1) Could you mention the five words you have had on your mind more often in these years you have unjustly spent in prison? If you wish you can elaborate on one or all of them.
Cuba, Family, Gratitude, Struggle, Freedom.
2) This will be your last St. Valentine’s Day behind bars and without your [wife] Rosa. What are you planning for the next one, which you will finally be able to spend in the arms of your beloved?
Thank you very much for your question about one’s human side and feelings, for it will help readers get to know us better as human beings. Now that the day of my release from prison and return to Cuba after being holed up for so many years is just around the corner, it’s hard to think how I would like to spend such a significant date, but that’s still a year away. Many things come to mind in my last hours in prison about the experiences I will live through in the coming days, all of them sure to be quite intense. There are many question marks, and a long list of wishes waiting to come true, which makes it difficult to plan right now for a day as distant as February 14, 2015. Even if my answer is not the one you wanted or expected, I know you understand. But since I have a whole year to think about how to celebrate that day, I can assure you that I’ll do my best to make it very special. That I have already decided.
3) If you could talk to President Barack Obama, what would you tell him about your case and that of your comrades’?
My regards to Iroel Sánchez, whose works and others posted in La Pupila Insomne I read on a regular basis. I think it’s very good blog with very good works and an important contribution to the struggle in the field of ideas and information.
If I could talk to the President, I would ask him to take an unprejudiced look, in his capacity as former professor of Constitutional Law, at the evidence in our case and the views that renowned and prestigious US and foreign jurists have expressed about it; to make an unbiased reading of the amicus briefs that more than ten Nobel prizewinners submitted to the Supreme Court; to try to make, as a former community activist, an impartial evaluation of the reality of life in Cuba, where I’m convinced he would see that many problems he worked so hard to solve in the streets of Chicago in his younger days have already been solved. He would see how hard our people work to have an ever more just society and realize that’s what the Five were defending.
I would tell him that, as a politician, he should review history, the same history he has oftentimes urged us to forget, and see how Cuba has been forced to deal with over 50 years of aggression, and in many cases violent attacks, organized in Miami with no action whatsoever on the part of the authorities in charge of preventing them. Hence the need for what the Five were doing.
May he reach his own conclusions after looking at the whole issue from these three angles and, if he manages to do so objectively, I’m sure the four of us would join René in Havana the following day.
4) Fernando, you had the honor as an internationalist to take part in the struggle for Angola’s independence which helped decolonize Africa and terminate apartheid. Is there anything about that experience which you could share with us Cuban bloggers?
My participation in the Angolan war was a turning point in my personal development. I was only 24 then and fresh out of the university. It was between 1987 and 1989, during the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in which I was not involved. But I did get a taste of the advances on the Namibian border of the Cuban and Angolan troops deployed in the southwest.
I had the privilege of being appointed to the Cahama-based General Staff of the Southern Army and to witness the morale of the Cubans and Angolans who had participated in the southward-bound advance which tipped the balance in favor of victory and, together with the stand they took in Cuito Cuanavale, marked the end of the war, secured Namibia’s independence and, as Mandela acknowledged, put an end to apartheid in South Africa.
From there I went to Lubango, from where the troops had left, to join the Task Force detailed there and worked with the FAPLA comrades in their General Staff. It was a very enriching experience to be with them every day and share with them the atmosphere of comradeship and fighting spirit we were all steeped in.
I was part of the honorable departure of our victorious troops, and one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever lived through was the way our people welcomed us when we arrived back home.
It was quite enlightening to see how a whole people who suffered from colonialism were fighting to preserve their independence and that we did our bit to help them in their great effort to move forward. I also saw for myself the effects of centuries of colonialism and the backwardness and underdevelopment Angola had endured from them, as well as the results of over ten years of war imposed from the outside. I learned more from that experience than I did from all the books I had ever read about capitalism and the consequences of colonization.
It was nice and instructive to see the Angolans resist and strive to carry on as they offered their soil to the Namibian SWAPO forces that were fighting for their national independence.
(Respuesta sobre el tema a una entrevista anterior):
Angola was a major milestone in my life. I learned many things from the Cubans and Angolans around me; from their comradeship and solidarity in difficult circumstances; from their unaffectedness and collective endeavor despite any cultural barriers; from the way we learned from each other and our differences.
I was 24 or 25 then, but most Cuban soldiers and many of the Angolan troops were even younger than me. Many of the Cubans I saw there in those two years had the physical and psychological characteristics of youngsters barely out of their teenage years who were forged by discipline, responsibility and revolutionary conscientiousness, and I was going through that maturation process myself.
