The Untold Story of the Cuban Five
Cuban 5 support demonstration held on June 6, 2008 on the Detroit Riverfront. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Cuban 5 support demonstration held on June 6, 2008 on the Detroit Riverfront. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
By Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of People's Power
"It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place"
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
The case of Elian González, a six year-old boy forcefully retained by his unknown great-uncles against the will of his father and in clear defiance of U.S. law and decency was widely reported by media around the world. Miami, the place of the kidnapping, became a kind of secessionist city in North America when the Mayor, the chief of police, the politicians, every newspaper and local radio and TV broadcasters, together with religious and business institutions, joined with some of the most notorious terrorist and violent groups in opposing the courts' and government's orders to free the boy.
It was necessary for a Special Forces team sent from Washington DC to launch a surreptitious and swift operation to occupy several houses, disarm the heavily armed individuals hidden there and in the neighborhood to save the child and restore law.
Everybody followed that story. Day in and day out.
But practically nobody knew that, at the very same time, in exactly the same place--Miami--five other young Cubans were arbitrarily deprived of their freedom and subjected to a gross miscarriage of justice.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González were detained in the early hours of Saturday September 12th, 1998, and locked for the next 17 months in punishment cells, in solitary confinement. The main accusation against them--as recognized by the prosecutors and the judge from their indictment to the last day of the trial--was that they had peacefully, with no weapons, penetrated ant-Cuban terrorist groups with a view of reporting back to Cuba about their criminal plans.
Was it conceivable to have a fair trial in Miami for any Cuban revolutionary facing such an accusation? Could that happen while the kidnapping of Elian was going on with its surrounding atmosphere of violence, hatred and fear?
According to the prosecution it was perfectly possible. In their words Miami was "a very large, diverse, heterogeneous community" capable of handling any sensitive issue, even those involving the Cuban Revolution. The prosecutors repeated that line when rejecting the more than ten motions presented by the defense lawyers requesting a change of venue before the start of the trial.
The same government that was obligated to deal with Miami as a sort of rebel city and to secretly send there its forces to restore legality, lied repeatedly about the venue issue, denying the defendants a right so cherished by Americans, and refused to move the proceedings to the neighboring city of Fort Lauderdale, half an hour away from Miami.
Ironically, a few years later, in 2002, when the government was the object of a civilian complaint of an administrative nature, of far lesser significance--later resolved by an out of Court settlement--and only indirectly related to the Elian case, they asked for a change of venue to Fort Lauderdale, affirming that "anything related to Cuba" was impossible to get a fair trial in Miami. (Ramírez vs. Ashcroft, 01-4835 Civ-Huck, June 25, 2002)
Such a flagrant contradiction, a clear proof of prosecutorial misconduct, of real prevarication, was one of the main factors leading to the unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals panel, in 2005, to vacate the convictions of the Five and order a new trial. (Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 01-17176, 03-11087).
That historic decision was later reversed by the majority of the entire Court under pressure from Attorney General Alberto González in an action that went contrary to the normal US legal practice. Mr. González's successful move, a manifestation of his peculiar legal philosophy, foreclosed the possibility of a just resolution of this case in a manner that would have honored the United States.
The panel decision, an exceptionally sound and solid 93 pages document, including irrefutable facts about the half century old terrorist war against Cuba, remains an outstanding moment in the best American tradition and will continue to be a text to be analyzed with respect by scholars and law school students.
But that’s another chapter in the long saga of the Cuban Five.
Elián González now is about to finish high school and continues to attract the attention of foreign media and visitors who keep going to Cardenas, the beautiful town where he lives. When traveling towards Elian’s home they will be surprised by billboards demanding freedom for five youngsters they never heard off before.
In Leonard Weinglass’s words:
"The trial was kept secret by the American media. It is inconceivable that the longest trial in the United States at the time it was taking place was only covered by the local Miami press, particularly where generals and an admiral as well as a White House advisor were all called to testify for the defense. Where was the American media for six months? Not only was this the longest trial, but it was the one case involving mayor issues of foreign policy and international terrorism. The question should be directed to the American media, with continues to refuse to cover a case with such gross violations of fundamental rights, and even violations of human rights of prisoner". (Response by Leonard Weinglass in the forum organized by www.antiterroristas.cu on September 12, 2003).
