CORRECTIONS: The news that Gerardo Hernández received on his birthday, June 4, 2008, was not that the Supreme Court would refuse to hear the Cuban Five’s case, but that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had reinstated his two life sentences, after a previous ruling had overturned them. The Supreme Court’s announcement of the refusal to hear the Five’s case would come a year later, on June 15, 2009. In a sense, the timing was even more cruel, petty and personal than outlined below. The interview with Adriana Pérez, Gerardo’s wife, attributed in the article below to California’s La Opinión, was actually an Associated Press interview, from which La Opinión collected selected excerpts.
A State Department at the Service of Petty Interests:
Visa Denial as a Form of Torture
When the U.S. Government announced that it would deny Adriana Pérez a visa for the tenth time in eleven years in order to come from Cuba to the United States and visit her husband, Gerardo Hernández, incarcerated at the federal prison in Victorville, California, it carefully chose the date to break the news. The denial was announced on July 15, the couple’s 21st wedding anniversary. When the Supreme Court announced that it would refuse to hear the case of the Cuban Five, of whom Hernández is one, and the one facing the largest sentence, it chose the date with equal care: June 4, Hernández’s birthday. The timing of both events was as certainly deliberate as it was petty – a stamp of the U.S. State Department, where cruelty and pettiness abound.
Pérez has not seen her husband for almost twelve years, starting since almost a year before a SWAT team tore down the door to his tiny apartment in Miami in September of 1998 and arrested him, answering his question about why he was being arrested with a snarling “You know why.” So much for due process. It would be only the first violation of its kind in a never-ending chain.
Pérez did receive a visa to come to the United States once during the eleven years she applied for one; from the Bush administration, in 2002. It was the Bush administration’s idea of a joke. Pérez arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to an FBI welcoming committee, who fingerprinted her and interrogated her for eleven hours, deprived her of the right to consult with an attorney or her consulate, and then revoked the visa and sent her packing directly back to Cuba without being able to communicate with her husband.
In 2005 the administration had another laugh at her expense, turning down her visa application on the grounds that she might want to immigrate permanently to the United States. As though the lure of living in the country that had so abused her and her husband was so powerful no human being could possibly resist it.
Pérez is not the only person who the State Department has arbitrarily deprived of the right to see her husband all these years. Olga Salanueva, the wife of René González, has been denied visas to travel to the U.S. as well. Unlike Pérez, who was in Cuba at the time, Salanueva lived with her husband and daughters in Miami and was there on that fateful September day when SWAT teams broke down their door and pinned González to the floor. González, Hernández and the rest of the Five (Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labanino and Fernando González) were locked in solitary confinement for 17 months in the Miami Detention Center, prevented from preparing their own defense and, because their accusers could find no evidence that they had committed espionage, charged with planning to commit espionage at some future date. In legal language: conspiracy. By the time they went to trial nearly two years later, Miami’s quick thinkers had conjured a second charge to add to the first: conspiracy to commit murder, based on the 1996 Cuban military shootdown of two planes belonging to the exile group Brothers to the Rescue when they invaded Cuban airspace for the last time.
This is not the time to tell the story of how the Cuban Five were sent to the United States to do the job that the FBI refused to do – stopping the violent extremists in Miami who were using Florida as their launching pad to murder innocent people in Cuba in terrorist attacks that stretched all the way back to the 1959 revolution. Nor is it the time to tell how Brothers to the Rescue was aiding that violent effort under the guise of rescuing rafters. It’s not the moment to describe how after the planes were shot down in Cuban airspace, the United States delayed and pressured the U.N. investigation until it got the incident sited where Miami wanted it: in international airspace, and how that in turn led to Miami’s looting of Cuba’s frozen assets, and ultimately, Hernández’s specious conviction and sentencing to two life sentences plus 15 years. Nor is it the moment to explain how in the time period immediately prior to 9/11, instead of paying attention to some young Middle Eastern men who were attending flight school in Florida and demonstrating an unusual impatience with bothersome landing exercises, the FBI concentrated all of its energy on sneaking into Hernández’s apartment to rummage through his computer. Some of that story has already been told, and the rest can wait for another day. No, this story belongs to Adriana and Gerardo.
