Treatment of Cuban Five: 'It's A Form of Torture'

Olga Salanueva Arango (L) and Adriana Perez O'Connor, wives of two Cuban nationals arrested and jailed on charges of intent to commit espionage and threatening US national security. (Photograph: Frank Baron)

Treatment of Cuban Five: 'It's A Form of Torture'

In 1998, five Cuban men were arrested for infiltrating groups in the US that were plotting attacks on Cuba. They have not received a fair trial and two have not seen their families since.

It is nearly 10 years since Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez last
saw their husbands. Rene Gonzalez and Gerardo Hernandez are in jail in
Marianna, Florida, and Victorville, California, members of the
so-called Miami Five, all serving sentences stretching to double life
for "conspiracy to act as a non-registered foreign agent".

and Perez are in Britain this month to talk to members of the
government and to anyone else who will listen about a story that is a
cause celebre throughout Latin America but is virtually unknown in the
United States. It is a story that in many ways encapsulates the
conflict between Cuba and its mighty neighbour for the past
half-century and has ramifications both for the current "war on terror"
and for the US presidential election campaign.

Ever since the
Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959 there have
been attempts by exiled Cubans, often with the assistance of the US
government, to remove him. Famously, the CIA was involved in a number
of bungled assassination attempts, although they have pulled back from
this tactic in recent years. The Cuban government claims that more than
3,000 people have died as a result of various plots, from the failed
1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the more recent attacks, such as the bomb
placed on a Cuban plane in 1976, in which 73 people were killed, and
the explosions in Havana hotels and clubs in 1997 that attempted to
derail the booming Cuban holiday industry. Such plots have usually been
hatched in Miami and it was the groups based there that five young
Cubans, two of them born in the US, infiltrated in the 90s. Their plan
was to report back on the groups' activities.

In 1998, the five
were arrested and effectively accused of espionage. The US government
argued that they were acting as foreign agents and should be treated as
spies. The five argued that they had been trying to prevent terrorist
attacks. A trial was held in Miami in 2001, despite legal objections
that they would be unable to get a fair hearing there because
anti-Castro sentiment was so rife. The five, Gonzalez, Hernandez,
Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino and Fernando Gonzalez, were convicted
and sentenced to terms varying from 15 years (Rene Gonzalez) to double
life plus 15 years (Hernandez).

With the help of a legal team
headed by the veteran American civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass,
they appealed and, remarkably, in 2005 won the right to a retrial
outside Florida. But the prosecution appealed, the retrial was stalled
and the case is now due to go to the supreme court in December. In the
meantime, the two women have never been allowed into the US to see
their husbands. As Perez's husband is serving a double life sentence,
she will never be allowed to see him alive again.

"They give us
different arguments every time as to why they will not give us a visa,"
says Perez, 38. "They have alleged that we may be a threat to the
security of the US or they say that we might be meeting terrorist
organisations on US territory. Or they say that I am a potential
immigrant, so I can't enter the country. It changes every time. In
Olga's case, she was deported from the US when her husband was arrested
and so they say she will never be eligible for a visa. What it means is
that our husbands are serving an additional sentence in that they are
not allowed to see us. And for Gerardo and me, it is like a life
sentence. It is a form of psychological torture."

Perez says
that, after the initial arrests of the five, attempts were made to
persuade them to plead guilty or inform on their co-defendants and on
Cuba by threatening to block access to their families if they did not
cooperate. "They have used the families as a sort of additional tool to
blackmail them and weaken them," she says. She was granted a visa in
2002 but, on arriving at Houston airport, was detained and refused
permission to enter the country.

"We keep in touch by letters and
telephone calls but they are limited to a number of minutes," says
Salanueva, 48. At the time of the arrests, their two daughters, Irma
and Ivette, were aged 14 and four months. Now the older daughter is a
qualified psychologist. "I have applied to see Rene nine times and been
refused nine times. A number of members of the family have died since
he was in prison and we have not been able to let him know directly."
She said that the five, who are all held in different prisons scattered
around the country, have adjusted to life in jail and do not have
problems with the other inmates. "They have good relations with the
other prisoners, I think they have a lot of respect and they are able
to help the others with their documents and appeals and things like

While it would be impossible to be unaware of the case
in Cuba, where massive roadside billboards of the men are part of the
landscape, the case has received remarkably little coverage in the US,
although there are support groups there, the most active of which are
in San Francisco. "We have come up against a wall of silence in
America," says Salanueva. "It is very difficult getting the information
out, so people really don't know anything about it."

They do,
however, enjoy support from a variety of writers, artists and public
figures in the US and around the world, including Harry Belafonte,
Desmond Tutu, Harold Pinter, Nadine Gordimer, Danny Glover and Jose
Saramago. Amnesty International has called on the US to review the
decision to refuse the women visas to visit their husbands. "Denying
the men visits from their wives . . . is unnecessarily punitive and
contrary to standards for humane treatment of prisoners and states'
obligations to protect family life," said a spokesperson. The UN
commission on human rights has also called into question the nature of
the trial, which "did not take place in the climate of objectivity and
impartiality that is required" (under the international covenant on
civil and political rights).

Few American politicians would risk
espousing such a cause and certainly not on the eve of a presidential
election in which Florida voters could once again play a key role. The
Cuban exile population in the state still carries great political
weight, although that influence has been waning for the past few years
as a generation that feels less strongly about Castro emerges.
Attitudes towards Cuba have changed in some sections of the US in
recent years and members of both main parties have indicated that it is
time for talks and rapprochement. So, after the election, might Barack
Obama, who has made noises about talks, or John McCain - himself a
former prisoner - be more receptive, at least to humanitarian pleas for

"We do not have great hopes in a change of power," says
Perez. "There have been many changes of administration in the United
States over the years but the attitude towards Cuba has always remained
the same."

What makes the Miami Five case doubly relevant now is
its connection with the "war on terror". Before the arrests of the five
- before September 11 changed the focus - the FBI actually contacted
Havana to ask for intelligence on any planned acts of terrorism
directed at Cuba in which US residents were involved. This is not as
unusual as it might seem; the two countries cooperate on disrupting
drug trafficking in the region. The Cuban government thought that there
might be a possibility of doing the same on plots to attack Cuban
targets, but the arrests ended any such notion. Now relations between
the two countries are as frosty as ever, not least because Luis Posada,
the man whom the Cubans believe was responsible for the Cubana airliner
attack more than 30 years ago, is still a free man in Miami, requests
for his extradition to stand trial having been refused.

tomorrow, Perez and Salanueva will be protesting outside the US embassy
in London on behalf of men they have not seen for a decade. "What they
were doing in Miami was fighting against terrorism," says Perez. "They
were trying to save lives and now they are being punished for it. There
is something very wrong about that".

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