U.S. intransigence on Cuban Five prisoners a high stakes game


With appeals all but exhausted, the only hope for relief of unremitting judicial abuse of the Cuban Five lies with President Barack Obama. Supporters of the Cuban Five are demanding that he issue a presidential pardon and free them

Stephen Kimber, Canadian journalist and author of a forthcoming book, “What Lies across the Water: the Real Story of the Cuban Five,” says the prospect of improved U.S.-Cuban relations is also grim, and that nothing will be settled until the Cuban Five political prisoners are released.

Solidarity activists worldwide say the U.S. judicial system railroaded the Cuban Five defenders against terrorism to prison. Both the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International have slammed U.S. judicial proceedings. Yet after 13 years four of the men remain in jail and one of them, Gerardo Hernandez, is still the object of special abuse.

Ramon Labaniño and Antonio Guerrero are serving 30 and 22-year terms respectively. Fernando Gonzalez is nearing the end of his 19-year sentence on lesser charges. Rene Gonzalez, sentenced to 15 years, was released on parole. But why is Gerardo Hernandez serving two life sentences plus 15 years?

Life sentences against Labaniño and Guerrero for conspiracy to commit espionage were reduced on appeal. Hernandez has a life sentence on the same charge still intact. His other life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder also remains. It’s clear that the U.S. government has taken special pains to inflict harm upon Gerardo Hernandez.

For example, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard in Miami, the judge who presided at the trial of the Five in 2001, on May 15 freed Yuby Ramirez after 12 years in prison. Lenard ruled that Ramirez was the victim of incompetent counsel. Ramirez, like Hernandez, had been serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. Ramirez confessed she had participated in a plot consummated by drug trafficking bosses to kill a government witness. If Ramirez can go free, why not Hernandez?

Hernandez gets special treatment in other ways. The additional burden of a murder conspiracy charge was filed against him came late in the trial of the Five. In demanding the charge go forward, Judge Lenard overruled the prosecutors’ reluctance to pursue it on grounds of lack of evidence. In fact, no evidence has ever been presented indicating Hernandez knew about Cuban plans to down two Brothers to the Rescue planes on February 24, 1996. Four pilots died in the Cuban attack, carried out by military aircraft.

Brothers to the Rescue is a Cuban exile organization that had been illegally entering Cuban air space to drop leaflets. The Cuban government complained repeatedly to the U.S. government about these incursions before the shoot-down incident occurred.

As analyst Saul Landau recently pointed out, the claim that Hernandez caused the deaths by alerting the Cuban government of the upcoming flights is meaningless. The U.S. Air Force notified the Cubans that the planes were on the way. Jose Basulto, the Brothers to the Rescue leader, had proclaimed his flight plans publically.

The U.S. government is refusing the request of Hernandez’ attorney in a still-undecided habeas corpus plea that the National Space Agency release satellite maps expected to show that the planes had indeed entered Cuban airspace. If that was the case, then the murder conspiracy case against Hernandez collapses.

There is, of course, one major instance in which all the Cuban Five prisoners gained special treatment. In early 1998, Cuban security officials delivered to FBI personnel visiting in Havana reams of material gathered by the Cuban Five and other Cuban agents working in Southern Florida. The FBI thus gained considerable evidence as to terrorist plotting in Florida, past and present, against Cuba. They learned that a boat docked in the Miami River was laden with explosives.

What happened is that on their return to Florida, the FBI ignored evidence implicating private paramilitary groups in their bailiwick and instead arrested the Cuban agents. That was the work of Hector Pesquera, the newly appointed FBI head in Miami.

The new book by Stephen Kimber provides details on Pesquera’s role. The local FBI head embarked upon a crusade to persuade a reluctant U.S. Justice Department to arrest and prosecute the Cuban Five, even interceding personally with FBI director Louis Freed to secure authorization. Pesquera, widely known as a friend of powerful, right wing Cuban-American families in Miami, even boasted on radio “It had been he who changed the focus, and instead of the spies spying, he presented accusations against them.”

In mute testimony to his softness on terrorists, Pesquera ended his FBI office’s investigation into crimes committed by Cuban exile plotter Luis Posada. Pesquera arranged for disposal of documents in the case of Posada, who had engineered the bombing of a fully loaded Cuban passenger plane and hotels in Havana.

Pesquera has recently been appointed police chief of Puerto Rico.

Photo: A billboard with images of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S., popularly known as the “Cuban Five,” in Havana, Cuba, April 11. Franklin Reyes/AP



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.