People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

November 03, 2013



The Cuban Five: 15 Years --- Basta!


Yohannan Chemarapally


FOR the people and the government of Cuba the top most priority now is reunite the “Cuban Five” on the home soil. In the second week of September, Havana and other major cities were festooned with “yellow ribbons” to symbolise the yearnings of the Cuban populace for the return of their heroes. The idea of commemorating their 15th year of incarceration in a style more in keeping with American traditions was the idea of Rene Gonzalez, the only one of the “Five” who was freed and allowed to return to Cuba this year. Yellow ribbons, which have deep cultural significance for Americans, were tied on cars, houses and trees. Many Cubans were dressed in yellow clothing. The historic light house in Havana Bay was festooned with a gargantuan yellow ribbon.




A concert in honour of the Cuban Five was held in the Karl Marx auditorium on September. Popular Cuban singers, including Silvio Rodriguez, even sang the perennially popular American song “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree” that was composed to honour the soldiers and prisoners of war coming back from the battle front after the Second World War. In the front row, seated along with the close relatives of the Cuban Five, was Raul Castro along with the top leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba. After the show, Raul warmly embraced Rene and the close relatives of the Cuban Five. At this juncture, the release of the four Cuban patriots seems to be the top most foreign policy priority of the Cuban government. The government has been working overtime, and through diplomatic back channels, to secure the release of the Five Cuban heroes.


The US public is largely unaware of the case involving the five as the mainstream media has completely shut it out of its discourses. “The symbolism of the yellow ribbon has a strong impact in the minds of Americans. It is a message of love that appeals to the emotions,” said Rene. “We are trying to send a message to say that we are human too,” he added. Rene who also held American citizenship was conditionally freed on October 2011 after serving his life term. He was allowed to return to Cuba to attend the memorial services for his father in May this year. The court had earlier refused him permission to return to Cuba, requiring him to serve a three year probation sentence in the US following his release.


Rene, as well as the Cuban people, are united in their conviction --- that until the remaining four Cuban patriots are released without delay, the terrible miscarriage of justice will not be undone. Speaking on September 10 at the Jose Marti Memorial in Havana, Rene said that though he is now physically free, he would feel truly liberated only when all the remaining four are also out of the inhumane American prison system, a “cemetery of live people.” Despite living with people having mental and physical problems, the Cuban Five, as one of them noted in a letter, “have not become insecure but have on the contrary become serene,” knowing fully well that they have the backing of the Cuban people. René said that the five had jointly determined that they would not allow “their spirits to be broken by the most powerful nation in the world.”


The Cuban people as well as the government want the international community to be fully sensitized about the case, which they emphasise is a political one and that the Cuban Five are political prisoners. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions had ruled as illegal the arrests of the Cuban Five. Over 350 committees have been formed all over the world, including India, demanding the immediate freedom of the “Five Heroes.”




Special functions, protests and vigils were held all over Cuba and many cities in the US to mark the 15 years in prison of the Cuban Five in the second week of September. Supporters of the Five held a vigil near the White House. Danny Glover, the Hollywood actor and a champion of progressive causes, told Consortium News that the case of the Five “expresses the dilemma of the US with Cuba” --- the inability to come to terms with Cuba’s sovereignty and the will of its people. Glover, along with the noted American documentary film maker, Saul Landau, were among the many prominent people who have been trying through the media and activism to get the act of injustice against the five rectified. Landau, who made critically acclaimed documentaries on Cuba, Chile and revolutionary movements in the American continent, passed away in early September. Gerardo Hernandez wrote a moving letter to Landau praising him for his efforts. The letter reached him days before his demise.


The heroic story of the “Cuban Five” unfolded with an event that occurred in front of  the famous Havana sea front—the Malecon, on February 24, 1996. Two small planes operated by a terrorist group based in Miami were shot down by the Cuban defence forces, deep inside Cuban air space. Prior to the incident, there were several other instances of small planes flying from Miami, routinely violating the air space over Havana and other cities and brazenly dropping anti-government propaganda leaflets. Terrorist groups, comprising mainly of right wing Cuban exiles and tacitly backed by the US government, have been engaging in violent acts since the sixties. Even those advocating the normalisation of relations between the two countries have been violently targeted.


Andres Gomez, a Cuban-American residing in Miami, told this correspondent that he was lucky to be alive. Many of his friends who had stood up against the violent activities of the Cuban émigré community in Florida were eliminated. “Acts against the Cuban state are being tolerated by the American authorities. Leaders of the pro-Cuban movements and the Puerto Rican independence movements have been murdered in the past. Those committing terrorism against Cuba are running free,” said Gomez.


Within Cuba itself, 3,478 Cubans have lost their lives as a result of terrorist violence. Terrorist groups like the Commandos F-4, Brothers to the Rescue and notorious individuals like Luis Posada Carriles were given a carte blanche by the American authorities to indulge in their activities. Carriles is the man responsible for the downing of a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 that killed 73 people. He has also been implicated in many other despicable terrorist acts in his long career. Carriles is now living his last years in comfort in retirement home in the US.   




