Growing campaign to free Cuban anti-terrorists

Volveran!” (They will return) appears nearly everywhere you look in Cuba: on official billboards, painted on the walls of shops and factories, scrawled on people’s houses. “They” are five heroic Cubans — Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez — unjustly imprisoned in the US. From November 19 to 23 in the eastern Cuban city of Holguin, an international colloquium discussed the case of the Cuban Five — also known to Cubans as “the Five Heroes” — and made plans to increase the international campaign for their release. Nearly 200 participants from 54 countries attended.

Terrorism and anti-terrorism

The number of Cubans who have been killed in terrorist attacks launched from the US is greater than the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Most of these attacks have been launched by Cuban counter-revolutionary groups based in Florida, particularly in the city of Miami, whose activities are winked at or tacitly assisted by the US government. They include the world’s first bombing of a civilian airliner, which destroyed a Cuban flight in 1976, killing all 73 persons aboard.

In the middle of the 1990s, the Cuban government responded to the economic difficulties caused by the loss of its trade relations with the (then-collapsed) Soviet Union by expanding its tourism industry. The Miami-based counter-revolutionaries sought to block this economic resource by a terrorist campaign that included setting off bombs in tourist hotels. An honoured guest at the Holguin conference was the father of Fabio di Selmo, an Italian tourist who was killed in one of these explosions.

Since the US government turned a deliberately blind eye to these anti-Cuban terrorist conspiracies, the Cuban government sent a small number of volunteers to Miami to infiltrate the terrorist groups, learn of their plans and report them to Cuba in time to stop them from being carried out. Nothing that these agents were involved in even related to, let alone threatened, US military or other secrets — except the “secret” that the US government was tacitly allowing Cuban counter-revolutionaries to violate a number of US laws by forming military and terrorist organisations on US soil.

History of a frame-up

In 1998, the Cuban government invited FBI representatives to Havana to receive documentary evidence and testimony regarding the violations of US law being perpetrated by the terrorist groups, including the names and addresses of the chief culprits. The FBI promised action, but nothing happened. A few months later, the Cuban government therefore handed the documentation — four volumes of it — to the New York Times. That “journal of record” didn’t regard the existence of a Miami-based terrorist conspiracy as news fit to print.

Confirming its protective attitude to the terrorists, the US government, to a blaze of publicity about a “Cuban spy network”, arrested the Cuban Five instead of the terrorists. It then conducted a campaign designed to secure “confessions” from them or, failing that, to ensure that they would be convicted.

All of the Five were offered a “deal” of light sentences if they confessed to espionage and allowed their words to be used against the Cuban government. Rene Gonzalez was told that his wife would also be arrested if he didn’t “confess”; when he refused, she was arrested and held for three months before finally being deported. Most outrageously, as punishment for their refusal to “cooperate”, all were held in solitary confinement for 17 months without any legal cause — in itself an act of torture, and a deliberate interference with their ability to meet with their attorneys and prepare their defence.

Although the trial involved absolutely no government documents that were not matters of public record, the prosecution invoked the Classified Information Procedures Act — which is supposed to protect classified documents from disclosure during a public trial — even for documents seized from the defendants, including family correspondence and recipes! As a result, the defence was denied access to 80% of the documents which the prosecution used to create an impression of a vast “espionage” conspiracy.

The prosecution could and did get away with almost anything, partly because of the repeated errors — to use a generous term — of the trial judge, but mainly because the trial was held in Miami, where Cuban counter-revolutionaries carry out widespread acts of intimidation. Indeed, a number of prospective jurors openly stated that they would be afraid to deliver a verdict that conflicted with “community opinion”. During the trial itself, right-wing leaders regularly sat in the public gallery, where they were visible to the jury, often wearing military or paramilitary uniforms. The defence sought to have the trial moved to a less prejudicial location, but was opposed by the government, which argued that Miami was sufficiently “cosmopolitan” that it would be possible to empanel an impartial jury. Only a few months later, in a separate case in which it really desired a neutral jury, the government argued that a neutral jury in “any case involving Cuba” was impossible in Miami.

After their inevitable conviction, all were sentenced to excessive prison terms: Fernando Gonzalez to 19 years, Rene Gonzalez to 15 years, Antonio Guerrero to life plus 10 years, Ramon Lananino to life plus 18 years and Gerardo Hernandez to an incredible two life terms plus 15 years. The above are only some of the most egregious examples of the US government’s political campaign to jail the Five in order to attack the Cuban Revolution and conceal its own support for right-wing terrorism. Indeed, a Cuban legal professor, Dr. Rodolfo Davalos Fernandez, has filled a 200-page book with an account of them.

In August 2005, a three-judge panel of the relevant US appeals court unanimously ruled that the failure to change the venue had deprived the Five of a fair trial. It invalidated the verdict and ordered a new trial. However, in an unusual move, George W. Bush’s attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales (who later resigned while under threat of being prosecuted for perjury in testimony to the Congress) appealed to the full bench of the court, and a year later it reversed the panel’s decision.

International campaign

The US media, which like to pose as free and independent, have betrayed their subservience by ignoring the case from beginning to end — with the sole exception of the Miami media, which ran daily attacks on the Five from the moment of their arrest, attacks that were available for the jury to read or listen to throughout the trial. Despite this blackout, the truth about the Cuban Five has been spreading around the world and even in the US. (At the Holguin colloquium, the US had more participants than any other country.) There are now more than 300 committees worldwide working for the release of the Five Heroes.

For the defence appeal to the US Supreme Court earlier this year, 12 “friend of the court” briefs were submitted — the largest number of such briefs ever submitted in a criminal case. In the US, they came from, among others, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Jury Project, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the Center for International Policy and Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Internationally, one brief came from 10 Nobel laureates, another from a large number of legislators, including the entire Senate of Mexico and the National Assembly of Panama, another from a range of legal and human rights organisations and professors from Latin America, Germany, Japan, Portugal, Spain and Britain, and a fourth from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the American Association of Jurists, the Indian Association of Lawyers and other legal associations from Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the Philippines and Portugal. However, the court refuse to hear the appeal, without explanation.

The only real legal progress so far was an appeals court decision in June 2008 striking down as excessive the sentences of Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Labanino. Guerrero has since been resentenced to 21 years and 10 months; the other two are due for resentencing on December 8.

The campaign to free the Five, as speakers at the colloquium repeatedly emphasised, is a political one, above all because their jailing is a deliberately political act by the US government. This message was also delivered by a public rally on the third day of the gathering, addressed by, among others, Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament.