By: Juan Acosta, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Sixteen years is too long. September 12th, 2014 marked sixteen years since the Cuban Five (Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero, and René González) were arrested and imprisoned in the United States on spurious, politically motivated charges. During the past week, the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) organized a series of events in Washington DC. These actions included a forum to discuss the case at Georgetown University; visits by advocates to over twenty Congressional and Senatorial offices; and a protest in front of the White House. The activities took place from September 11th through September 13th to garner support and demonstrate the ongoing solidarity for those who remain imprisoned. In addition to events in Washington, there were simultaneous acts of solidarity in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, and Toronto, which vehemently condemned the United States government’s unjust infringement of the fundamental human rights of the Cuban Five.
The Cuban Five (two of which, René and Antonio, were born in the U.S. to Cuban parents) are Cubans who were arrested on September 12, 1998 on multiple charges, among them conspiracy to conduct espionage. However, the case can be made that these men should more properly be seen as heroes, not criminals. In 1997, there were a series of bombings at major Cuban hotels including Hotel Copacabana, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and Meliá Cohiba Hotel, which resulted in the death Italian tourist, Fabio di Celmo. These terrorist attacks were an organized effort to deter tourism on the island perpetrated by extremist anti-Castro Cuban exiles based in Miami[i]. In June 1998, three months prior to their arrests, FBI agents visited Havana and were given a plethora of evidence that overwhelmingly linked terrorist attacks against Cuba to venomous anti-Castro Miamians such as Luis Posada Carriles[ii]. What the FBI did with the evidence is unclear. What is clear is that these five men attempted to gather intelligence to avoid subsequent violent terrorist attacks by Cuban expatriates living in Miami. Three months after the FBI’s visit to Havana, Gerardo, Antonio, René, Fernando, and Ramón were apprehended and thrown into solitary confinement for seventeen months as they awaited trial.
The trial of the Cuban Five took place in Miami, a hotbed of anti-Castro Cubans, under conditions which undoubtedly impacted the outcome of the trial. Additionally, it was uncovered that the U.S. government hired local reporters to churn out a high volume of prejudicial articles against The Five. Although the highly charged atmosphere raised serious doubts about the ability of the jurors to be impartial, motions by the defense to move the venue of the trial were denied by the judge, Joan Lenard. Today, René and Fernando are with their families in Cuba after serving their sentences and being released, while Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio remain in prison. When political differences hinder the spirit of justice, as is the case with the Cuban Five, it is monumental travesty for democracies everywhere.
COHA has previously written on The Cuban Five and firmly stands alongside the Free Five grassroots efforts to successfully garner international attention and call on Washington to take action and no longer ignore this issue. Larry Birns, Director of COHA, describes this case as “a blatant miscarriage of justice, something that President Obama could have remedied during his first month in office so his rhetoric about justice matched his practice.”
In 2005, the United Nations Group on Arbitrary Detention denounced the manner in which the case was handled, finding numerous problematic procedures in this case that deprived Cuban defendants of their liberties.[iii] In 2009, an amicus brief was filed before the Supreme Court by ten Nobel Prize laureates from around the world in an attempt to have the U.S. federal government intervene to correct this travesty of justice and salvage what remains of Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio’s lives, but to little avail[iv]. It is unknown if the briefs were ever examined; all that is for certain is that the court threw out the petition and decided not to hear it. Additionally, Amnesty International published a report in 2010 concluding the manner in which the case was handled infringed upon the Cuban Five’s human rights[v].
The series of events organized in Washington D.C. to raise awareness of The Cuban Five culminated in a public meeting with distinguished speakers: José Ramon Cabañas (Chief of Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C.), Yeidckol Polevnsky (former Vice President of the Mexican Senate), Piero Gleijeses (foreign policy professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University), and Stephen Kimber (Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax). The panel’s presence and words energized those who stand with Gerardo, Ramón, Fernando, Antonio, and René. In his brief speech, Mr. Cabañas lamented the fact that the lives of these men and their families have been negatively impacted forever because they got caught up in the toxic politics that have defined U.S.-Cuban relations for over half a century. In August 2013, Professor Kimber released a book entitled “What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five,” which objectively details the accounts that transpired and concludes the dearth of substantial evidence against The Five was overwhelming. At the public meeting, Kimber, and many others, expressed outraged at the injustice of the harsh sentences, particularly in the case of Gerardo, who was given two life sentences plus fifteen years.
The conservative, pro-embargo Cuban-American bloc in South Florida should not intimidate any politician or their fellow Cuban-Americans from behaving ethically to usher in a time of peace and cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba and advocate for the immediate release of the Cuban Five. Tides are changing, however. There is a new generation of progressive Cuban-Americans who are opposed to the continued imprisonment of their Cuban brothers. The Obama administration should not be swayed by extremists in the U.S. Congress from hammering out a more rational policy towards Cuba. Nations in the hemisphere have a growing spirit of cooperation and mutual respect for Cuba and it is time the U.S. instituted policy that adheres to this international norm. A period of productive dialogue should begin by revisiting the case of the current Cuban Five prisoners (Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio). The U.S. government is not saving face by ignoring this injustice for sixteen years. By not addressing the overwhelming international outcry, legislators and the President reinforce negative perceptions that Washington is morally bankrupt. The Obama administration has the ability to take a bold step in the right direction by acting now to free Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio and begin the long overdue rapprochement with Cuba.
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