On the morning prior to his historic announcement about plans to restore diplomatic relations with the United States on 17 December, Raul Castro greeted Ramón Labañino, Gerardo Hernández and Antonio Guerrero, the three remaining members of the Cuban 5, back onto Cuban soil after 16 years of incarceration in the US. They were reunited with Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez who were released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The return of the Cuban 5 is an historic victory for Cuba, particularly for anti-terrorist Gerardo Hernandez who was serving two life sentences plus 15 years. It also represents a defeat for the corrupt US justice system and for the right-wing Cuban exile community whose political leverage is weakening.
Their return was part of a prison swap in which Cuba also agreed to release 53 prisoners named by US authorities and a US spy, imprisoned for 16 years for providing information about the Cuban 5 and other Cuban intelligence operatives to US authorities. Raul Castro also announced the release on humanitarian grounds of US mercenary Alan Gross, detained in December 2009 for participating in a $500,000 USAID-funded programme of subversion. Noticeably absent on the prison swop list, despite being on the top ten of the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list, was black US revolutionary Assata Shakur, in exile in Cuba since 1986. The Cuban government has made it clear that she won’t be extradited.
The Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in Miami in 1998, convicted on trumped up charges and condemned to long prison sentences. They were in fact trying to prevent acts of terrorism against Cuba by infiltrating violent anti-Cuban groups in Miami. None of the charges against them involved violence, weapons or damage to property. Since 1959, nearly 3,500 Cubans have died and over 2,000 have been permanently injured as a result of terrorist attacks or aggression – mainly launched from Miami.
Evidence gathered by the Five about terrorist plots, including plans to bomb tourist planes travelling to and from Cuba, was passed by the Cuban government to the FBI and other US agencies. The US government’s response was to arrest the Cuban agents for spying. Meanwhile, infamous terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, who boasted about organising the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airlines flight killing 73 civilians, live freely in Miami. So much for the ‘war on terrorism’!
The Cuban 5’s court case took place in Miami; a fair trial was impossible. Journalists on the pay of the US government whipped up public hostility to demand harsh sentences. They were convicted of false identification, conspiracy to commit espionage and, in Gerardo Hernández’s case, conspiracy to commit murder. They received sentences ranging from 15 years to double life. The Five received ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, including long stretches in isolation and being denied access to lawyers or family-visits. This treatment is part of the political war against Cuban socialism.
The Cuban Five’s legal representatives had pointed out that given the political nature of the case, a political movement was needed to demand justice. Cuba had reiterated the demand for their freedom from every platform and in every scenario. Their call was increasingly taken up around the world and becoming a challenge for the US government. By negotiating their release the Cuban government has demonstrated its political strength.
In his live broadcast on 17 December Raul Castro announced, ‘As Fidel promised in June 2001, when he said, “They shall return!”, Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland. The enormous joy of their families and of all our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organisations, institutions, and personalities, who for 16 years have made tireless efforts demanding their release. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them.’ Adding to the personal and public joy was the news that Gerardo’s wife, Adriana, was heavily pregnant with Gerardo’s baby. How did this happen, everyone wanted to know. US authorities had denied Adriana a visa to visit her husband since his arrest. It soon transpired that this ‘remote control’ pregnancy, as Gerardo discretely referred to it, was part of the secret negotiations between Cuba and the US. Their daughter, Gema, was born on 6 January 2015.
Since their return, the Cuban five have made many public appearances, being swamped with admiration and gratitude by Cubans in the streets and neighbourhoods, talking about their ordeal on the daily televised round-table discussion, appearing in the Cuban National Assembly and joining musician Silvio Rodriguez on his concert tour of Cuban communities.
An edited version of this article is printed in the Feb/Mar 2015 issues of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.