Elian was saved because Americans knew about his case and got involved and made justice prevail. The Five are still incarcerated – it will be 11 years next September – victims of a terrible injustice, because Americans are not permitted to know.
The Five are being cruelly punished because they fought against terrorism. They are heroes. But forbidden heroes.
Justice in Wonderland
"Sentence first-verdict afterwards"
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Having been defeated on the issue of venue the outcome of the Cuban Five's trial was predetermined. It will go strictly in accordance with the Queen’s prophecy.
The American media played a very important two-pronged role. Outside Miami it was, and it continues to be, how Attorney Leonard Weinglass so aptly described contrasting sharply with their role within Dade County, both offering an impressive show of discipline.
The local media not only intensively covered the case, but intervened actively in it, as if they were part of the prosecution. The Five were condemned by the media even before they were indicted.
Very early in the morning on Saturday September 12th 1998, each media outlet in Miami was talking breathlessly about the capture of some "terrible" Cuban agents "bent to destroy the United States" (the phrase that prosecutors love so much and will repeat time and again during the entire process). "Spies among us" was the headline that morning. At the same time, by the way, the Miami FBI chief was meeting with Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ross Lehtinen, representatives of the old Batista gang in federal Congress.
An unprecedented propaganda campaign was launched against five individuals who could not defend themselves, due to the fact that they were completely isolated from the outside world, day and night, for a year and a half, in what is accurately described in prison jargon as the "hole".
A media circus has surrounded the Five since they were detained all the way until now. But only in Miami. Elsewhere in the United States the ordeal of the Five has only gotten silence. The rest of the country does not know much about this case and is kept in the dark, as if everybody accepted that Miami--that "very diverse, extremely heterogeneous community" as described by the D.A.--belongs to another planet.
That might have been a reasonable proposition, if it were not for some rather embarrassing facts recently discovered. Some of the media people involved in the Miami campaign--"journalists" and others--were paid by the US government, were in its payroll as employees of the radio and TV anti-Cuban propaganda machine that has cost many hundreds of millions of US tax payer’s dollars.
Without knowing it, Americans were forced to be very generous, indeed. There is a long list of "journalists" from Miami who covered the entire trial of the Five and, at the same time, were receiving juicy federal checks (for more on the "work" of these journalist see: http://www.freethefive.org).
The Court of Appeals decision in 2005 provides also a good summary of the propaganda campaign before and during the trial. That was one of the reasons leading the panel "to vacate the convictions and order a new trial". Miami was not a place to have even the appearance of justice. As the judges said "the evidence submitted in support of the motions for change of venue was massive". (Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 01-17176, 03-11087)
Let’s clarify something. Here we are not talking about journalists in the sense Americans outside Miami may be thinking of. We are referring to Miami "journalists," something quite different.
Their role was not to report the news, but to create a climate guaranteeing conviction. They even called for public demonstrations outside the office of the defense counsel and harassed prospective jurors during the pretrial phase. The Court itself expressed concern about the "tremendous amount of requests for the voir questions in advance of them being asked, apparently destined to inform their listeners, including members of the venire, of the questions prior to the time they are posed to them by the Court".
We are talking about a bunch of individuals who harassed the jurors, following them, with cameras, through the streets, filming their car licenses and showing them on TV, tracking them inside the Court building, down to the jury room’s door, during the entire seven months trial proceedings, all the way to the last day.
Judge Leonard more than once protested and begged the government to stop such a deplorable masquerade. She did that at the very beginning of the trial, on several occasions thereafter and until the very end. To no avail. (Official transcripts of the trial, pp. 22, 23, 111, 112, 625, 14644-14646).
The government was not interested in having a fair trial. During the jury selection process, the prosecution was very keen to exclude the majority of African American prospective jurors. It also excluded the three individuals who didn’t manifest strong anti-Castro sentiments.
By that time Elian González has been rescued but he was very much in the minds of the jurors. As one of them said during voir dire: "I would be concerned about the reaction that might take place … I don’t want rioting and stuff like that to happen like what happened in the Elian case". Or in the words of another: "I would be a nervous wreck if you wanted to know the truth … I would have actual fear for my own safety if I didn’t come back with a verdict that was in agreement with the Cuban community".
