"WE know that justice is on our side and that in the end it will triumph, because our friends around the world continue to grow, not only in quantity but in determination and energy… I know that many of you came to Washington from far away representing hundreds of others. This shows that our movement is not fictitious, but rather actively connected and everyone is working together."
These are the words of Gerardo Hernández, read April 21, 2012 in front of the White House.
After participating in Havana’s May Day march and before attending the Five Days for the Five event with the international brigade also in Cuba for the workers’ holiday, Alicia Jrapko, coordinator of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Five in the United States spoke with Granma at the Juan Antonio Mella International Camp in Caimito, along with photographer and Committee member, Bill Hackwell. The two activists shared their impressions and perspectives on the recent 5-day event organized by the group in Washington.
Alicia, why was the event in Washington organized?
The center of U.S. power is in Washington. Five continuous days of activity for the Five had never been held in the U.S. capital. Many people were telling us that it wasn’t a good time for actions related to the issue of the Five, given that it is an election year. But we asked ourselves: Why should we wait? We can’t wait for the political situation facing the U.S. government to dictate when we demand freedom for the Five, the definitive return to Cuba of Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and René González, known around the world as the Cuban Five.
We wanted to take the Five’s case to a wider audience, to Senators, Congress members, students, churches and the U.S. people in general, at subway exits, on the streets, in front of the White House itself.
So, a group of about 20 friends and solidarity activists from the U.S. and other parts of the world, in an organized and previously arranged plan, visited 45 offices of Congressional Representatives and Senators, where we held meetings with their staff. On three occasions, the Congress members themselves met with us. We talked about the case and left them all current information.
Concretely, for the first time a coordinated lobbying effort was undertaken; documentaries about the Five were shown at two universities in Washington; the establishment of a new solidarity committee was supported; public meetings were held with the participation of intellectuals, religious figures, artists, writers, filmmakers and trade unionists, culminating in a demonstration in front of the White House.
Why take the case to Congress?
The majority of the Senators and members of Congress with whom we sought an appointment are in favor of a change of policy toward Cuba, for different reasons. We wanted to express, in some way, that the case of the Five is central to any change in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, that it cannot be viewed as an isolated issue. The case of the Five is one of the obstacles to the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Additionally, the legal process is now at a critical stage in which practically all of the legal options have been exhausted. In Washington, we represented the voices of thousands of people who helped make the Five Days for the Five possible and who, in their own countries, echoed what was happening in Washington. As the possibility of a legal judgment in favor of the Five grows more remote, solidarity within the U.S. itself must increase.
How was the organization of such a broad event accomplished?
With lots of creativity, lots of dedication and bringing together a number of people who spent months planning all the details. We had a budget thanks to the work of many committees and people around the world. If we had had more resources, we would have been able to do more. But when we didn’t have the resources to put an advertisement in a widely circulated newspaper or announcements on buses, as we had planned, we went out onto the streets with thousands of flyers… We were never short on determination, or enthusiasm to go out and meet people.
What did you learn?
When the commitment exists to work together on a project with a common objective - one as important as the freedom of five innocent men who every day show us the meaning of dignity and brotherhood - anything is possible.
I would like to emphasize the very positive, direct contact with the people of the United States. Conversing with people on the street confirmed for us what we supposed: that the case of the Five is not known. People had never heard about the trial, not in newspapers or on television. Nevertheless, they were open to receiving information. We are more convinced that we have to continue struggling even more within the U.S. to achieve more support for the Five within the U.S. population itself.
What about the ‘Obama Give me Five’ campaign?
Barack Obama, as President of the United States, has the Constitutional power to release the Five by simply signing an executive order. We have additionally said that he has a moral obligation to put an end to the injustice. It is a campaign with a family message, simple and direct, like those used within the United States. We have the support of more than 300 committees around the world to make this message the universal demand to free the Five.
The International Committee in the United States is going to follow-up on the work done with the Congress members and Senators. Some activities with U.S. trade unionists are planned. We will continue with the campaign for events on the 5th of every month. We know that actions are planned around the world, that thousands of messages reach the White House on that date.
The events we organize every year for September 12, the anniversary of the arrests, through October 8 will be here soon. It’s no longer necessary to make a call for action around these dates. Committees in many countries organize all kinds of activities to demand freedom for the Five Cuban patriots.
This shows the maturity and the determination of the solidarity movement. We know that solidarity is key to opening the prison doors for the inevitable return of the Five to their homeland.
Bill, as a U.S. photographer specializing in documentary and social photography and a member of the Committee, what is your view of the Five Days for the Five event in Washington?
When we started planning the Five Days for the Five concept, we didn’t have any idea of what might happen. The results surpassed our expectations, with all of the activities we organized. For example, the demonstration in front of the White House drew some 300 people. At this time, that’s significant. The police had to call for reinforcements to monitor the demonstration. They told us they didn’t expect that many people.
I think that the key to freeing the Five is building a social movement in the United States… There are indications that solidarity with the Five is growing, as we saw in the demonstrations, in several U.S. cities.
Another sign is that several members of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement participated in our demonstration. The solidarity movement is gaining strength despite the fact that the mass media has tried to bury the case.
Our role is to struggle to win their freedom as soon as possible.
Alicia and Bill returned to Oakland, in California, promising that they would soon be seen again unfolding a banner over a busy highway demanding: Obama… Give me Five.