“Someone once said that “humor liberates” ( …and if nobody said that, I will say it now…) and for me it is something that “gets us out” for at least a few moments from behind the walls where we have been unjustly imprisoned for almost 15 years”
Gerardo Hernandez’s wry political cartoons remind us that “humor is liberating” – and Gerardo should know. He has been imprisoned by the US Government, along with the other Cuban spies known collectively as the Cuban Five, since 1998. In his statement about the exhibition “Humor from my Pen”, delivered in a snatched moment of communication with the outside world after a month of prison lockdown, he describes humor as “something that “gets us out” for at least a few moments.”
But this humor is not just a game, the stakes are high for the Cuban Five and Gerardo’s cartoons are satirical, stridently patriotic and demanding of fair play from the US. This is not an encounter with the sleepy Cuba of the American tourist’s imagination, it is a view from the frontline of US/Cuban relations, that ‘takes no prisoners’ (if the phrase fits..). Gerardo riffs on barbed wire, terrorism, the cocktail ‘Cuba Libre’ and the constant bitter reminder that counter-terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, who was responsible for the loss of Cuban lives, walk free while he and the rest of the Cuban Five languish behind bars.
Nancy Kohn is a member of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five and one of the people who have helped to bring Gerardo’s cartoons to Somerville. Nancy and Gerardo first began corresponding when a friend suggested that Gerardo would enjoy her account of what it was like to follow a baseball game in Puerto Rico without Spanish. Her most recent letter to Gerardo was one of condolence – not because of a legal defeat or blow to the Cuban Five’s cause, but because the Cuban baseball team got knocked out of the World Baseball Classic. This week, Dominicans are celebrating their victory at the competition, but Gerardo, a “total baseball fanatic”, will have to rely on fellow baseball nut Nancy Kohn’s account of their victory.
Since the Five’s imprisonment – which began with 17 months in Solitary before they were even brought to trial, then later spluttered and stalled with the overthrow of a decision by appeals justices that they should get a new trial – their drawn-out ordeal has unsurprisingly made them heroes and martyrs in Cuba: men whose ‘sacrifice’ has been buoyed up on a scale so great that Nancy remembers seeing posters about them everywhere on her first visit to Cuba in 2006. When Nancy speaks at schools about the Five’s case and her friendship with Gerardo, Cuban schoolchildren eagerly compete to have their picture taken with her. Nobel laureates (Nadine Gordimer; Desmond Tutu), Hollywood actors (Danny Glover; Susan Sarandon) and politicians have all come to their own conclusions about the case, signing letters to President Obama and in the case of Noam Chomsky and Lawrence Wilkerson, authoring articles and giving talks.
“I think that people who don’t necessarily support Cuba but want our judicial system to be seen as more just, call into question, well wait, on appeals, three justices said it should be overturned…”
“People sometimes shut down when it’s about Cuba because it’s such a hot button issue in this country” says Nancy. “Where I come from I think that people who don’t necessarily support Cuba but want our judicial system to be seen as more just, call into question, well wait, on appeals, three justices said it should be overturned…”
The Cuban Five were intelligence agents who were gathering information for the Cuban government on the activities of counter-revolutionaries based out of Miami. Counter-revolutionaries had attacked Cuba in the past, resulting in loss of lives, and Cuba appeared to be acting in its own national security interests by sending agents to report on their activities. When a Brothers to the Rescue plane was shot down by the Cuban government with U.S. Citizens on board, Gerardo Hernandez, as the leader of the Miami intelligence group, was held indirectly responsible for supplying information to his own government that allegedly led to the shootdown. Thus he was slapped with a conspiracy to commit murder charge and a double life sentence. Former chief of staff to Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson has said that the five were “at the very worst… “foreign agents operating on U.S. soil”, an offense warranting 18 months in jail under U.S. law.” Not only that, but after a trial that took many months, the Jury made their decision in a matter of hours, and members of the Jury were found to have connections with people on the plane that had been shot down. In 2010, evidence came to light that journalists commenting negatively on the case were paid by the US government. The case was never re-tried outside Miami where fraught relations between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary Cubans were believed to have led to a miscarriage of justice. The five’s convictions were overturned by 3 appeals justices who called for a new trial, but this decision was then mysteriously reversed.
Nancy admits: “I’m the first to say that I don’t feel like I’m completely objective about this, having met the mothers of the Five, and Gerardo’s wife who’s become a friend” Yet, after years of passionate involvement, she is also deeply knowledgeable about the details of the Five’s case. It’s a good thing that the exhibition of Gerardo’s cartoons will be at The Armory for a final marathon run from 9 : 30 to 9 : 30 this Saturday, because Nancy and her co-workers are brimming with stories of the five, the background of the case, the films made about it and the activists’ own experience. There will also be English translations available.
“they’re not just political figureheads, they’re real men who’ve sacrificed enough”
No one, it seems, can predict that they will embark on such a cause, so the sacrifices that are made afterwards are both par for the course and life-changing. “I don’t want this to be about me” Nancy cautions, after explaining how she’s at risk of losing her passport every time she makes a trip to Cuba. But she does think that for people who can’t agree with the politics or see why this case is such a big deal, she can help them to see that the suffering caused by these men’s incarceration is real and personal.
“I just want them to become real people.” She says of the Five. “You know that’s what this is about for me – that they’re not just political figureheads, that they’re real men who’ve sacrificed enough”
“Adriana and Gerardo really wanted to have kids…but now that’s probably a biological impossibility” she says.
Adriana Perez was granted a Visa under the Bush Administration only to be stopped and questioned, before being sent home – a bitter blow for both her and Gerardo.
The denial of Visas for the wives to visit their husbands is one of the things that Amnesty International deems most inhumane about the Five’s predicament.
To expand on this personal element, Nancy will be making her letters with Gerardo, Antonio and Fernando available to visitors to the gallery.
Does Nancy think that this will be the Cuban Five’s Year?
She is optimistic that pressure has gathered from so many quarters, that their case may finally be decided fairly.
But back to baseball; back to the winning and losing battle of getting by day to day: Nancy encourages people to write to the Five, because even if they don’t write back she says “I think the mail they get helps their mental health.” It may even keep them safe in prison, she suggests, as the guards will take special care of prisoners who seem to get so much attention.
“Most of our letters are about baseball.” Nancy says of her correspondence with Gerardo. “He gets all these letters from people about the case, so he needs some reprieve from that…”
All might not be fair in love and baseball, but they’re two things that the US and Cuba can at least agree upon. To come to an agreement on the most ordinary things in life is perhaps to see that behind perceived threats are human beings like Gerardo – human beings who can make a case for justice with the most ordinary instruments: a pen and a sense of humor.
“Humor from my Pen” is open this Saturday 23rd at the Gallery in the Armory from 9: 30 to 9:30