Adriana knew already when she was sixteen that Gerardo was the love of her life. “His strong masculinity combined with his great delicacy toward me impressed me,” she told the Cuban magazine Bohemia. “I loved his well kept hands, his voice…when I think about my life, together with Gerardo, I feel a passion for the good man who I met, for the immense and unlimited love he’s always shown me. These are plenty of reasons to always remain at his side, without hesitation.”
Gerardo and Adriana were married in 1988 but barely a year had gone by when he went on a voluntary assignment to Angola where Cuban troops were helping Angolan troops repel South African mercenary attacks from Namibia. The conflict culminated in the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, which was the decisive factor in the struggle to end South African apartheid. “Our mission was to explore a part of the north of Angola, very close to the Congo, a combination of jungle and desert,” Gerardo told Saul Landau in a recent interview:
“To protect our troops we scouted the area around the unit, looking for indications of enemy activity. We would explore, along with the combat engineers, and inspect the roads our unit’s vehicles used. For example, we used a well to get the unit’s water, and our trucks had to drive there. To prevent the enemy from placing mines, we patrolled the area with combat engineers to locate mines.
I was there from 1989 to 1990. The press has said that I did combat missions. There’s a big difference between a combat mission and a combat action. The scouting platoon accomplished its mission without getting into combat. We completed 64 combat missions but I never had any combat action. Despite it being the last phase of Cuban collaboration in Angola, I had comrades who did encounter enemy mines.”
Following the mission to Angola, the couple was reunited, not to separate again until November of 1997, when he left for the United States on another voluntary scouting mission, this time to infiltrate the Miami extremist groups who were planning terrorist actions inside Cuba. Adriana believed he was working in a Cuban embassy in Latin America and had no idea he was actually in Miami until the news reached her of his arrest less than a year later. “I was at work when they told me what had happened,” she told Bohemia. “It was a very hard moment. When they told me about Gerardo’s incarceration I didn’t move. A few seconds later I realized that I wasn’t even breathing. Life stopped completely for me during those minutes. What I experienced next was horrifying. I knew only that he was alive and that he spent 17 months in the infamous ‘hole,’ isolated from the outside world.”
In an interview with California’s La Opinión newspaper, Adriana insisted that she had never felt betrayed by not knowing Gerardo’s real assignment:
“I couldn’t feel betrayed; Gerardo had not lied to me…his work could not have been revealed beforehand. He was doing all of that to protect the Cuban people. Look, the two of us were born under the socialist system: we’ve been victims of the attacks against Cuba, our homeland. Those who haven’t lost a friend have lost a family member or a co-worker. Do you believe that someone, not because of having a political conscience but a human one, would not have undertaken such a job? He wasn’t even charging for it, not a penny, risking his life, far from all his loved ones – it would be impossible for me to feel betrayed.”
Adriana was only a child in 1976, but she still remembers the pressure she felt in her heart when the news came about a bomb placed by men hired by the Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles on a Cuban airliner making a stop in Barbados. All 73 passengers were killed when it exploded shortly after takeoff and crashed into the sea. Posada’s predilection for C-4 explosive against civilian targets did not stop there. He ordered the planting of similar bombs in Havana hotels in 1997, killing an Italian tourist named Fabio di Celmo two months before Gerardo was sent to Miami. Posada boasted about the attacks to the New York Times, claiming “that Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.” In 2000, Posada planned to blow up a university auditorium full of people sitting in what for him would always be the wrong place and the wrong time: a speaking venue in Panama for Fidel Castro. Posada was caught with 200 pounds of C-4 in Panama and sent to jail, until the Panamanian president, Mireya Moscoso, closely tied to the Bush administration, pardoned him as she was leaving office. Today he lives freely in Miami, while awaiting trial on immigration charges.*
Speaking to the Spanish online publication laRepública.es in 2006, Adriana pointed out “the hypocrisy, the moral double standard of the U.S. government, which is also proven even now in the Posada Carriles situation.” While Posada wanders Miami a free man, the Five are serving sentences in prisons along with real murderers, rapists and other violent offenders, who unlike the Five are granted access to email and regular family visits. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions (Human Rights Commission) has denounced the many violations of due process and human rights visited upon the Five from the moment of their detention in September 1998 to the present day, including but not limited to the denial of visas for family visits. Leonard Weinglass, an attorney who represents the Five points out that “the refusal to allow a wife to visit a husband who is an inmate is a violation of the International Covenant Against Torture. Not permitted by any country. Not permitted in the United States. I’ve represented people on death row, who have committed terrible crimes. They always get to see their wives.”
