Hypocrisy over Cuba’s `political prisoners'

By Tim Anderson

September 13, 2009 -- Political prisoners and Cuba can be a confusing mix, in our times of mass propaganda. Three groups have attracted international attention, over the past decade.

The first group, 70 or so (the ``dissidents''), were arrested in March 2003 by the Cuban government and charged with taking money from a US program which aims to overthrow the Cuban constitution. Amnesty International and many European states, along with the US government, immediately declared them ``prisoners of conscience''. A number have since been released.

The second group of several hundred (``enemy combatants'') were collected by the US government in Afghanistan and Pakistan over 2001-2002 and held for many years in concentration camps at a US military base carved out of the island of Cuba. International protest built up more slowly, and eight years on many are still held without charge or trial.

The third group of five men (``the Cuban Five'’) were arrested in the US in 1998 and accused of being spies, for passing on information about groups in south Florida that were preparing terrorist attacks on Cuba. The US courts have rubber-stamped their convictions. On September 12, 2009, they completed 11 years in US jails.

The ``dissidents'' have been championed by the Miami-based, Cuban-American mafia, who have long sought the overthrow of Cuban socialism. Yet it is precisely these groups that ``the Cuban Five'' had under surveillance. They had organised dozens of armed attacks on the Cuban coast, brought down a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all on board, and carried out a wave of bombings on Cuban tourist hotels in the mid-1990s.

It is no secret what the Cuban Five were up to. Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González were informing Cuba about these armed, Miami-based operations. In 1997 the Cuban government passed on this information to the US government through the FBI, hoping that US President Bill Clinton might do something to stop these terrorist operations.

However, instead of arresting the terrorists, the FBI tracked the source of the information, detected the Cuban Five and handed them over to the Miami courts. This was, of course, the one place in the world where they could not get a fair trial. The jury was intimidated and the judge handed out monstrous sentences for supposed ``conspiracy to commit espionage''.

The case of the Cuban Five has attracted support within the US from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and, when the case came to the Supreme Court, 12 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates added their concerns.

Yet there was a US media blackout. As Cuban Five attorney Leonard Weinglass said: ``The trial was kept secret… Where was the American media for six months? … [This] was the one case involving major issues of foreign policy and international terrorism.''

Despite the extraordinary treatment of the Cuban Five, the case of the ``dissidents'' received far more media coverage in the US, and therefore also in the English-speaking world. These were said to be the victims of ``brutal Cuban communism''.

Australian journalists were drawn into this campaign. Paul McGeough in 2005 interviewed Raul Rivero, a ``dissident'' who had been released. In a large feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald, McGeogh wrote, ``Rivero’s crime was twofold – possession of a typewriter, and a will to dream''. The article failed to point out that Rivero was charged and convicted with taking money from the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), as part of a campaign to overthrow the Cuban constitution. The CANF was the principal organiser of the 1990s wave of terrorist bombings in Cuba. The evidence against Rivero was available a 2003 book called The Dissidents, by Cuban journalists Rosa Elizalde and Luis Baez.

Similarly, in 2007 Antony Loewenstein interviewed Miriam Leiva and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, whom Loewenstein said had been ``jailed and abused for opposing the Castro regime''. However in his reports he did not mention that Espinosa Chepe – who had been released after 18 months – was arrested with US$13,000, and with receipts which proved $7000 in payments, over 2002-03, from the same Miami-based organisations. In Australia, at the same time, a number of young men were being jailed for less direct links with terrorist organisations.

The Cuban Five, on the other hand, were jailed for trying to stop terrorist attacks on their country. This fact was apparently not appreciated in the US, despite its self-declared ``war on terrorism''. The five had been passing on information about these groups and not, it should be noted, about any US government agencies or any matter that affected US national security.

The Cuban government and the Cuban people, for their part, have carried out an extraordinary campaign in support of the Cuban Five. Despite the US media blackout, detailed information on the campaign and the case can be found at the websites, Free the Five and Five Cuban Prisoners.

In December 2008, Cuban President Raul Castro offered a prisoner exchange. He would exchange the remaining 50-odd ``dissidents'' for the Cuban Five. ``We’ll send them over there with families and all. Let them return our five heroes'’, Castro said. The US State Department rejected the offer.

Perhaps the ``dissidents'' are better value to the US in prison than in the US?

The Cubans certainly want their five heroes back home.

[This article first appeared at the Cuba: Exposing the Myths Facebook group. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Download the leaflet that marks the Cuban Five's 11 years in jail HERE.Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University. He recently made Doctors of Tomorrow, a film about Cuba's assistance to train doctors in Timor Leste.]