by Danny Glover and Saul Landau
On our third visit, the neo-fascist architecture of the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Victorville California (built in 2006 under W. Bush) has become a familiar sight. The American Barbed Wire Industry, we think, must have lobbied hard to get prison construction commissars to allocate money for several football fields of pointed projections sticking out of the woven metal barrier; very anti-neighborly. What’s missing from the picture of miles of curled wire mounted on both sides of the walls on this monstrous concrete structure set in the Mojave Desert? A sign: “Only in America.” Where else would such a “monument” get built for a mission to “rehabilitate?”
Gerardo jumps from his plastic chair and we hug. Full of energy, smiling and in good physical shape, he tells us he had to wait for 25 minutes at the cell-block gate before a considerate guard finally allowed him to enter the visitors’ room even though other guards came and went – and ignored his request to see his visitors. A typical incident in the daily grind of a political prisoner in a maximum-security federal pen!
We ask him how he responded to the December 26, 2010, Miami Herald story by Jay Weaver. The headline, “Cuban Spymaster Now Claims Brothers to the Rescue Shooting was Outside Cuban Airspace.” The story suggested Gerardo disagreed with Cuba’s version of its MIGs shooting down two Brothers to the Rescue planes over Cuban airspace on February 24, 1996.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Gerardo. His legal appeal questions the competence of his public defender to properly defend him, but he never expressed or implied differences with Cuba’s position. The appeal focuses on errors made by his trial lawyer and the prosecutor, which denied him due process.
The government also improperly concealed evidence (cables) that showed Gerardo had no information about Cuba’s intention to shoot down the Brothers’ planes.
The prosecutor never proved Cuba planned to shoot down the planes in international airspace, much less that Gerardo knew about it. But the climate in which the trial took place bore the stains of media contamination. Gerardo’s appeal shows that during the trial “journalists” on the U.S. payroll presented newspaper and TV stories that painted the defendants — and Cuba — in a bad light. All five Cuban agents got tried and sentenced in a prosecution-polluted climate.
“It’s a joke,” he laughed, referring to the Herald article, and his trial. “I’m sure every Cuban knows I have no disagreement with my government on shooting down the airplanes. I knew nothing about the flights that day, so I couldn’t know they would be shot down. I believe it happened over Cuban airspace, which is not a crime under international law.”
Neither The Herald nor the trial jury heard testimony or saw evidence that Gerardo possessed advance knowledge of Cuba’s alleged plan to shoot down Brothers to the Rescue planes. In the early 1990s, the Brothers claimed their mission was to help rescue Cuban rafters adrift in the Florida straits, but after a 1995 U.S.-Cuba Migration accord dictated the return of Cubans to the island, Brothers began a new mission: flying over Havana and dropping leaflets.
On February 24, 1996, after repeated warnings not to fly over the island, Basulto, the President of the BTTR, announced his forthcoming flight, and the FAA also informed Cuba of flight details. The pilots and co-pilots of two planes died. Basulto returned safely to Miami.
Even if Gerardo had advised his government of the impending flights – which he did not – how would a Cuban intelligence agent know his government would shoot them down even though Cuba had every right to do so over its airspace?
The Miami jury convicted Gerardo of conspiracy to commit murder by aiding and abetting a plan to shoot down civilian aircraft in international airspace — not proven. The judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms.
When we suggested the reporter who said Gerardo disagreed with his government, but did not interview him, should qualify for the Mussolini Journalism Award, Gerardo agreed. “Yes, Mussolini was a journalist before he got into politics.”
The story should have said that Gerardo did not receive due process. Cuban agents tried in Miami in 2001 — the equivalent of Jews tried in Berlin in 1938!
Gerardo, upbeat and eager to share, told us he grew up close to Mantilla, a Havana neighborhood, where Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura (El Conde mysteries) lived. He learned the possibilities and depths of friendship under socialism, where men talk honestly from the soul and don’t have to compete for money, “like the guys in Abel Prieto’s novel, The Flight of the Cat.”
“Bitterness doesn’t help the spirit,” he said. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres Tristes Tigres is brilliant and insightful. Compare it to his shrill diatribes against the revolution from which one learns nothing.”
The prison photographer – another inmate – took our pictures. Then we ate junk food from vending machines – all that’s available – and discussed reforms in Cuba.
“I thought Raul’s speech (President Raul Castro, December 18, 2010) was needed. We must change to survive. We must become productive and efficient.”
“Visiting is over,” a guard announces. Gerardo lines up against the wall with other prisoners. We huddle near the door with other visitors. He raises his fist. “Keep the faith.” He smiles confidently.
“He has Mandela-like qualities,” Danny says.
Saul Landau’s new film on the Cuban Five case and its history — WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP — will soon be available. Danny Glover is an activist and an actor. He produced THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE – premiered at Sundance.