As Adriana told laRepública, the denial of family visits amounts to an additional, extrajudicial sentence: “Is it written somewhere that [the Five] would have to serve the additional sentence of not seeing their families, their wives, their children? It’s not written anywhere, and that’s why we say that neither the violations of human rights, nor the torture against these men has ceased.”
It’s a pressure cooker, one that began in Miami and one that has continued through three presidential administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama), with the ultimate objective of pressuring the Five until they break and condemn Cuba. Adriana explains:
“Even Rene’s [González] family was used to blackmail him. René’s family lived there, as I’ve told you, yet they asked René to sign a plea bargain admitting guilt for the charges or implicating his friends, considering his wife’s migratory status. In other words, if René had signed – something he didn’t do – his wife would be living today in the United States and René would be free. They also reminded René that his youngest daughter was a U.S. citizen and that they could take away custody. Custody of his daughter. Facing this kind of situation, it’s impossible for his daughter to travel alone to the U.S. because we’d run a tremendous risk. But two years later, after the trial of René had begun, they reminded him once again of his wife’s migratory status and tried to coerce him into signing. René refused once again and the response was to take his wife to prison for three months.
“His wife [Olga] lived in the United States from 1998 to 2000. She tried to visit him on weekends in the Miami Detention Center. Of course, all her movements were monitored by the FBI and the U.S. government. However, when René refused to sign in August of 2000, very close to the beginning of the trial which would start in September, his wife was brought to the prison and presented to him, dressed as a prisoner, and still René refused to sign. Of course this was something that was just too much for the U.S. authorities, that a man, with his family, someone they’d been threatening, who had even been warned, and then finally had his wife brought to him that way, would continue to refuse. Well, his wife was turned over for migratory processing.
“She had permanent residency in the U.S., however she ended up being deported in November of 2000 when there were only a few days remaining before the trial. Since then, she has lived in Cuba. She’s not been able to visit him because every time she’s asked for a visa, it has been denied for a variety of reasons. They’ve denied her for being a supposed terrorist, for being a danger to the security of the United States, for being a possible intelligence agent for the Cuban government. However, it’s noteworthy because both of us have been denied with the same arguments at different stages, however I never lived in the United States. But Olga, who lived there for two more years after her husband’s arrest, at that time wasn’t a danger for the security of the United States. Why, if she was deported on migratory charges is the U.S. government today condemning her with these charges which didn’t even appear when she was arrested? It’s pressure. It’s mistreatment. And in my case, the same.”
Gerardo told Landau, “Denying me the chance to see my wife is part of this process; the interrogation, incentives to betray, months of solitary confinement. The FBI’s or Administration’s plans didn’t materialize. Initially they thought: ‘Arrest these Castro agents, threaten them and they’ll grovel, because this is the richest and best country in the world. Cuba is a poor country, a dictatorship…’ For the past 50 years, they’ve told Americans, ‘Cuba is hell – but you can’t go there to see for yourself.’ Americans are free to do many things, but not travel 90 miles to visit that country to check the government’s claims. They planned for the Five to switch sides, create this fantastic propaganda show: we’d denounce whatever they thought we should denounce, condemn the revolution; like they do with defecting athletes or musicians. All you have to say is ‘I come here seeking freedom.’ The government squeezes the maximum from them; then they’re forgotten. That was more or less the plan for us, but it didn’t work. In retaliation they were going to make our lives as difficult as possible. For 10 years. Prisoners email their families. They don’t let me use email, not even with my wife.”
