The following remarks by Kenia Serrano were given at the presentation of The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free at the Havana International Book Fair, Feb. 18. Copyright © 2012 by Pathfinder Press for the translation from Spanish. Reprinted by permission. The footnotes are by the Militant.
BY KENIA SERRANO
Dear family members of our Five Heroes, who are here with us; Mary-Alice and all the compañeros from Pathfinder; Edel Morales, poet and vice president of the Cuban Book Institute; compañeros from the Union of Young Communists, Editora Política, and other institutions who have joined us for this presentation.
Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino Salazar, Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez, Fernando González Llort, and René González Sehwerert continue to be unjustly imprisoned. An enormous wall of silence has been erected to hide the truth about their case.
This compilation of articles—by Mary-Alice Waters, Martín Koppel, Sam Manuel, Seth Galinsky, Ernest Mailhot, Michel Poitras, and Naomi Craine, along with two others about René’s and Gerardo’s experiences in Angola, taken from the Cuban newspapers Trabajadores and El Guerrillero, the provincial paper of Pinar del Río—explains their almost fourteen-year-long struggle for justice. The booklet gives the floor to those who are fighting for the Five, to their people, to their defense attorneys, to the Five themselves, to those who know them, and those who defend their cause.
Opening space for this truth to reach people in the United States and other parts of the world where Pathfinder gets out its message—Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada—is a very good decision by a publisher known to Cuban readers for its seriousness and its timely selection of political literature. These books are useful both to those who have long been committed to progressive ideas, as well as those just beginning to look for political works that defend the working class and its conquests.
I have to confess I began reading these books sixteen years ago, while I was on an unforgettable tour of nearly fifty US universities, representing our well-loved Federation of University Students. Compañero Rogelio Polanco, who was representing the Union of Young Communists, and I visited striking workers on picket lines, talked with workers at a Ford auto plant, and were in Los Angeles for the opening of Strawberries and Chocolate. We explained the truth about our people. For us it was a kind of real-time course in politics, transmitted live and in full color, as we saw how elementary rights were being stripped away from the workers of that country, the land of the heroes of Chicago.1
In Minnesota, Native Americans showed us maps detailing the cruel dispossession from land that had belonged to the ancestors of Leonard Peltier. In Philadelphia, we met people already then fighting for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. We learned about and supported the causes of people like Mark Curtis, who likewise had been framed up, and we met young Afro-Americans who, like Rodney King, had been victims of police brutality.2
I recount these experiences now—at the same time that I encourage you to read the articles in this new booklet and share them with whomever you can—to express my appreciation to the Militant. Thanks to this compilation, I realized that when René was in Angola and went through that extraordinary experience, he was twenty-one: the same age I was when I first visited the United States.3
The impact that internationalist mission in Angola had on him is explained by René himself, and I quote:
An experience that had a big impact on me was seeing the hunger in the faces and bodies of the children. The look on their faces made you shiver. Through some tacit and silent agreement, each one of our two hundred combatants agreed, from the first day, to give up a portion of their meager rations to feed a dozen children who would wait for us by the side of the road three times a day as we were taking food to a small group of troops deployed near their village.
There are two juxtaposed moments that will forever be etched in my memory: those happy faces returning to their village, and witnessing a neighboring family making a small coffin.
The experiences that any revolutionary lives through in defending his homeland and fighting for justice are never forgotten. They come to the fore in moments like those our Five brothers have been forced to live through in the prisons where they are being held. They were able to endure months of harsh punishment in the hole because of their moral strength and the experiences they lived through as they were becoming revolutionaries.
In another article in the book, a friend of Gerardo’s—José Luis Palacio Cuní, who was with him in Angola—describes how twelve men had to sleep in a bunker six meters long and two or three meters wide.4
As the book informs us, Fernando earned his membership in the Communist Party of Cuba while in Angola—and he learned how to conquer what he calls the interminable paperwork it took to be able to marry Rosa Aurora while in prison, as she explains in Letters of Love and Hope.
