On their arrest in 1998, Gerardo Hernandez and four other Cuban Five prisoners spent 17 months in solitary confinement. They voluntarily gave up family and homeland to defend Cuba against terrorist attacks from Florida. Despite an appeals court invalidation of their trial as biased, subsequent appeals court rulings have kept them in jail for almost 12 years.
Gerardo's is a special case. Midway during his trial, U.S. prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to commit murder, alleging he informed Cuban authorities in 1996 that Brothers to the Rescue planes were heading toward Cuba, later to be shot down. But the Cuban government knew because Cuban radar showed the planes taking off from Florida, not because of Gerardo. According to appeals lawyer Leonard Weinglass, Hernandez "is the first person in U.S. history to be charged for the shoot-down of an aircraft by the armed forces of another country." Conviction on that count led to a second life sentence.
The U.S. government has prevented Gerardo's wife Adriana Perez and Olga Salenueva, wife of prisoner Rene Gonzalez, from visiting their husbands in jail.
From July 21 through August 3, jailers at Victorville Federal Prison in California confined Gerardo to the "hole," a punishment cell measuring 7 feet by 3 feet that he shared with another prisoner. He has no record of disciplinary violations. He ended up there following an FBI visit to the prison.
He was unable to confer with lawyers, make telephone calls, or write letters. He was deprived of wristwatch, portable radio, toilet supplies, and reading material. The temperature in his tiny cell hovered around 95 degrees. Ventilation was minimal.
Hernandez sought medical attention in April, but no doctor examined him until July 20. He suffers from high blood pressure and an unspecified bacterial infection. In the "hole" he was unable to take medications.
This is the third time confinement to a punishment cell coincided with an upcoming judicial appeal. This time, he was unable to collaborate with lawyers in preparing a habeas corpus appeal.
"That's equivalent to torture," Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon told delegates on July 31. He called for protests to the U.S. Congress, human rights defenders, and opponents of U.S. aggression against Cuba. Alarcon urged worldwide actions on behalf of Gerardo Hernandez.
Hernandez was released from the "hole" yesterday, following protests from his attorneys and a letter and e-mail campaign on his behalf. His release was preceded by attorneys Leonard Weinglass and Peter Schey visiting the prison. Having found Hernandez all but overcome by the heat, Weinglass reported, "We sent a five-page letter to the prison containing all the errors that they made in putting him in isolation. The letter outlined their own regulations that they violated." An outpouring of international solidarity influenced the outcome, say observers.
Vulnerability of Hernandez and the other four prisoners to maltreatment makes it essential to put efforts to free the Cuban Five on a campaign footing. Public awareness of their case remains low. And Gerardo Hernandez warrants his own campaign. He alone of the Five still carries a life sentence, two prisoners last year having been resentenced. Plus he's the target of extra cruelty.
The Cuban Five have gained a following because of who they are: people who acted according to principle. Their example of sacrifice and devotion to a higher cause will not soon fade. They were defending their people's national independence and socialist revolution.
John Brown also ended up in state hands because he acted for justice and equality. His small band's attempted seizure of a federal munitions depot was intended as a first step toward revolt by slaves, and freedom. Weeks before Brown's execution in 1859, Henry Thoreau delivered his "Plea for Captain John Brown" in Concord, Mass. John Brown, he stated, "did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid."
"No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature," Thoreau said.
These are words fit for the Cuban Five. Their hold on our imagination gains strength. They will never be as famous in the United States as John Brown, and their struggle is entirely different, but they and he put ideals and ethics first. In the case of Gerardo Hernandez, the juxtaposition of persecution and principled action demands extra efforts.