The State Department was apparently sufficiently stung by the universal criticism of the disproportionate punishment inflicted on the Five compared to others facing sentences for real, damaging espionage, not just possible future espionage, that it put out a statement last year which included the following defense of the visa denials:
Consistent with the right of the United States to protect itself from covert spies, the U.S. government has not granted visas to the wives of two prisoners. Evidence presented at their husbands’ trial revealed that one of these women was a member of the Wasp Network who was deported for engaging in activity related to espionage and is ineligible to return to the United States. The other was a candidate for training as a Directorate of Intelligence U.S.-based spy when U.S. authorities broke up the network.
Based on the available evidence, we can assume that the two women referred to here are Olga and Adriana, in that order. However, consistent with the government’s position of withholding facts that are inconvenient to the story it wishes to tell, it does not share the actual evidence from the trial so readers can judge for themselves. According to Adriana’s account, Olga’s “activities related to espionage” did not seem troubling enough to the FBI to arrest her until her presence was needed as a tool to pressure her husband. They certainly were not sufficient to bring her to trial. What were those activities? Taking care of their infant daughter? Preparing a mean congris? Possibly, because we already know that everything the FBI swept up in the dwellings of the Five was stamped “classified,” not excluding recipe cards, so that the government could then pick and choose which evidence would be most favorable to make its case and withhold that which would have favored the Five.
In Adriana’s case, what does it mean to be a “candidate for training”? Could it mean that she was about to be informed about the real nature of her husband’s work so they would not be forced to live separately?
And if the State Department is so concerned about protecting itself from covert spies, is it really admitting through this statement that once it gives these women visas, it will have no way of accounting for their time while they are in the United States? It’s laughable on its face.
But there’s another aspect to the denial of Adriana’s and Olga’s visas that ordinary citizens ought to find troubling, not just for its vindictive and immoral character. The cautionary tale goes beyond that. As the Argentine sociologist Atilio Borón pointed out in recent public remarks in Havana where he was accepting the UNESCO José Martí International Award:
“[U.S.] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s regrettable decision [on Adriana’s visa application] says that Gerardo’s wife ‘constitutes a threat to the stability and national security of the United States.’ It’s evident that if she constitutes a threat to the stability and security of the United States, no-one anywhere in this world, in a climate of such paranoia, can avoid being considered a terrorist and therefore, subjected to the punishment such a condition merits.”
We are all Adriana now.
It is also certain that in the same way that Gerardo and the rest of the Five were monitoring extremist Miami groups in order to prevent further terrorist attacks on their compatriots back home, U.S. agents are also currently working under false identities overseas, without registering themselves as foreign agents, in order to uncover and prevent plots against U.S. citizens such as the 9/11 attack.
A month before the appeals for the Five were to be presented, in 2003, when Gerardo most needed access to his attorney, he was suddenly sent to the “Box,” a basement underneath the “Hole” for a month. The “Box” was a windowless room, lit 24 hours a day with fluorescent lights, where people who have engaged in violent acts against guards are sent. They are not allowed reading material nor any kind of contact with any other human being. Gerardo was put there in his underwear, barefoot, and even his escort had no idea why this was happening. Said Gerardo in the Landau interview, “[He] asked me, ‘Why are you going to the hole?’ I said, ‘You’re asking me? You should be telling me.’”
“The other cells had their exterior doors open. The interior door was like a closed fence, but the iron exterior door that isolated you completely, was left open, so people wouldn’t go crazy. But mine was always closed. When they’d take me to shower, they’d close the other doors so no-one would even see me – because one of the rules was that I could have contact with no-one. I was there for a month, not knowing if it was day or night, dirty water running down my walls, barefoot, with the light on 24 hours a day, hearing screams of people around me, some of whom had gone crazy. One day, a Thursday, they brought me papers to sign, saying I would be there for one year.”
The same treatment was meted out at the same time to all five Cubans in their separate penitentiaries around the country. Finally, after a great deal of public pressure, the Five were suddenly released, as inexplicably as their time in the torture cells had begun.
Although the torture of “enemy combatants” at the U.S. base in Guantanamo demonstrated that the United States government under Bush was utterly unconcerned about the precedent it might represent for its own forces, the lesser known torture of these five Cuban agents was an escalation, and an even riskier standard to set, if for no other reason than naked self-interest. Obama still has agents in the field and continuing a precedent of arbitrary detention and torture is unwise. Even more so when it is based on an espionage that never actually occurred but one that an apparently extremely suggestible and docile Miami jury was told might take place in the future. Steven Spielberg’s film, “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise plays the chief of the Washington D.C. “Pre-Crime” unit which arrests people for thought crimes, was apparently not that far from reality, at least not in the Southern District of Florida.
