …

“The truth of it, I done less work in prison than I ever done outside … But how come I had such an easy time in prison? … It was what was behind me, I put it all to that; it was them that was standin for me and God above.”

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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