Tuesday night I had the honour and privilege of speaking at an event celebrating the freedom of one of the “Cuban Five” heroes, Gerardo Hernández.
You might ask, who are the Cuban Five heroes? Let me tell you. (And let me give you a heads up. What you’re about to read is a long story, but it’s worth it.)
Although Western media has given it very little coverage, Cuba has been the victim of numerous terrorist attacks beginning in the 1960s and only recently coming to an end. In fact, the world’s first civilian airliner blown up by a terrorist was Cubana flight 455. Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile and former CIA agent, was convicted of involvement. This terrorist bragged about his evil act, which killed 73 innocent people, yet he continues to live in freedom in Florida today.
In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its economic lifeline. With the economic strangulation of the American blockade, Cuba had come to rely on the Soviet Union for its very survival. Many, including Cuba’s friends, predicted the end of the Cuban revolution at this time. However, Cubans and their collective government are remarkably resilient and always determined to find a solution to the problems they confront. In this case, tourism was identified as the option with the best chance of surviving the dire consequences of the Soviet Union’s end.
Cuba’s economy collapsed during this time, its GDP shrinking more than Canada’s did during the Great Depression. Yet not a single teacher or health care worker was laid off. Eventually, the economy began to grow again as tourism took off, and Cubans began to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The revolution would survive the Soviet Union collapse with the continued American economic blockade after all.
Sadly, this infuriated the anti-Cuba terrorists located mainly in Florida, who began planting bombs in Cuban hotels to try to bring the nation’s burgeoning tourism industry to a catastrophic end. Tourists began losing their lives, including a Canadian. Once again, Cuba faced a catastrophe.
It was at this point that five heroic men volunteered to leave Cuba and, on behalf of the Cuban government, infiltrate the terrorists in Florida. Over the ensuing years, they literally saved countless innocent lives to say nothing of saving the Cuban revolution. Using highly sophisticated communication devices, they would provide advance warning to Cuban authorities, who would proactively thwart terrorist attack after terrorist attack.
The five Cubans also learned of a plan by the terrorists to shift their intentions away from Cuban hotels to airlines, but not just Cuban airlines — they planned to blow up American planes transporting tourists from Latin America to Cuba. The Cuban government was so concerned about the horrific loss of life that would result should the terrorists succeed that they alerted the FBI, who accepted Cuba’s invitation to fly to Havana and receive boxes and boxes of surveillance information collected by the five Cubans.
When the FBI team returned to Florida with the intention of arresting the terrorists, they provided all of the info to higher-ups. As unbelievable as what I am about to say may be, the higher-ups not only decided not to arrest the terrorists, but decided instead to arrest the five undercover Cubans. They were arrested in 1998, put in solitary confinement, and charged criminally with many offences including spying.
Now imagine this parallel universe for a moment: Prior to the 9-11 attacks, five Americans volunteer and infiltrate Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the 9-11 hijackers are based. The Americans do so without the permission or consent of the Saudi government. But their willingness to risk their lives results in American authorities stopping the attacks before they occur. The US authorities turn all the information over to the Saudi government, which promptly arrests not the terrorists but the five American volunteers! That’s essentially what happened to the Cuban Five.
The Cuban Five were tried before a jury in Miami, Florida in 2001. Their lawyer asked for a change of venue on the basis that it would be impossible for anyone associated with the Cuban government to obtain a fair trial in Miami. Even the Unabomber was granted his request for a change of venue for his jury trial. But the Miami judge rejected the request out of hand, and the five Cubans were all convicted and sentenced to extremely long prison terms.
Gerardo was sentenced to two life terms plus 15 years. One of America’s pre-eminent defence lawyers, Leonard Weinglass — known for his civil rights work and clients like Daniel Ellsberg, Angela Davis and the Chicago Seven — mounted a superb appeal based on numerous factors, including the judge’s refusal to grant the five Cubans a change of venue.
The appeal was successful! The Appeal Court ruled that the refusal to grant the change of venue denied the Cuban Five any prospect of obtaining a fair trial. This was the first time in American jurisprudence that an accused had ever successfully appealed a conviction on the basis of the trial judge’s refusal to grant a change of venue.
I still remember celebrating this fantastic news. There was justice in this world, after all! But I’m sad to say I celebrated far too quickly, for one step higher up the appeals’ ladder, the American justice department appealed this decision. The conviction was reinstated.
For 16 years Gerardo remained in jail, much of it in solitary confinement. I should point out, too, that the five Cubans had been separated from each other on the day of their arrest. Each was imprisoned in a different jail in a different state in order to make it impossible for Mr. Weinglass to ever meet with them collectively, and to make any individual meeting with them a multi-day ordeal, flying from state to state to state.
Worldwide, a campaign developed to free the Cuban Five. The Free the Cuban 5 Committee here in Vancouver held monthly pickets at the American consulate for many years. I’m embarrassed to say I did not attend nearly enough of these pickets, but I did go to a number of them. Also, I devoted my law firms’ 25th anniversary event to the Free the Cuban Five campaign. We had over 200 people attend at Fraserview Hall, where the then Cuban consul general gave an inspiring speech.
In the meantime, Pope Francis, one of the most progressive and enlightened popes the Roman Catholic church has had for decades, began working behind the scenes to bring about a reconciliation between Cuba and the US. Secret negotiations were held between the highest echelons of the Cuban government and the Obama administration. Raúl Castro, now president of Cuba, insisted that no progress in these negotiations would ever be possible without the freedom of the Cuban Five. Eventually, Obama agreed to their release.
In December 2014, the remaining three of the Cuban Five still imprisoned were released, including Gerardo Hernández. (Two of the five had been released earlier because they received shorter sentences.)
On December 4, 2014, Gerardo, completely unaware of the Cuban/American agreement that had been reached, was transferred to another prison and placed in solitary confinement. Twelve days later, he was moved to yet another prison, where he was united with his two Cuban colleagues, whom he hadn’t seen in 12 years. Naturally, he started to wonder what on Earth was happening.
The three, still heavily manacled at wrists and ankles, were led into a room with a number of prison officials. On the desk sat a computer screen with a direct video feed to Cuba. Soon a Cuban official appeared on the monitor, delivering the unbelievable news to these three heroic men — after 16 years in prison, they would be freed December 17.
Gerardo, having been in solitary confinement for the last 12 days, had to whisper to one of his colleagues, “What is the date today?” December 16 came the answer. Just one more day to freedom!
The following day all three were flown back to a hero’s welcome in Havana. Finally they were free!
• • •
I think this story tells us a couple of things.
For one, the Cuban revolution has remained so strong because of its commitment to building a society based on values, convictions and principles. This island nation takes what little resources are available and focuses on Cuban quality of life. Their infant infant mortality is now lower than the US’s. Cuban life expectancy is 79.4 years, slightly higher than America’s, and their literacy rate is 99.7%, one of the highest in the world. America’s is about 86%.
Point two is, from the very start of their unjust imprisonment, the Cuban Five were offered immediate freedom, fame and unimaginable wealth on one condition — that they renounce their commitment to the principles above. Without exception, and without hesitation, each and every one of these five Cuban heroes rejected out of hand the possibility of ever doing so.
This tells us a great deal about the foundations of Cuban society. What other society in our world today would produce individuals who are so totally and selflessly committed to it?
Also, thanks to Glenda Bartosh for all the photos in this story.