Despite the fact that as far as is known, the Five have not paid a visit to the “Box” this year, visa denials and the blocking of family visits and other communications are still torture, and represent a petty vindictiveness that Obama could easily stop. Even the racist South Africans who locked Nelson Mandela away at Robben Island allowed him to see his wife.
Of course, Obama ought to put an end to the whole thing. Three of the Five will be re-sentenced this fall, as an appeals court ruled that the original judge who stubbornly refused to move the case from her Miami courtroom had sentenced them too harshly. Certainly, Gerardo’s sentencing in particular stands out as a politically motivated witch-hunt that is one of the all-time greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. It’s a grudge-match that has gone on too long, is causing needless suffering and is a real obstacle to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, something everyone outside Miami would like to see.
“I’ve never doubted that the accusation[s] are a question of politics and as Gerardo himself told me, ‘at any moment, in another place, justice will be done,’” says Adriana. Has the moment arrived? The continued visa denials from the State Department are not a comforting indicator. Yet Obama won the presidency without the kind of shameless pandering to the Florida Cuban exiles of his predecessors. McCain and Romney both promised the exiles (still dissatisfied with the Five as temporary scapegoats, and hungering for their ultimate goal) indictments of both Fidel and Raul Castro for the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft. Obama did no such thing; to the contrary, he said he would be willing to talk to Cuba without preconditions – a remark for which his current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, running against him at the time, excoriated him.**
“Anyone doing that would know he’d lose the Florida Cuban vote,” Gerardo told Landau. “But he said it and I think everything U.S. politicians say is calculated. So he knew the risk. He won without getting a majority of the Cuban vote. So he owes them nothing. He’s intelligent, and knows that 50 years of erroneous politics toward Cuba has not produced any result. So I wait, and without much hope or false expectations, for him to take more reasonable, rational measures towards Cuba. This country is moving towards a more respectful relationship with Cuba – in the interests of both countries.”
In Cuba, Adriana continues to wait for the chance to see her husband which has been unreasonably and arbitrarily denied her all these years. If the U.S. government hopes to break the couple, it’s betting on the wrong pair.
Gerardo explains, “Look, we’ve been in prison for over 10 years. People who know about this case have said to me: ‘Cuba must have paid you lots of money to do this!’ I always laugh and say: ‘If I had done what I did for money, I wouldn’t be here.’ Because when one works for money, one works for the highest bidder. And Cuba could never pay what this country could pay. I would have accepted their [U.S.] offers and saved myself 10 years behind bars without seeing my wife. A lot of people don’t understand; people brought up to think money means everything in life.”
Says Adriana, “When people ask me if I believe he’ll return, I say, ‘Yes, of course. I don’t know if it’ll be next year or many more, but I will have him with me.’ The U.S. government has prohibited us from seeing one another, but what it cannot impede is our strength; the love, trust and the firmness we’ve achieved.”
* The U.S. government under Obama has issued a new indictment against Posada that supercedes an earlier indictment where he was accused of lying to immigration officials about how he arrived in the United States. The new indictment charges him with “soliciting other individuals to carry out bombings in Cuba,” although it is still confined to a case about immigration fraud, not terrorism, since he is charged with lying about that solicitation during his immigration interviews. Livio di Celmo, the brother of the Italian tourist killed in Posada’s 1997 bombing in Havana, has suggested that since the FBI discarded all its evidence relating to Posada’s activities, any of the Five “could testify very well about the terrorist acts that have been going on in Cuba since 1959.”
**John McAuliff, the Executive Director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development pointed out during last year’s campaign that “Hillary Clinton is Bush light on Cuba, seeming to take her cue from Sen. Bob Menendez and her Miami based Cuban American sister in law. Both candidates would do well to listen to the 2/3 of Americans who support normalization of relations and the right to travel to Cuba.”