Fourteen years ago, René González, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino and Fernando González -- now known as the Cuban Five -- were arrested in Miami.
Charged with 25 counts including "conspiracy to commit espionage," they were tried in a federal court, convicted on all counts and sentenced to varying prison terms. Meanwhile, Hernández received the additional charge of “conspiracy to commit murder” for his alleged connection to the 1996 Cuban shoot-down of an aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro Cuban-American organization.
Widely considered to be political prisoners, the Five have garnered much international attention from activists who view them not as spies, but patriots seeking to protect their country from Miami-based organizations known for plotting and committing violent terrorist attacks against Cuba. Eight Nobel laureates have called for their release, and Amnesty International has raised questions about their treatment in prison.
The Five's case has also attracted the notice of Canadian activists. Toronto City Hall will host an International Peoples' Tribunal and Assembly, September 21-23, a public gathering aimed at raising awareness of the case and initiating an international call for justice. Lawyers, journalists, professors, activists and celebrities including filmmaker Saul Landau and Miguel Barnet, a distinguished Cuban writer and poet who is President of Cuba's influential union of writers and artists UNEAC, will be in attendance.
"My primary goal is to break the silence of mainstream media, to bring attention to the case," states event coordinator Heide Trampus. "At the Peoples' Tribunal we will hear testimonies given by expert witnesses and victims of terror to a panel of Magistrates of Conscience who will then render a verdict. This is a way to inform the public and to shed new light on this case. On Sunday at the Peoples' Assembly, we will develop an action plan for building a broad campaign across Canada for justice and freedom for the Cuban Five."
According to journalist Keith Bolender, author of Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba, one cannot understand the Cuban Five's case without understanding the history of terrorism against Cuba. “Considering the Cuban Five in any capacity as terrorists is as ridiculous as having Cuba continued to be listed as a state sponsor of terror by the U.S. State Department. It is one of the hypocrisies of American foreign policy against Cuba,” states Bolender, who will speak at the Tribunal.
"The reality is that Cuba has suffered hundreds of acts of terrorism, resulting in the deaths of more than three thousand five hundred innocent civilians. The American government has long been involved in many of these acts,” he adds. "Cuba has been the victim of terrorism for fifty years, and the Five were trying to prevent more such acts. It is a situation that should be revealed to more people, and the Tribunal is hoping to help in that goal."
Among these cases of U.S.-backed terrorism against Cuba, Bolender cites Operation Mongoose, a propaganda, psychological warfare and sabotage campaign that ran from 1961-2 and has been called, according to Bolender, "one of the worst cases of state-sponsored terrorism in the 20th century." As for other attacks, he mentions that during the 1960 literacy campaign, where students were sent to teach farmers to read and write, more than a dozen teachers were tortured and killed by anti-revolutionaries still in country.
"Then, in 1980, there was a series of biological terrorism, including introduction of Dengue 2, which killed more than one hundred Cuban children. In 1997 there was a terrorist bombing campaign against Cuban tourist facilities in Havana and Varadero. Italian-Canadian Fabio Di Celmo was killed when a bomb exploded in the hotel Copacabana in Havana. His brother will be speaking at the tribunal," Bolender adds.
Stephen Kimber, whose book on the Five, What Lies Across the Water, is forthcoming in 2013, concurs with Bolender on the issue of terrorism against Cuba. "To me, this is a story about an injustice and hypocrisy," states Kimber, who learned of the Five's case while travelling in Cuba with the intention of writing a novel set there. He soon became so intrigued with the Five that he opted to write a non-fiction book instead.
"If the Five had been Americans and they'd been sent to Afghanistan, say, to infiltrate dangerous groups in order to prevent them from carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States, they'd have returned home to parades and a heroes' welcome. If they were captured, the U.S. government would have moved heaven and hell to get them back. And yet Americans, even in a post 9/11 world, can't seem to understand that other countries -- but especially Cuba -- has the same right to protect itself from attack," says Kimber, who will speak at the Tribunal specifically about the reasons for the Five's arrests.
"The more I delved into the story -- the more I read the transcripts of their trial and looked at the evidence -- the clearer it was to me that there was no credible evidence to connect the Five to the most serious charges involving the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes. By the government's own admission, the prosecutors did such a lousy job of making that argument that they tried to withdraw the charge before it could go to the jury. The judge rejected their plea but the jury ignored the lack of evidence and convicted them anyway," Kimber explains.
For Kimber, the issue of the Five is separate from that of solidarity with Cuba. "You can disagree with the actions of the Cuban government in shooting down the Brothers to the Rescue planes -- I do -- and still believe that the case against the Five is a travesty of justice," he states.
As for those who would seek to point to human rights abuses within Cuba itself, Kimber firmly believes that this issue must be viewed on its own terms. "But it's too easy to use that as an excuse to ignore what is clearly also a human rights abuse in the case of the Five."
Kimber's goal for the Tribunal? "I really hope we can reach beyond the converted," he says. "This is a story that needs to get out there. I believe if people understood the case better, they would see this as a cause worth fighting for."
Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.
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