I had just graduated from the university as a city boy and thought the world was my oyster. But there I learned from Cubans and Angolans alike that there’s more to one’s character formation than just an education, and things like human sensibility and solidarity that are as no less, if not more, important than a degree.
Seeing with my own eyes the way colonialism affects people, the Angolans in this case, taught me more than every book I had ever studied. Those people’s fighting spirit and willingness to leave their past behind by standing up to foreign aggression and domestic counterrevolution supported from abroad was also a lesson.
5) Even if being in prison really put your principles to the test, how do you explain the respect and recognition that the Five enjoyed in US penitentiaries? Were there demonstrations of solidarity from other inmates?
I ascribe the respect and recognition the Five gained in US prisons to a number of factors. First of all, when they watch you they see a serious individual who stays away from the typical dynamics of life in prison that become a breeding ground for conflicts among inmates. They also notice your cool and the mature advice or views you give to whoever requests it, and they see that you’re discreet and tight-lipped about any problem or situation that another inmate shared with you. All of that leads others to respect you even if they don’t know anything about the Five’s case.
On the other hand, those who challenge the judge and prosecutors who brought you to trial are usually held in a certain respect, for such an attitude is not very common in a court of law.
Now, when they hear about why you were convicted, even if they don’t know the details, other factors come into play which contribute to that respect, as they become aware not only that you were tried –which is deserving of some respect of itself, as I said– but also that you locked horns with all the hatred the US government usually has for whoever they consider a political enemy.
There’s also another fact found at the root of it all: many people, even those who know nothing about the history of the US-Cuba relations or have no interest whatsoever in political issues, are instinctively aware that Cuba has withstood and still withstands the power of the American government. Therefore, they see in us a reflection of that resistance that we’re part of. They link us to it, and that creates respect.
Add to all these factors the support that they know we get as much from the Cuban people as from many friends around the world. And they don’t know the specifics, but they notice how many e-mails we receive and send, which they recognize as a sign the support we have.
Again, all these factors combine and, together, lead other inmates to see us as serious, dignified individuals and respect us accordingly.
6) How much have the messages and signs of support from Cuba and elsewhere influenced your capacity for resistance?
They’ve had a great influence. Not that we would have given up without them, but they no doubt make your resistance more bearable. Knowing that you can count on the understanding and support of a whole militant people and hundreds of thousands of friends worldwide inspires more confidence in victory. It also teaches you about those who fight for us in the disadvantageous position that they find themselves in countries where advocating for our case requires a lot of effort, initiative and perseverance.
Furthermore, receiving so many messages of solidarity and sympathy also has a practical, palpable impact. In my previous answer I told you about an angle of that impact, but also the prison authorities and many other inmates get to know who we are and all the support we receive, which to some extent has an influence on their caution in treating us in some circumstances. This is not to say that we get special treatment. It’s just that they are careful about how they treat us.
7) We all know that the Cuban heroes are also flesh and blood. Tell us what are your favorite music, food, books or pastimes…
Well, I like to dance to Cuban music, particularly what’s known as ‘salsa’. I’m not a great dancer, but neither am I a wallflower. My favorite food is a criollo dish like pork and rice and black beans and, on the side, yuca con mojo [cassava, or manioc, on a garlic and oil-based sauce]. As to reading, I like topics like history, international economics, science, political and scientific subjects, and good fiction.
In my spare time I like to practice sports, or else watch them on TV.
8) Every generation has a role to play in the history of their country. You acted accordingly in the times that fell to your lot to live in. How do you feel about it? In your opinion, what challenges are facing Cuban youth nowadays?
I can say that I’m pleased that I fulfilled with dignity and honor what I consider to be my duty.
I’m aware of the historic reasons for my imprisonment, which was intended to punish Cuba; hence the grave injustice of our case. That awareness gives me serenity and peace. I know I’m in prison for an honorable cause and that makes me feel optimistic and even happy with the satisfaction of having fulfilled my duty.
It’s not for me to define the specific challenges facing today’s Cuban youth. I’ve been away from Cuba for many years, and no matter how much I have kept up with national events, I lack the regular contact with it that I think I would need to make such assessments and venture an opinion. In general, I believe our youth must prepare themselves as best they can from the professional viewpoint, but more importantly, they must learn values so that their present and future contribution to the continuity of the Revolution is the proper one in an increasingly complex world full of challenges and dangers. As I see it, a profound knowledge about our people’s history and tradition of struggle is paramount in this connection.
