Image from the Plaza of the Revolution by Bill Hackwell
Time is starting to distance itself from that dramatic moment, 6 years ago today, when the final 3 members of the Cuban Five were freed from the prisons of the Empire after 16 years. Never the less, because of a healthy distrust of the US government, for those of us who worked in solidarity with the Five, we did not believe it was true until the plane carrying them home landed in Havana and it was verified by the Cuban government. It was a Che Guevara moment, who through his indefatigable revolutionary optimism once said, “Let’s be realistic, let’s dream the impossible.” Those were sage words for all back then but even more so now during these times of sanctions, pandemic, hunger and war.
How could this happen? What made the Empire blink? When Rene Gonzalez, Fernando Gonzales, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez were arrested in Miami in 1998 for monitoring the activities of anti Cuba terrorists, few knew who they were. Thrown into a federal prison in Miami, the Five were charged with a stack of high crimes and misdemeanors, held in solitary without any contact with their families for 18 months and told by guards that they were going to rot there because there was no one who was going to get them out. One might think on the surface of it that these were hopeless cases especially for the leader of the Five, Gerardo Hernandez, who was facing 2 life sentences plus 15 years. The full weight of the proverbial US penal code had been thrown against them. As the American writer Alice Walker once said at a solidarity meeting in their behalf, “What’s up with 2 life sentences, who is going to be around that long?” Unless the ridiculous length was to indicate just how punitive the US system was capable of being and the message it was sending to Cuba and the World.
But once again, as they have throughout, in what is now 12 subsequent administrations, the US government had underestimated the Cuban people and their heroic revolution led by Fidel Castro who made it clear on June, 23, 2001 what the outcome was going to be for the Five when he firmly uttered the phrase “Volveran” (They will return). It was a term that filtered through a solidarity movement that grew internationally calling for the release of the Cuban 5 in front of the White House and in front of every US consulate and embassy on the planet and even more importantly it was a term that resonated in the hearts of the Cuban people who embraced the Five as sons of their own. Over those 16 years in each province there were demonstrations, billboards where all over the main highways, public events were held and no one, including tourists, could show up in Cuba without hearing about the Five. Children learned and emulated them in schools, while the families of the Five turned into courageous emissaries who traveled around the world to let people know about the case. That could only happen with a revolution, where the government supported the struggle for their return. It could be said without exaggeration that the Cuban 5 were the only political prisoners in the world who had the benefit of their entire country united behind them demanding their release.
Fidel’s certainty that the Five would return was not a bluff but rather a confidence he had that the Cuban people would get behind them and fully engage in this struggle as they had in every challenge and obstacle thrown at them from the North. Since the revolution, from the campaign to wipe out illiteracy left over from Cuba’s status as a neglected US colony to Playa Giron, to surviving a 60 year old blockade and much more, the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people has been tested but it has not wavered or broken.
The bravery and determined character of the Cubans is based on the social contract they have with their Revolution which has from the beginning been based on an honest dialogue between the government and the people, providing opportunity to all and its collective nature of solving problems while sharing the rewards. Theirs was not a partial revolution but a complete overturn of a system of inequality, disregard and oppression to one of possibility and hope that even with its problems is worth defending for the common good; that is in the very fiber of the Cuban people that makes ordinary citizenry into extraordinary examples.
The prolonged strength of the Cuban 5, who were scattered in the worst penitentiaries around the US, could be seen in how they interacted and behaved during those long years behind bars. Unlike most they were political prisoners but acted more like diplomatic representatives of their country and the revolution. They thrived through artistic projects, writings, teaching and gained respect from other prisoners in how they conducted themselves, especially from African American inmates when it became known that three of the Five had voluntarily gone to Africa to fight for Angola’s independence. Even some of the guards would ask how someone like them could end up in a god forsaken place like this as if it had to be some sort of big judicial mistake. Their time was not wasted or lonely while waiting for a miracle but rather one of activism in the movement to free them; they knew no other way to be as it was part of their revolutionary DNA.
The pages of Cuban history are filled with individuals who rose to the occasion at a critical moment that revealed fundamental right from wrong. In 1999, just a year after the Cuban 5 were imprisoned, Elian Gonzalez, a son of Cuba, was rescued after his mother drowned in an attempt to reach Florida. The boy was placed with distant relatives in Miami while the anti Cuba mafia politicized the tragic situation doing everything it could to prevent the young boy from returning to Cuba. The story became top news in the US and a media circus prevailed but the decisive component in the victory of Elian’s return, seven months later, was the intervention of his father Juan Miguel, a worker from Cardenas, who went to get him and was not swayed by bribes, promises of a rosy future in Florida and access to all the consumer possibilities available in the US to those who can afford them, if he stayed and turned his back on Cuba. But Juan Miguel was not a traitor, he was made of the same revolutionary fabric as the Cuban 5, steadfast in making it clear that he was Cuban and had no reason to leave and that he simply wanted to take his son home. It was a compelling moment and as Fidel predicted, the basic decency of the people of the US would not stand for a father being denied the basic right to be with his son, communist or not.
As we approach the 62nd anniversary of the Cuban Revolution it is time to reflect on its accomplishments that were made against all odds by the unity of the people, the government and its human ideals. As long as the US continues a policy of regime change, no matter how it is packaged, the Cuban people will continue to defend what has characterized them by demanding their right to determine their own future.