In that ambience of fear began the longest trial to date in American history. And the one that the big media "chose" to ignore.
The Face of Impunity
As they recognized during voir dire, the kidnapping of Elian González and its consequences for the community was very much in the minds of those chosen to be jurors at the trial of the Cuban Five a few months after the six-year-old boy was rescued by the federals.
Like everybody else they had followed the events related to Elian which saturated the news. The faces of the kidnappers, their promoters and supporters, as well as others involved in the scandal had become quite familiar to the jury members. The faces, and two features of the Elian drama: its unique nature and its direct connection with the trial of the five Cubans.
First, the perplexing behavior of every Miami public official, from its Federal Congress members, the mayor and the city commissioners, to firefighters and members of the police force, who openly refused to obey the law and did nothing to put an end to the most publicized case of child abuse ever to occur. And, secondly, but no less incredibly, that nothing happened to a group of individuals who had so clearly violated the law with the abduction of a child and the violence and disturbances that they created all over the city when he was rescued by the federal government. Nobody was prosecuted, arrested, or fined. No local authority was dismissed, replaced or asked to resign. The Elian case demonstrated how anti-Castro impunity reigns in Miami.
When the jurors first took their seats in the Court room to do their citizens’ duty they were probably taken by surprise. There, live, were the "Miami celebrities" that they were so used to seeing, day and night, on local TV. And they were together, sometimes smiling and embracing each other, like old pals. The kidnappers and the "law enforcement" guys hand and glove with the prosecutors (those valiant people who never showed up when a little boy was being molested in front of the media).
The jurors spent seven months in that room looking at, and being watched by the same people so familiar to them who now were on the witness stand, in the public area or at the news corner, the same people there frequently going to find in the parking lot, at the building entrance, in the corridors. Some of them now and then proudly displaying the attire used for their last military incursion to Cuba.
The jurors heard them explaining in detail their criminal exploits and saying time and again that they were not talking about the past. It was a strange parade of individuals to appear in a court of law, acknowledging their violent acts against Cuba planned, prepared and launched from their own neighborhood.
There, making speeches, demanding the worst punishment, slandering and threatening the defense lawyers.
The judge did what she could to try to preserve calm and dignity. She certainly ordered the jury, many times, not to consider certain inappropriate remarks but, in doing so, could not erase their prejudicial and fearsome effects from the jurors’ minds.
The consequences were obvious. The Court of Appeal panel’s decision stated it in clear terms: "The evidence at trial disclosed the clandestine activities not only of the defendants, but also of the various Cuba exile groups and their military camps that continue to operate in the Miami area. The perception that these groups could inflict harm on jurors who rendered a verdict unfavorable to their views was palpable". (Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal, No. 01-17176, 03-11087)
But there was more. After hearing and seeing the abundant evidence of terrorist acts that the defendants had tried to avert, the government succeeded in defending the terrorists by having the Court inexplicably agree to remove from the jury the right to exonerate the Five on the basis of legal necessity, which was the foundation of their defense.
The heart of the matter, in this case, was the need for Cuba to protect its people from the criminal attempts of terrorists who enjoy total impunity in U.S. territory. The law in the United States is clear: if persons act to prevent a greater harm, even if they violate the law in the process, they will be excused from any criminality because society recognizes the necessity – even the benefit – of taking such action.
The United States, the only world superpower, has interpreted that universal principle to take war to distant lands in the name of fighting terrorism. But at the same time it refused to recognize it in the case of five unarmed, peaceful, non-violent persons who, on behalf of a small country, without causing harm to anybody, tried to avert the illegal acts of criminals who have found shelter and support in the United States.
The U.S. government, through the Miami prosecutors, went even further, to the last mile, to help those terrorists. They did it very openly, in writing and with passionate speeches that, curiously, were not considered newsworthy.
That was happening in 2001. While the Southern Florida prosecutors and the local FBI were so caught up in harshly punishing the Cuban Five and protecting "their" terrorists, the criminals preparing the 9/11 attack had been training, unmolested, in Miami for quite some time. They must have had a weighty reason for preferring that location. (Taken from Counterpunch) •