BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Nothing that happened is about us as individuals.
It’s about the Cuban people who we represent.
On September 12, 1998, in “shock and awe” predawn raids by the Clinton administration’s federal police force, the US government arrested ten Cubans living and working in south Florida and announced to the world that they had captured a network of “Castro’s spies.” Five of those arrested rapidly cut deals to collaborate with their jailers and disappeared from history.
The other five from that moment on began writing a new chapter in the history of the Cuban Revolution. A new chapter in the struggle of the international working class and popular masses to free themselves from imperialist oppression and capitalist exploitation.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González are today known around the world as the Cuban Five, and in Cuba as the Five Heroes.
In face of intense pressure from Washington’s prosecutors, each of the Five refused to turn traitor to themselves and the revolution they were defending. They spurned threats, enticements, and banishment to seventeen months in the hole. They refused to plead guilty to frame-up charges hurled against them by the US government or “plea bargain” with their prosecutors. They proudly defended the work they were doing to protect their people against terrorist attacks launched with impunity from US soil by Cuban enemies of the revolution — explaining how and why their actions were in the interests of the vast majority of the American people, as well.
With unbroken dignity and confidence, the Five faced the full “savagery” of the capitalist justice system they describe in these pages.
Tried and convicted on bogus charges that included conspiracy to commit espionage and, in the case of Gerardo Hernández, conspiracy to commit murder, the Five spent sixteen-plus years helping to lead — by their own conduct and example within prison walls — the international “jury of millions” that came together in the fight to win their freedom.
On December 17, 2014, that battle ended in victory. The US government commuted the sentences of Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio, the three who remained behind bars on US soil. They were welcomed home in a spontaneous explosion of joy as millions of Cubans poured into the streets. “From that moment on,” Antonio said, “all the time in prison was erased.”
The year since their release has been one of sharing the joy of being reunited with their loved ones — a victory, in René’s words, “against the extreme cruelty of the most powerful empire in history,” which attempted to “separate, destroy, divide, and humiliate our families.” It has also been a year of “coming down to earth,” as Ramón has said, learning firsthand from the people of Cuba and the world as they “land and get up to speed,” leaving the years of walls and bars behind.
For Cuba, the release of the Five was a precondition for responding to a shift in Washington’s fifty-five year policy of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the government and institutions established by Cuba’s victorious socialist revolution. On the day the Five were reunited on Cuban soil, Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama announced that diplomatic relations between the two countries, broken by Washington in 1961, would be reestablished.
In making that announcement, Obama acknowledged that the political course implemented by eleven administrations, both Democratic and Republican, had failed to achieve the US rulers’ objectives. Despite decades of US-orchestrated economic strangulation, attempted diplomatic isolation, political slander, and provocations — not to mention years of terrorist operations, assassination attempts, a failed invasion, and even the threat of nuclear annihilation — Cuba’s toilers still refused to submit to Washington’s dictates. It was time to try different methods.
It’s the poor who face the savagery of the US “justice” system: The Cuban Five talk about their lives within the US working class is not an account looking back on the hardships of prison or the battle that won their freedom. It looks to the future, addressing something even more important.
What is it that enabled the Cuban Five to act as they did over those sixteen years? What prepared them to set the example they did?
Suddenly, in September 1998, they were not only Cuban revolutionaries, living and working in the US precariously and temporarily like other immigrant workers, at the same time that they carried out important work in defense of their homeland. In a single day, they became Cuban revolutionaries and communists deeply immersed in the US working class.
Like millions of others, they experienced firsthand the meaning of capitalist “justice” in the US — what Ramón calls “an enormous machine for grinding people up.” In the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, right now, today, some seven million men and women — a number equaling nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s population — are either living behind bars or shackled to some kind of court-supervised probation or parole.
“We lived in a microcosm of the outside world,” Gerardo notes. “We came to know the problems of many places.”
Over these years, the Five learned about the class struggle in the United States from the inside. And this included the discovery, to their own surprise as Ramón writes, of the impact of the victorious Cuban Revolution — from its very first years — on important layers of workers and youth in the United States.
It’s the poor who face the savagery of the US “justice” system addresses the realities of class relations in the US without exaggeration or distortion, as the Five draw on their own experiences with an uncommon depth of understanding, objectivity, and humor.
“Anyone can write a poem,” Antonio tells students at the main science and engineering university in Havana. “But to spend seventeen months in the hole and sixteen years in prison and create paintings that don’t contain a shred of hatred …that’s a product of the way we were educated as revolutionaries. It’s something we were able to achieve thanks to the revolution.”
Antonio’s words express one of the most important things readers will find here. As Antonio and René tell the students, nothing equipped them for that morning in September 1998 except the Cuban Revolution itself and the course followed by the revolution’s leadership from its outset. What prepared them was the education and values (the proletarian internationalist education and values, I would say) that they had internalized as young people growing up in Cuba.