9) In all these years in prison, which book(s) had the deepest impact on you?
Although I read many interesting books, there are two that made a real impression on me. The first one was Cintio Vitier’s Ese sol del mundo moral, which I read soon after I started serving my sentence and it’s a must-read because of the author’s extremely interesting interpretation of our history and its exquisite literary style, a typical feature in Cintio’s work, whom I consider the deepest Cuban essayist I’ve ever read.
As to my second favorite book, I read it almost at the end of my prison term because it was recently published. I hope it can be translated into Spanish in the near future, for every Cuban should read it too. It’s titled Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991. The author is the American academic Piero Gleijeses, a Professor with Johns Hopkins University. He had already written a first book about Cuba’s presence in Angola and now, after 15 years of research and consultation of documents never before released, he wrote what I deem a masterpiece.
Even if it is a scholarly book, I found it more exciting than any novel because it depicts Cuba’s effort in Angola all the way till the final victory. It contains plenty of long excerpts from documents Cuba has declassified, including transcripts of meetings in which consequential and decisive decisions were made by top officials, our Commander-in-Chief, and high-ranking officers and political leaders, as well as their conversations with their Angolan and Soviet counterparts at the time.
What this author grasped very well from the Cuban, American, South African and other documents he reviewed is the Cuban Revolution’s highly principled foreign policy, our people’s altruism and strength of character, and the tactful treatment of –and respect for– every single contradiction which came up during Cuba’s years-long presence in Angola. These did not without jeopardize our ability to make sovereign judgments and to defend at all times our political and military opinions about how to proceed which, as it turned out, prevailed and solved the conflict.
When you read that book you feel very proud of being Cuban and a revolutionary, proud of our leaders, and proud of having participated in that internationalist mission.
10) Heroism is to many people nothing but a thing of Hollywood or a history book. Do you see yourself as a hero?
I don’t. I just did and do what I’m sure millions of Cubans would have done. At any rate, all I can say is that it was my privilege to do what millions would have liked to have the chance to do and, faced with adverse circumstances at a defining moment, I took a stance that I believe is in keeping with the history of our people and their fighting spirit and ability to resist. The vast majority of Cubans, not just the five of us, carry in our hearts those values, instilled in us throughout our people’s history of struggle. That’s why I say that millions of Cubans would do the same, and that’s why the Revolution is alive and moving forward.
11) What role did music play in your life in prison? Are the Revolution’s achievements properly reflected in today’s Cuban music?
I’m not up to speed on Cuban music these days, especially the current kind. I hardly had any access to Cuban music during my time in prison, and very little in the last year and a half to the music we made 15 or 20 years ago, nothing fresher than that. So I can’t make any comment on our music’s evolution, or what you call “today’s Cuban music”.
As to the other question, I can definitely say that listening to music, and ours in particular, however old it may be –the kind I could enjoy lately– is like strolling down memory lane and seeing my friends, my younger days, my hometown, our culture, and so on. As we say in prison, it’s like “going on a trip”.
12) What’s the main challenge facing the international solidarity movement for the Five and where should we focus our efforts on?
I try to be very careful about my opinions on the international solidarity movement, so much so when it comes to what I think should be done. For starters, it’s their effort, not something conducted by the Five. Also, those people work hard, with few resources, and overcome many difficulties. We owe them a lot, and I feel a great sense of gratitude toward all members of that movement.
This being said, I guess the main challenge –and I’m not reinventing the wheel here– is clear to them and can be put like this: how to reach out more and more to the political decision-makers, mainly in the US.
History shows that when it comes to social struggle and when injustice takes place, the US government finds in favor of those causes only if it fits their political purposes or when keeping the wrong proves to be more expensive than making things right. The international solidarity movement, whose members are experienced in fighting for justice and striving to make certain social changes, are fully aware of this.
The problem is how to create those conditions so that, for instance, the political cost of keeping us in prison is higher than what the political authorities consider the benefit of not releasing them. I think the main challenge facing the movement is how to raise awareness of this end and educate the political sectors so that the demands that our brothers be freed become louder and the political decision-makers realize the political cost of not doing it.
Again, our friends are aware of this. This is hardly any news. The thing is how to succeed when these people carry no political clout and have no money to get some and make things work in this country. And I know very well that those friends are constantly thinking up ways of working better and more effective. Backing the London event of early March and the “5 Days for the Cuban 5” to be held in June precisely in Washington, D.C. would be concrete ways of helping reach that goal.
13) A message to young people as essential actors of this struggle?
