Ian Steadman: The Cuban Five
The Cuban Five
by Ian Steadman
Taken into custody, kept in solitary confinement for over 17 months before being brought to trial, charged and convicted in circumstances criticised by human rights groups… this is the history of the Cuban Five, men who (depending on who you ask) are either part of the United States' glorious history of illegitimate incarceration or reassuring track record in thwarting terrorism. As the tenth anniversary of their arrest approaches a series of protests are planned across the world in both support and condemnation of their actions.
In September 1998 five men were arrested in Florida. They would go on to become known as 'the Cuban Five', infamous as men who were either grossly mistreated or were planning to commit something grossly dangerous. There are two sides to this, just as every terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. The indisputable facts, though (as much as can be determined), are as follows:
The Cuban Five began working in the US in the early 1990s, ostensibly to gather information for the Cuban government about anti-communist groups working out of Miami and blamed for committing "terrorism" against the island. The Five are Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González, and were all part of an alleged group known as the 'Wasp Network'. When arrested, their charges were vague, and when they were finally convicted in 2001 the two main charges were for conspiracy, or being guilty of the intent to commit a crime – namely, conspiracy to commit espionage, along with attempting to infiltrate a US military base and transmitting many sensitive military documents to the Cuban government, along with possessing forged ID and other similar more trivial charges. A further charge, conspiracy to commit murder of the first degree, was leveled against one of the Five, Gerardo Hernández, allegedly because of his infiltration of 'Brothers to the Rescue'.
This group was involved in finding those fleeing on rafts from Cuba and flying them to the United States in small seaplanes, as well as dropping propaganda leaflets over the island – two of their planes had been shot down in 1996 after repeated warnings from the Cuban government that any further illegal violations of the island's airspace would be considered a hostile act, and would be dealt with accordingly. There was huge anger towards Hernández from a community wanting revenge. Florida, and Miami in particular, is of course a centre of anti-Castro anger, and the defense counsel understandably asked that the charges could be brought outside of the state so that the jury would be more neutrally inclined – the request was denied. The jury contained no Cuban-Americans, although in a state where the anti-Castro sentiment is so vitriolic it's necessary to question whether it was possible to ever assemble a body with a neutral opinion on the matter.
When finally sentenced, the judgments were incredibly severe considering the vague nature of the charges: Gerardo Hernández was given two consecutive life sentences; a life sentence each for Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino; 19 years for Fernando González, and 15 years for René González.
José Luis Robaina García, Cuban Ambassador to New Zealand, is adamant that the Cuban Five are not an accidental or unusual case. "This is the history – 200 years of America fighting against Cuban independence. Sure, when the United States declared independence there was a strong pro-annexation movement, because back then the US was the symbol of freedom in the world. But since then, since Cuba fought for its independence, the US has sought to control it and repress it. This, the Cuban Five, is a punitive measure."
It's not an unreasonable claim. From the McKinley administration's 1897 offer to buy the island for $300 million, to the Platt Amendment giving the US the right to intervene in the island's affairs; from imposing corrupt US governor Magoon in 1906 to the cruel Batista dictatorship in the 50s; from the Bay of Pigs to the ongoing US blockade - the United States has seen Cuba as its particular business throughout the last century and even before then.
García continues that, "they cannot accept an alternative system. We are not demons, we're not angels, we're not God, we're just normal people. We respect differences, and just want to live in peace, but the US is being a gangster. If they are the champions of democracy and freedom, then champions for whom?"
In 2005 the Cuban government presented a list of 3,478 deaths to the UN which it blamed on terrorists – some of those fingered, like Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, live under American protection in the United States. There is evidence of equal weight to that levelled against the Cuban Five that these men were involved in the destruction of human life, so when it comes to the Five, asks José García, "why punish them so hard, when identical terrorists live free in Miami?"
There's no doubt that the CIA, and its sponsoring of anti-Castro activists such as the ones mentioned, has led to the deaths of many and it's difficult to argue any different. But this is a situation where two governments are facing off against each other, and two governments who both have a fondness to disregard morality and international law in the pursuit of self-interest and ideology. Whilst the Cuban Five had the peril of being tried in a state filled with anti-Castro fervour, at least they had a trial of sorts; had they been charged with similar crimes with similar standards of evidence in Cuba then their treatment would have been far worse. It was unusual and cruel that the evidence they were being charged with was held back from the defense counsel unless certain hoops were jumped through – in Cuba, a defendant for political crimes is lucky if their lawyer sees the evidence at all before the judgement is made. Much like Russia and Georgia, sides are taken in this argument, yet both options are distasteful and require one to pinch the bridge of the if disregarding principles and taking sides.
Cuba and the United States are brothers, of sorts, and were forged in similar circumstances as they broke free from their colonial masters. They share many cultural similarities – baseball is famously popular (there are unsubstantiated rumours that in his youth Castro was scouted for an American team). "There is a historical connection with US culture. Jazz has roots in Cuba, salsa too," says García, "but the problem is political. They cannot accept a multi-polar world with China, Russia, and India as equals, and Cuba represents a rival system. But what's wrong with being equal?" The Ambassador is good at putting Cuba in the victim role - looking at a map and the statistics it's hard to see how Cuba could ever pose a conceivable threat to the United States. Their military budget is but a fraction of the American one, and the army is equipped with weapons which were outdated when they were first built in Soviet factories; the fall of that Soviet Union has left authoritarian communism a laughing stock as a political ideology.
According to García, jealousy and selfishness is what motivates the Americans to stamp down on any flaws in the machine; jealousy that Cuba has managed to best the Americans at their infant mortality rate, for instance, or jealousy at the wonders of their education and health systems. Never mind that those doctors who go to work overseas in developing countries often desert and claim asylum thanks to the shockingly low pay and difficult conditions – they're still far more popular people in Latin America than the US thanks to decades of ostensibly aiming to help the poor and needy, not the rich and United Fruit. Just a brief look at the recent wave of social democrats being voted in across the region and their increasing brunt with which to bite their thumb at America – who better than that old enemy, Cuba, to teach a lesson and make an example out of?
The parallels between the treatment of the Cuban Five and the inmates at Guantanamo Bay are hard to miss. García's proposition – that the Cuban Five are just one of many manifestations of American arrogance and imperialism towards the island, Latin America, and the world in general as they attempt to keep rival countries and ideologies down – seems quite rational considering this similarity. In this post-9/11 world the biggest shocks come from the way business is conducted as it was pre-9/11, and the way in which the cruelty of clashing systems is openly revealed and equally openly dismissed as an exception by the public, again and again.
As of June 2008, the Five are still in custody, despite three of the sentences (those handed to Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Fernando González) being vacated. They await a retrial. The two life sentences for Gerardo Hernández have been reaffirmed, as has the judgment against René González. Such international luminaries as Desmond Tutu have called for their release, and the UN has criticized the trial and incarceration as unfair and unjust. The wives of the men cannot get visas to the US to go visit them. There is something rotten in this state, and despite the dubious actions of Cuba over the years, as García' points out, "since the fall of the Soviet Union we are not militarily active. We are no longer in Latin America, we are not in Angola." He shrugs. "So what is the problem?"