“Let’s take, for example, the situation in which we found ourselves when we were arrested in 1998,” Antonio says.
They put some guy in front of you asking you to admit to something you didn’t do. He tells you that if you “cooperate,” you can get back all the material things you had, you’ll go back to your normal life.
If not, the man tells you, “We’re going to give you such a long sentence that you’re going to die in prison.”
So you have to be prepared for this. You have to have already developed within yourself an understanding of what you will do at such a moment. Once you pass that test and say no, you begin to realize you’re happier than those around you. People see you and say, “Damn! Why are you laughing all the time? Why are you so happy?”
The prisons of the ruling classes are not unknown territory for working people fighting to defend their interests. That fact is amply confirmed by the frame-ups and mass incarcerations that have marked strike battles, insurrections, national liberation struggles, and proletarian revolutions around the world for a century and more. How revolutionists, communists, conduct themselves in prison, however, is always a test anew. Towering figures like South African revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro are both examples, as is Malcolm X coming from a different trajectory.
The account that follows opens a window on the political lives of the Five behind bars. The example they give us is worthy of study and emulation.
There is no romanticism of prison life in these pages, no pretense US penal institutions are anything but unreformable instruments of class retribution and punishment. There is no pretense they are anything but a grotesquely magnified reproduction of the social relations, values, and “business practices” of the dog-eat-dog capitalist world that have spawned the US “justice” system. And that includes the controlled fostering of violence, gangs, drug trade, and racism to “organize” prison life and break the spirit of the human beings incarcerated.
The vast prison network spread across the US is but the forerunner of the horrors imposed on other people’s lands in places whose names have become infamous, such as Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram.
One of the most powerful sections of the book is the stories of fellow Cubans the Five met in prison in the US, not a few of whom had spent time behind bars in Cuba as well. “In US prisons they aim to dehumanize you; in Cuba a prisoner is another human being,” sums up the diametrically opposite social relations and class values they describe.
Within US prison walls, the Five also enjoyed solidarity and respect, won through the acts of respect and solidarity they extended to others. Their account is peppered with examples. Many readers will be surprised to learn, as René notes, that “all of us were able to do our time without any problems from officers or other prisoners.” But that was not preordained. It’s an expression of the social norms they internalized and acted on as Cuban revolutionists.
In Cuba, “it’s normal for people to help each other, to cooperate with each other,” Ramón says. “It’s not a question of a ‘good policy.’ It’s simply a fact,” the consequence of a revolution that overturned the cutthroat social order of capitalism, and of a leadership that for decades has maintained that course against all odds.
That is the example Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando, and René brought with them into their lives within the US working class.
Unlike revolutionaries imprisoned for political acts in many countries, the Five did not enjoy the luxury of serving their time together. As the cover painting by Antonio depicts, they were sent to “five distant prisons.” After receiving their draconian sentences — three of them life without parole — Gerardo and René never saw any of their brothers again. Antonio, Ramón, and Fernando spent only a brief time together at the Miami federal detention center in 2009 when they were brought in for resentencing hearings.
The fact that each of them was on his own for so many years — and yet they acted as one — provides an additional gauge of the strength of their political habits and moral stature.
“I promised myself that I’d use the time in prison for my own benefit,” Fernando explains, “that I’d leave with my mental and physical health intact…. I spent a lot of time reading…. I told myself over and over that just because I was passing through prison, I didn’t have to become a ‘prisoner.’”
“The jailers want to destroy you. They want to break your physical, moral, and mental integrity,” René notes. “You learn the first day that you have to resist this, and that the measure of your victory in doing so will be to leave prison a better person than when you walked in. Each of us, according to our own individual characteristics, adopted that as our strategy.”
And that is exactly what they accomplished. They didn’t become “prisoners.” They didn’t turn in on themselves. They turned outward with pride and confidence. They broke through the prison bars, sustaining their freedom through reading and study, art and poetry, writing and drawing, running and handball, chess and parcheesi. They corresponded with their tens of thousands of supporters across Cuba and reaching to every corner of the world.
And above all they reached out with respect, with solidarity, and with their own example to fellow workers in prison, to the human beings with whom they shared their daily lives and struggles for the better part of their adult years.
Today, René tells students in Havana, that history “is now in the past. We are five Cubans like any of you. We will take our place in the trenches and, like each of you, we will be judged by the work we do.”
Whatever that future brings, the Five have not only written a new page in the history of the Cuban Revolution. They have added an immensely important page to the history of the US working class as well, another intertwining of the class struggles in our two countries.
For that we thank them and the Cuban people they exemplify. In every sense, their example will bear fruit.
January 7, 2016
Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.