BY MARTÍN KOPPEL AND REBECCA WILLIAMSON
HAVANA — The most notable feature of this year’s international book fair here has been the almost daily participation of the men known around the world as the Cuban Five and here as the Five Heroes.
The broad 11-day cultural event, attended by some 300,000 people, was marked by the confidence generated by the victory won with the return home in December of Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, who spent more than 16 years in U.S. prisons. René González and Fernando González had been released from U.S. custody in May 2013 and February 2014.
Washington arrested the five in South Florida in 1998 and railroaded them to prison on trumped-up charges — including conspiracy to commit espionage and conspiracy to commit murder — because of their actions in defense of the Cuban Revolution. They had been working undercover to alert authorities in Havana about plans by U.S.-based paramilitary groups to carry out bombings and other attacks in Cuba.
In discussions at the book fair, and in daily conversations with Cubans everywhere, the Five Heroes come up time and again as a source of pride. Everyone wants to tell you where they were and what they were doing Dec. 17, when millions stopped to listen to President Raúl Castro announce on TV that Hernández, Labañino and Guerrero were back on Cuban soil. Workers, farmers, students and others across the island poured into the streets in spontaneous celebrations.
Since the return of Gerardo, Ramón and Tony, as they are universally known here, the three of them — plus Fernando and René — have been involved in a whirlwind of daily activities. They are responding to the joy of ordinary Cubans who want to welcome them home and hear what they have to say, including lessons they draw following a decade and a half or more in U.S. prisons.
As Tony Guerrero told an audience of young people at the José Antonio Echeverría Polytechnic Institute, known as CUJAE, however, “No battle waged by revolutionaries ends with something you once did. You don’t live off what you did. No, you have to live from what you do every day.”
Many people here watching the news heard Gerardo, Ramón and Tony after they got off the plane when they proudly reported for duty “for whatever is needed.”
Range of events
One or more of the Five participated in many book fair events and related activities. These included presentations of a collection of Labañino’s prison poems, a CD of Guerrero’s poetry with musical accompaniment and The United States: The Price of Power by Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel in the Interior Ministry. They took part in launching a new edition of Reto a la soledad (Challenge to solitude) by retired Colonel Orlando Cardoso Villavicencio, an account of his nearly 11 years as a prisoner of war in Somalia.
Several presentations centered on the new Pathfinder Press title Absolved by Solidarity: 16 Watercolors for 16 Years of Unjust Imprisonment. The book contains prison paintings by Antonio Guerrero depicting how the Five responded to the 2000-2001 frame-up trial in a U.S. court, plus an introductory photo section capturing the victorious return home in December.
One of these events was held at the science and technical university CUJAE. Another was sponsored by the Union of Young Communists at the Higher Institute for International Relations, which trains youth for Cuba’s foreign service and counts Hernández and Fernando González among its graduates. The book was presented by Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., and Jacob Perasso, a worker and member of the Young Socialists.
One of the largest book fair events, held Feb. 17, was attended by 250 people. Among those present were Gerardo, Ramón, Tony, Fernando, René, family members of the Five and former Cuban Vice President José Ramón Fernández, a Hero of the Republic who led the main column that defeated the U.S.-organized Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Also attending were Cuban Book Institute President Zuleica Romay; Kenia Serrano, president of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples; and Andrés Gómez, a leader of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a Cuban-American organization that supports the revolution.
The program included a panel of writers who discussed publishing activity in Cuba and worldwide in defense of the Cuban Five, and a presentation of Retrato de una ausencia (Portrait of an absence), a book about the Five by journalists Nyliam Vázquez and Oliver Zamora.
The event also featured a presentation of Absolved by Solidarity. The book’s editor, Mary-Alice Waters, was joined on the platform by Tony Guerrero. Waters was introduced by Arleen Rodríguez, coordinator of the Mesa Redonda (Roundtable) TV program.
Waters noted that the catalog of Tony’s watercolors “is not a book that looks backwards. It is a book about the new battles ahead for all of us. About how those battles too will be won by men and women like Gerardo, Ramón, Tony, Fernando and René — the kind of men and women that only a deeply popular, proletarian revolution like Cuba’s can produce.”
Working people in the U.S. can identify with Guerrero’s paintings, Waters said, “because they connect so directly to the lives and struggles of millions,” including their own experience with class “justice” under capitalism.