Using their initiative, energy and enthusiasm as well as their ability to get through to others like them and their mastery of the new Its, youth can and should play a key role in this struggle.
Time- and energy-consuming tasks are underway at community level to educate people about our case and reach out to elected US officials to which young people can make a pivotal contribution.
Twitter, Facebook, and other digital communication media are also tools that young people, either in the US, Cuba or other countries, can make the most of depending on their possibilities and resources.
They can use their creativeness and the typical messages and codes available to the new generations to make a significant contribution and help make the truth about our case known to hundreds of thousands of other youths in the world who have not heard about it, or send letters to elected US officials requesting our release or disseminating facts about our case.
I would tell young people to join the struggle with enthusiasm and commitment. Without them, our goals would be much harder to reach.
14) What helped you serve your sentence with integrity and withoug your will being broken? Do you have any anecdote or “slogan” –I mean, as an element of reaffirmation– that helped in any way?
What mostly helped me do my time without giving up my principles is the awareness that we are defending a just cause, which confers calm and capacity to both cope with the circumstances, hard though they may be, and put your situation into context.
We know that what they do to us is to punish, or try to punish, Cuba for its audacity to build a just society despite the animosity of the most powerful country on Earth, which is still reluctant to come to terms with the fact that Cuba is an independent and sovereign nation.
Understanding that helps us keep our predicament in perspective and accept it with honor and dignity, and it gives us a more comprehensive view about the meaning of our case in the framework of US hostility toward the Cuban Revolution. Without trying setting ourselves up as a symbol or anything, I hope that the US government learns that they will not break the Revolution any more than they could break the Five.
We would have never given up our principles, not even in the utter isolation we endured in the early years of our imprisonment, and I know that our brothers who remain in prison will do the same even in the most difficult conditions. However, the solidarity and support that we have received from the Cuban people and so many other friends everywhere make your sentence easier to bear and become to us a commitment of resistance and combativeness.
15) How do you appraise your friendship with Oscar López Rivera? I’m in touch with him and he told me he has a great affection for you.
I was honored to share with Oscar a little more than four years of my prison time. He is a person of strong convictions that I respect and admire. It was thanks to him, for example, that I took up drawing. He’s been a painter for many years and helped me take my first steps.
I learned many things from him. He lived through the struggles of the 1960s and 70s in the US, the Vietnam War and, in the 1950s, the Puerto Rican migration to the US, where they suffered poverty and racial discrimination. There’s a part of US history that is not found in any textbook: that of the struggle waged by revolutionary African-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and even Anglo-Saxons, whose groups were very active in the 1970s as they clashed with the system’s most ferocious repression.
Oscar is quite familiar with that struggle, so he told me about it and gave me books written by some of those who were involved in it. For instance, some African-American political prisoners have been in prison for over 40 years as a result, and they’re largely unknown even in their own communities. We also talked very much about Puerto Rico and the reality of life in that island that remains a US colony even now in the 21st century.
Oscar has spent over 30 years in prison and suffered a great deal of mistreatment, especially in the first two decades, in the hands of the authorities, who poured on him all the hatred they feel for those they call political enemies. So I also learned from him about life in prison.
Since he’s well-informed and has a clearly-defined ideology, I could talk with him about the country’s political situation, topical subjects, history, etc. and gained a knowledge I would otherwise had missed, as what prevails in prison is misinformation about, indifference to, and disregard for those topics.
Oscar is a great human being that made my stay in prison all the more productive in terms of my preparation and education. I wish him all the best, and that the support of his people and friends lead to his release, although I know very well that he’s willing to make as many sacrifices as necessary and do it with cool-headedness, dignity and honor. But he deserves to be free with his sisters, his daughter, his granddaughter and his people. My warmest regards for him.
16) Any plans for when you arrive in the island?
At first, above all else, to spend time with my family and Rosa Aurora, from whom I’ve been separated for so many years; greet my brothers’ relatives; to meet with friends I have not seen for a long time; and to try to fill myself up with the Island and the lifestyle we’re used to enjoying and which I miss so much. I’d like to swim in the sea –weather permitting– and walk around Havana. These are the first things to do, there will be time afterwards to make other plans.
As to the future, generally speaking, I will join the struggle for the return of my other brothers and strive for that goal to the best of my ability.
Yasmani Surita Siam
Norelys Morales Aguilera
Iroel Sanchez Espinoza
Jessica Acevedo Alfonso
Gabriel Torres Rodríguez
Yeilén Delgado Calvo
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann