Justice delayed, justice denied
Father Geoff Bottoms visits one of the Miami Five
In his cell at US Penitentiary Victorville, California Gerardo Hernandez receives a mountain of mail each day from all over the world yet still there is no word from Atlanta, Georgia on the results of his appeal hearing last March. Together with Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez these five Cuban political prisoners known as the Miami Five are serving sentences in prisons throughout the US ranging between fifteen years and two life terms for defending their country against terrorism.
Yet they were convicted on charges ranging from being agents of a foreign power without disclosure to conspiracy to commit espionage and murder following a flawed trial in Miami where they could not expect to receive a fair hearing on account of the enormous political influence wielded by the anti-Castro Cuban-American community. This injustice is compounded by the fact that the intelligence on right-wing terrorist groups in Miami responsible for organising forty years of attacks against the Cuban people was shared with the FBI who arrested the Five on 12th September 1998 instead of rounding up the real criminals.
In the case of Hernandez he was found guilty of conspiracy to murder in relation to the shooting down of light aircraft that invaded Cuban airspace on 24th February 1996 although there is no evidence to link him to this event as questioned by the appeal judges in Miami on 10th March last year. Indeed prominent US military officials testified at the trial that the Five had not accessed any classified information or threatened the national interest of the US.
Transferred from the maximum security prison in Lompoc towards the end of last year to his new place of incarceration in Victorville Hernandez spends most of each day of his double life sentence replying to letters from people throughout the world who learn of the injustice of the case of the Five. Writing at a small ledge with swivel seat in his small grey cell with photos of his wife Adriana, Fidel and Che for company he struggles to answer every letter in order of priority even to the point of taking them with him to take advantage of the commercial breaks when he goes to watch the news.
The rest of the time Hernandez works for $10-18 per month emptying the rubbish bins on his wing and polishing the railings both of which he finds preferable to the job they offered him in the unfinished prison factory repairing transmissions on the military vehicles known as humvees returning from Iraq. A further irony that has not escaped his notice lies in the fact that his newly-opened prison is situated in the Californian high desert opposite a disused US air force base whose living quarters are now used by the marines for urban warfare training before leaving for the Middle East.
Obviously his prison pay is insufficient to cover the costs of his immediate needs and expensive phone calls home totalling almost $300 per month yet his allowance from the Cuban government meets his costs so that money orders that occasionally arrive may be welcome but unnecessary. Hernandez rings his wife Adriana in Havana twice a week who gives him both inspiration and strength especially as they have not seen one another since his arrest seven years ago. Together with Olga Salanueva, the wife of Rene Gonzalez, Adriana Perez is constantly denied a visa to enter the US on the grounds that both women represent a threat to the national interest.
With a capacity for 2000 prisoners Victorville currently houses around 900 inmates in two wings who only come together at meal times. The food is basically stodgy and especially during visiting hours when a couple of vending machines sell an expensive diet of microwave-able burgers and pizzas together with snack items only to be replenished at weekend. Last November the prisoners were “locked-down” following a strike over a smoking ban leading to the replacement of top prison officials and an end to the crisis although tension still exists in this concrete maze encased in razor wire and dominated by watchtowers.
Nevertheless Hernandez is respected by both warders and inmates alike and is joined by just three other Cubans who are ambivalent towards the Revolution. Many Cubans in US prisons are victims of the Immigration Service who continue to be detained once they have served their sentences as there is no deportation agreement between the US and Cuba. Those who are released usually have no family and no money and speak very little English eventually leading to them ending up back behind bars.
The recreation area in the prison is comparatively small for the number of inmates and Hernandez exercises in his cell with push-ups. Meanwhile he dreams of his home baseball team Industriales in Havana, proud of their efforts on the way to winning the third championship, and values the occasional phone conversation with a former champion Pedro Medina, his childhood idol, who now manages a team in Italy which is equally successful.
Yet throughout all this Hernandez remains focused as he savours the day when the freedom of the Five will be celebrated in Cuba together with all those who have campaigned for their release. While waiting for the result of the appeal hearing he is both optimistic and realistic about the ultimate victory believing that reason, truth and justice are on his side and that of his compatriots. Proud of his people and their solidarity he has a profound conviction that when Fidel coined the word “Volveran!” it would come true like so many other things he has said and that the Five would return to their homes and families. Meanwhile justice delayed is justice denied.