On May 7, 1999, more than three years after the shooting down of the two small planes, the first of the five Cuban heroes, Gerardo Hernandez, was charged by the US Federal authorities, of trying to commit “grave murder.” His four comrades, Rene along with Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez, were soon picked up for questioning by the American authorities. The five were illegally held in solitary confinement for 17 months in a Miami prison. The American media immediately went on overdrive painting the five as “spies” of the Cuban government engaged in a conspiracy to subvert the American government. At the initial trial in a Miami court which lasted for seven months, the lawyers and witnesses for the five Cubans had pointed out that their actions were never aimed against the American government.  


The Cuban Five had stated under oath that they were on a “patriotic mission” to the US since 1990 to infiltrate the terrorist organisations based in Florida that were continuing to wage terrorism against their homeland. It was clarified to the court that they never carried any arms, nor had harmed anyone. It was evident to the American intelligence agencies that the only purpose for the clandestine activities of the five was to warn the authorities back home of impending and planned attacks from American soil so as to protect the lives of Cuban and foreigners alike. One of those killed in a bomb attack on a hotel frequented by tourists in 1997 killed an Italian national. Posada Carriles had admitted to masterminding the hotel attacks in an interview to the NYT.


It was evident from the outset that much of the news that was printed or broadcast at the time of the arrest of the “Five” and during the course of the preliminary court hearings was “paid news.” Now lawyers for the “Five” have produced documentary evidence to prove that this was indeed the case. The lawyers for the Cuban Five in Miami had stated that there was no possibility of the “Five” ever receiving a fair trial in Miami, the stronghold of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community. At the time the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), led by the late Jorge mas Canosa, was the second most influential lobbying group in the US after the pro-Israeli AIPAC. The Miami court gave the Cuban Five a draconian sentence of 70 years in jail in a judgement delivered in December 2001.


The unjust nature of that trial was recognised four years later when an Appeals Court overturned the judgement, ruling that there was a miscarriage of justice. The three-member 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Miami judge was swayed by a “perfect storm” of pervasive community prejudice, government misconduct and extensive negative publicity before the trial began. The Bush administration, indebted to the right wing Cuban community for his dubious victory in Florida in the presidential election, promptly went in appeal. A full bench of the 11th Appeals Court reinstated the convictions. Later court rulings reduced the sentences of Gonzalez, Labanino and Guerrero.




Ricardo Alarcon, veteran diplomat and the former speaker of Cuban parliament, while speaking in an international conference  --- “15 years-Basta (enough)” --- on the plight of the Cuban Five, said that the trials of the five “were a grotesque mockery of justice” with the western media being “silent accomplices.” He said that the media in the US had accused the “five” of engaging in espionage and conspiracy though there was not a shred of evidence to back up the claim. Alarcon pointed out that American nationals accused of similar crimes were given much lighter sentences. “Private Bradley Manning is another hero who risked his life for the sake of the world. But the court which sentenced him did not charge him with conspiracy against the state,” Alarcon noted.


Martin Garbus, the lawyer for the Cuban Five, who took over the case after the demise of Leonard Weinglass, said at the conference in Havana that he had proof that the US government had spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on the media in its efforts to obtain the maximum punishment for the Cuban Five. “Government money was being used to influence the media. The public at the time thought that they were reading independent reportage. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the American media,” he averred. Garbus said that the NSA/CIA material released by the American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, would no doubt prove beneficial to the case of the Cuban Five. He said that most of the material presented by the Federal Authorities to the American courts was based on illegal wiretaps and snooping on emails. “The US government had issued warrants (against the five) based on illegal intercepts,” Garbus emphasised.


The lawyer for the five had argued in court, while calling for a new trial, that the US administration “through millions of dollars of illegal payments and thousands of articles published over a six year period, interfered with the trial and persuaded the jury to convict.” The Miami Herald had to fire some of its journalists after they admitted receiving secret payments from the US government. Thomas Fiedler, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former executive editor and vice president of the Miami Herald, one of America’s leading papers, had said that it was wrongful on the part of the media “to carry out the mission of the US government, a propaganda mission. It was wrong, even if it had not been secret.”


In late September, an US Federal Court ordered the US State Department to hand over material in its possession on secret payment to journalists in Miami during the time the trial against the five was proceeding. Noam Chomsky, speaking at a recent event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss the case of the five, explained that in the United States the standard definition of terrorism applies only when terrorism is directed towards the US and not when the US is promoting terrorism. He cited the case of Cuba as an illustration. Other prominent Americans who have called for the immediate release of the remaining four Cubans include the former American president, Jimmy Carter. The late American man of letters, Gore Vidal, said that the case of the five “is additional evidence that the US is experiencing a legal crisis, a political crisis and a constitutional crisis.”