“The victory represented by the return home of our Five Heroes,” Waters concluded, “also marks the opening of a new front in the decades-long battle to defend Cuba’s independence, its sovereignty, its socialist revolution. As we say in English, ‘The tiger has not changed its stripes.’ Imperialism’s tactics can shift, but the goal remains the same. Through one form of aggression or another, their objective is to overturn the property and social relations conquered by the working people of Cuba over 55 years of struggle and counting.” (The text of Waters’ presentation appears on pages 8-9.)
Guerrero said that when he and his four brothers were in prison, “every book Pathfinder sent us — they sent them in Spanish and English — gave us incredible strength, because they told us that ‘in the belly of the beast,’ to use José Martí’s words, there are people who know how to fight to build a better world.” Likewise, the Five were encouraged by the work of Cuban-American groups that campaigned for their release, such as the Alianza Martiana and the Antonio Maceo Brigade.
Guerrero said he was impressed that their supporters in Miami had organized an exhibit of his first set of 15 watercolors, titled “I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived,” despite threats by right-wing Cuban-American groups. Last August, as he contemplated a project to paint a new set of 16 watercolors, “what convinced me that I had to commit myself to do that was when they put up that exhibit in Miami.”
Today the book Absolved by Solidarity “is an important weapon to denounce the injustices of the U.S. judicial system,” he said. It helps expose how that system commits arbitrary actions “not only against us but against many other fighters, many other workers and ordinary people.”
Exchange with students
Two days later, Waters joined Tony, Fernando and René to present the book to an audience of 300 students and faculty members at the CUJAE campus. Julián Gutiérrez, the main organizer of the event, is a professor and coordinator of the University Network in Solidarity with the Five, which for years has organized a monthly cultural and educational event on campus in support of the Cuban Five — la peña, as it’s known. CUJAE rector Alicia Alonso also joined the platform.
“This is the first peña that is not for the Five but with them,” Gutiérrez announced to applause.
The afternoon turned into a lively exchange. Tony, René and Fernando immediately established a rapport with the students, exchanging light-hearted anecdotes about the school while giving serious answers to their questions.
Guerrero said that in prison they received the Militant every week. The Militant “never stopped publishing articles about us,” he said. Other prisoners would say, “Look, these people always appear in the paper,” and became interested in learning more about them and what they represented. The coverage of their fight helped protect them in prison.
Guerrero noted how the Militant reported on work in defense of the Cuban Five, including several dozen exhibits of the watercolors in cities across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries. “The paper would report that exhibits of ‘I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived’ were being shown in this city, this city, that city. And the following week it would be a new list of cities” — as far away as New Zealand, he noted.
Tony recalled how children at the Jackie Robinson Community Center in Harlem in New York City wrote letters to the Five after seeing an exhibit of his paintings there, and he wrote back to them.
Guerrero and his two comrades were peppered with questions by the students. Asked why he never stopped “being happy” while in prison, he replied, “Every morning when you get up, it’s a critical moment in your life — a new opportunity for you. But some moments are decisive.” If every day you prepare through what you do and internalize your convictions, “when that moment comes, you are ready, and at night you are able to go to sleep, at peace with yourself.”
Describing the day the five of them were arrested by FBI agents in 1998, he recalled, “A guy asks you to admit to something you didn’t do, and you have two options. If you go over to his side, you can get back all the material things you had. The other option [if you say no] is that things are going to get real tough. The man tells you, ‘Look, we’re going to give you a long sentence and you’re going to die in prison.’
“At that moment you have to be prepared. You have to have defined something inside you to know what to do. Then, after you passed that test and said no, you begin to realize you’re happier than everyone around you.”
René González added that when they were locked up, “the first target [of the jailers and prosecutors] was our dignity.” But each of them refused to give in to the blackmail. In prison they were deprived of the most basic material means, while the prosecutors “had everything” in terms of a comfortable existence. Nonetheless, “the most unhappy people throughout the trial were the prosecutors,” René said. “We made them miserable.”
A student asked when they were going to meet Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who from the beginning played a central role in mobilizing support for the Five Heroes. “We are certain we’re going to see Fidel, and that he’s interested in talking with us,” Guerrero replied. “But he doesn’t want to be the first one — he’s a down-to-earth person; that’s what’s great about him. So don’t despair, we’ll see him.”
“Right now we have work to do,” Guerrero said, coming back to a point he had made earlier. “My job, René’s and Fernando’s is not to keep coming back here every day. We can’t keep talking about the same things 37 times. We’re going to work, like everyone, and work together.” His response met applause from the students.