The story of Ramón is gripping. He earned his membership in the party when he was twenty-eight and kept his work as an agent of state security so confidential that his mother, Nereida, died without ever knowing he had left Cuba in early 1990 dedicated to the fight against terrorism. In one of these articles, his father Holmes explains he didn’t know about Ramón’s work. They never talked about it, nor had he ever asked Ramón. But “since [Ramón] was very young he always knew what to do and did the right thing.”
We are presenting this book today, surrounded by Antonio’s impressive paintings of butterflies. In trying his hand at painting, however, he first did a portrait of his mother—another detail that can be found in these pages. The book explains how the Five, as Mary-Alice just said—despite all efforts to silence them and isolate them from the American people—have made contact with working people in the United States inside these prisons walls.
In 2003, when international solidarity and energetic demands by their attorneys finally brought an end to a special punishment the Five had been subjected to, thrown in the hole for a month, Antonio requested that he be assigned to share a cell with Andre, an African American prisoner who had taught Antonio his first drawing techniques. Later, during a prison lockdown, Antonio painted two beautiful portraits, one of [José] Martí and the other of [Cuban writer] Cintio Vitier, figures who are very symbolic for us.5 When Andre was transferred to another prison, Antonio was given a new cell mate, in this case a Native American, with whom he formed a solid friendship.
Fernando has been in the same prison with Oscar [López Rivera], one of our Puerto Rican brothers who continue to fight for the right of that island to be independent.6
These five brief summaries fill us with confidence that the jury of millions will be created, the jury that will free the Five and bring them home. We know the struggle on their behalf is at the same time a struggle in support for the more than two million men and women who are prisoners in US jails, and for their families, as Martín and Mary-Alice explain in their introduction to this book.
The cartoon chosen for the cover of the book—drawn by Gerardo, who has the heaviest sentence among our five—is masterful. Cuba is depicted as stuck in the empire’s throat. It is as if they were here among us listening to the rich vernacular spoken on any street corner, and the cartoonist is saying that the empire simply can’t “swallow” us. The caption, too, is very Cuban: “Of course Cuba hurts.”
A thank you to Pathfinder for the decision to publish this book. A thank you to all of you who will now be leaving here with this book under your arm, as you enjoy the exhibition of Tony’s art. And a thank you to the Five, for giving us this lesson of love and resistance.
1. The 1994 movie Strawberry and Chocolate deals candidly with antigay prejudices in Cuba.
Heroes of Chicago refers to the Haymarket Martyrs. On May 1, 1886, 190,000 workers walked off the job across the United States in support of the eight-hour day, including 40,000 in Chicago. On May 4, eight workers were framed up for a bombing that occurred at rally of several thousand workers in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Four were hanged. The events are the basis for the May 1 holiday, celebrated throughout the world as International Workers’ Day.
2. Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned for more than 35 years on frame-up charges of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 government siege of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and political activist, spent 29 years on death row for the 1982 frame-up conviction of killing a Philadelphia city cop. In April 2011, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled his death sentence unconstitutional.
In March 1988 Mark Curtis, then a member of the Socialist Workers Party, was framed up on rape and burglary charges a few hours after leaving a meeting to defend 17 of his coworkers threatened with deportation at the Swift meatpacking plant in Des Moines, Iowa. In Sept. 1988 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was paroled in June 1996.
Rodney King, a Black worker, was brutally beaten by four Los Angeles cops in March 1991. The videotaped assault sparked widespread outrage. Following the April 1992 acquittal of the cops, anti-cop riots broke out in the city, which were violently suppressed by soldiers and police.
3. Between 1975 and 1991, more than 375,000 Cuban volunteers served as internationalist combatants in Angola in southern Africa, helping the Angolan people defeat invasions by the white supremacist South African regime.
4. The account by José Luis Palacio, who served under Hernández in Angola, was originally published under the title “Twelve Men and Two Cats” in March 2006 in Guerrillero, the provincial newspaper of Pinar del Río in western Cuba.
5. José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba’s national hero, led the fight against Spanish colonial domination and U.S. designs on the island. He organized the 1895 independence war and was killed in combat. Cintio Vitier (1921-2009) was one of Cuba’s outstanding writers.
6. Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar López Rivera has been jailed in the U.S. since 1981, making him one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world. Both Fernando González and López are currently jailed in the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind.