by Netfa Freeman
”I was 20 years old when I volunteered to go to there and fight against South African apartheid and the invasion of Angola.”
November 13th to 16th, 2013 was the 9th International Colloquium for the Freedom of the Five and Against Terrorism held in Holguín, Cuba, at the eastern end of the island, 85 miles west of Guantanamo. The goal of the Colloquium, organized by ICAP (The Cuban Friendship Institute), was to strengthen the unified international strategy to win the release of The Cuban 5; Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and René González; men imprisoned in the US for the last fifteen years essentially for fighting terrorism orchestrated in the US. Due to the lack of response from the FBI to stop such attacks, Cuba sent the Cuban 5 to Miami to monitor the organizations perpetrating these acts of violence. The idea was to gather information about similar acts that were in the planning stages in order to derail them before they were carried out.
One of The Five, René González, was released on October 7, 2011, after serving his entire sentence. On April 22, 2013 René returned to Cuba for his father’s funeral and on May 11, Judge Lenard allowed him to stay there provided that he renounce his United States citizenship. That wasn’t a hard decision for René.
Soon to be released is Fernando Gonzalez in February. While millions worldwide look forward to this, it is not justice. Justice would be for all five men to have never gone to prison in the first place. The other brothers – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero – have much too much longer sentences to go and should be freed unconditionally. We still have to work for that.
During my visit to Cuba, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing with René:
Netfa Freeman: I just want to ask you, brother, a few questions to help our listeners understand things more, hopefully be fortified with information. I want to say this is an honor and thank you for giving me this interview.
I’m reading Stephen Kimber’s book right now. First is, I understand that you were born in the US. Your family, your parents moved to the US before the Cuban revolution and then ended up moving back afterward. So the first question is really what knowledge and information might your parents have imparted to you or shared with you that gave you your political consciousness and your commitment to the Cuban Revolution? And particularly if you could share how that might have influenced your choice to fight in Angola. You were one of those who served in Angola against apartheid South Africa, to help Angola get its independence.
René González: I want to start by advising everybody to read Kimber’s book. In my opinion it’s the best thing that’s been written about the case. He did great research. He wrote a book which is tied to the facts, to the most elemental things. So it’s a good way to get acquainted with the case, which on the other side is a very complex case. Now you say my parents. They are working class Cubans who by different ways ended up in the States in the 50’s. They met there and I was born in 1956. Then in 1959 came the Cuban Revolution. Since the beginning of the revolution they felt sympathy for the goals and the purpose of the revolutionary process. So they decided to come home in 1961.
”I remember the counter-revolutionaries who went to the mountains, and how the US, the CIA, would come and drop weapons for them there.”
It was an interesting time to be in Cuba. It was a time of struggle. The island was already under the blockade and there was a lot of terrorism imposed on Cuba. By then I was 5 years old but my first memories are tied also to the violence that was imposed on us by the bombings, shootings in places. I remember the counter-revolutionaries who went to the mountains, and how the US, the CIA, would come and drop weapons for them there. So I was born in that environment – which is an environment that makes you grow, politically speaking. And of course my parents’ principles and values resonated also together with that environment. So I believe I was part of a generation that was privileged of having been born under revolution, which allowed you to grow, to think, and it makes you at the end to stand for something.
That combination is why for me it was natural to go to Africa. I mean the Cuban people back then, we had that feeling of, you know, we had to do something for the world. Back then it was Africa, it was the whole colonialism issue. Everybody knows that the US government in spite of their rhetoric about democracy, they supported colonialism, they supported South Africa. We cannot forget they had Mandela on the terrorist list until yesterday. Now all of a sudden everybody loves Mandela there, but we cannot forget history. So I was 20 years old when I volunteered to go to there and fight against South African apartheid and the invasion of Angola. As I said it was part of who we were back then, you know. And I believe the same feelings pushed me to accept this mission in the US. I had grown up, as I told you, watching our country being bombarded and shot at. So when I was asked to go there and infiltrate those groups I didn’t hesitate. I said yes.
NF: That leads me to the next question, the very next question. Could you describe what it was like, what it felt like, the psychological preparation you had to go through to blend in to be a gusano?
(René gives a fleeting chuckle)
RG: I always say that the worst part was here in Cuba. Because it’s not that hard to fool some people. You know usually when somebody is full of hatred, all you have to do is tell him what he wants to listen to. So it’s not that complicated to fool, as you say, the gusano. Because all they want to do is hear bad things about Cuba. So if you say the Cubans are dying on the street because they can’t eat, that police kill them on every corner, that’s it. They’re going to applaud you, and that’s it. They don’t need any corroboration. It wasn’t that hard to fool them. But for me the worst part was to fool my comrades here. To become somebody I wasn’t – in front of my family, my friends, my co-workers, that was really hard. I tell you that. So I believe that going through that process helped me when I arrived in Miami and then I had to join those people. Basically I’m not talking about everybody there. There are a lot of Cubans there (Miami) who don’t have any animosity against Cuba. They just live there. But most of those groups, especially the ones who lead those groups, they are filled with hatred, with resentment. They feel entitled to all Cuba like they owned it before the revolution. And it’s easy to fool them. You just tell them what they want to hear and then they’ll receive you with open arms. So it wasn’t that hard.
NF: I haven’t yet finished Kimber’s book, but there were some things about you and your wife Olga and your letters. So how did it feel being able to finally let your wife know the truth about your mission? And it would be great to hear her feelings and how it felt to find out you didn’t betray.
RG: This is a complicated assignment. Usually they have rules that everybody had to follow, and one of them of course is not to tell anybody about what you’re doing. And it’s hard as I told you – it’s hard to become somebody else in front of your mother, your father, your wife. I always had trust in my wife. Since the beginning of the assignment I told the guys who put me through this. I told them “You know, you can trust her, I won’t tell her but I know her, you can trust her.” But rules are rules and then I left and she still didn’t know. But I believe she went beyond what I expected and she tried to find out for herself. It was kind of a funny story because she started to tie ends, loose ends here and there and in the end she went to somebody and she demanded, “Tell me the truth because I know my husband is not a traitor.” So it was a funny story. But of course I feel glad that they were able to trust her and she learned, of course. And in the same line one of the things about having been arrested is that I also felt relief that I could be myself again. It’s incredible but once I was arrested, I would say that was one of the compensations. That at that moment, I knew that everyone I knew in Cuba would know who I really was. So it was a little bit of comfort in the middle of the whole thing.
NF: So did your wife find out before she came to join you in the US, or was it after?
RG: She found out here in Cuba. When a woman wants to know something…, she started putting two and two together. At the end she was able to locate some people and she just went and faced them and told them, “You know what? You aren’t fooling me but not anymore.” Then they had to – after everything that happened – they had to call her and tell her, you know what? He’s doing this and this.
”Cuba gave the FBI concrete information related to terrorism against Cuba in hopes that the US would follow those leads and the two countries could work together.”
NF: There are some people who are more politically progressive and follow information, and they’re following the case of the Five. They know that your arrest along with others was the result of the Cuban government sharing information with the FBI, and trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Some people say that they think it was naïve for the Cuban government to trust the FBI to do the right thing. What are your thoughts on that?
RG: Well, there are two things that cannot be confused. The Cuban government didn’t give the FBI information that led them to us. As a matter of fact, the evidence showed that the FBI was after us a little while before Cuba approached the FBI. Cuba gave the FBI concrete information related to terrorism against Cuba in hopes that the US would follow those leads and the two countries could work together. So what happened, in fact, is both governments were approaching, that there was some kind of approach between the Clinton administration and Cuba that could lead to working together against terrorism. This brought up the political decision by some people of prosecuting us, to put an end to that potential cooperation. So it’s two different things.
That’s part of the dynamics of the relations between Cuba and the U.S. Usually every time that the two governments can approach, that there is a potential for approach between the two governments, there is a sector of the US political establishment, especially in Miami, which do something in order to prevent that from happening. And that’s exactly what happened this time around. Cuba sent a Nobel Peace Prize [winner] there on a personal mission. Fidel personally sent him to talk to Clinton. He opened up the door for some cooperation about terrorism. Then the FBI sent a delegation to Cuba in May 1998, or June, I’m sorry. They met here. They gave a lot of evidence – names, telephone numbers, recordings, a lot of stuff. The FBI guy said they would do something and all of a sudden the tables turned and the FBI arrested us and put an end to that cooperation. You can locate some people. I mean, the head of the FBI in Miami back then was a Puerto Rican guy who was tied to all those terrorists. He was a friend with those terrorists. He himself had said he put pressure on Reno to indict us. Of course we know that the representatives there in Congress, the Cuban-American representatives there, they are on a political line of confrontation against Cuba. So it’s a collusion between different forces. What I would say maybe is that, although I don’t blame Clinton directly as being the one who did it personally, probably they were weak in front of those people. You know how they play politics. So in the end they allowed themselves to be led by those people who live on confrontation. And the result was our arrest and the trial.
NF: I do a lot of work with people who have been incarcerated. Some political prisoners and others who’ve just been incarcerated. I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, a long time in prison gives people a lot of chances to read and think and do things. Some of the most profound people I know. What kind of moral and philosophical revelations have 13 years in US prison given you?
RG: I don’t know if it’s revelation, if it’s that word. I believe that my moral principles had already been formed when I was arrested. I wasn’t a kid. I was 42 years old. But of course the whole experience made me more committed to my values because I’ve always thought that Cuban society is an alternative for a better world. I’ve always rejected the individualism, the hypocrisy of capitalism. But when you go through this and you see face to face how low somebody can behave representing a government, you get more committed to the goal that you don’t want that government in your country. And this whole experience made me more committed.
”The head of the FBI in Miami back then was a Puerto Rican guy who was tied to all those terrorists.”
I’ve never been naïve about the US government but I saw prosecutors behave in such a way which I just couldn’t believe it. They behaved like dogs, like criminals. They didn’t respect the whole system of law. The judges did the same and I just couldn’t believe that. And when you look at such people representing a society, you realize how sick that society can become. And that was – for me it was a lesson. And I didn’t want it to be like that, to tell you the truth. When I was arrested I didn’t feel any animosity to the prosecutors. I believe every country has to have prosecutors, people who enforce the laws. But then they began to behave like dogs and I just couldn’t believe it. Of course it comes with the nature of the case. Because in order to inflict that vengeance on us, they had to charge us with such heinous and surreal crimes, that you cannot do that without behaving like a criminal. But they did. And it was a political decision for them. It made me more committed to my country, to my society and to build an alternative to what they offered to us.
NF: Can you say something about your relationship and experiences with other inmates in the prison? Did you have friendships? How were you regarded in the prison? Because I know a lot of times in prison people like under your circumstances, you can win an amount of respect. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that.
RG: Yeah, they respected us a lot. I found a lot of people in prison who were better than the prosecutors. I can tell you that. They were better persons. There are a lot of factors that come into this. The US federal system is a joke. 95% of the people, they plead guilty or whatever because the system is so rigged that they know if they go to trial, they’re going to end up maybe paying twice or trice for the crime that they committed. So most of the people just decide to plead guilty and then to cooperate. And you can see they have a lot of respect to whomever goes to trial because they see you as somebody who can be trusted, who won’t betray anything. And that gives you a lot of status among the prisoners.
And of course then comes the political component of the whole thing. You know they look at Cubans with a lot of curiosity. Because they’ve been listening to things about Cuba, I mean that “hell that’s 90 miles out,” and they want to know. And then they approach you, and little by little as you establish personal relations they start to realize that they’ve been fooled about Cuba. That doesn’t mean that I want to make them into Communists or something like that. But they realize that something different must be happening down there. And that also starts to give you a little bit more respect from the prisoners.
And of course if you treat people well, they’ll treat you well in return. That helps a lot. And one thing that helped us a lot was support from abroad. I mean the amount of letters, the newspapers, the progressive newspapers that we received bringing articles about the Five. And then they read the articles and they realize that you are fighting for a cause. So the whole combination of things gave us a lot of respect from the prison population and even from the staff. A lot of people from the staff they would approach you, some guards, some of them came to me and offered their support. “I hope you get out of here, you shouldn’t be here.” Because they start realizing that you are not a criminal, you know. So in that sense we don’t have any problems at all. You just treat people decently, they return the treatment. The more acquainted they became with the case, with the facts. One thing with the African-American population, they also learned about Angola. You know, they look at you, “Man, hey brother, you went to Angola.” There are a lot of different pieces that come together and in the end we had a lot of respect from the population.
”I found a lot of people in prison who were better than the prosecutors.”
NF: Now this last is related to that but it might be redundant, so I’ll just see. I assume you know about political prisoners, US political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Sundiata Acoli, and different political prisoners that are in prison for very similar reasons – people fighting for freedom but for people within the United States. Has your relationship…, were you able to develop relationships maybe with any political prisoners through letters? And how has your perspective been influenced regarding that? And also might you say anything about the relationship between the case of the Cuban Five and the movement around political prisoners, Leonard Peltier and others.
RG: We weren’t allowed to write to any other prisoners. So we didn’t have any direct contact with political prisoners, but of course we read each others’ statements and writings. Mumia is a very profound guy, he’s incredible, very intelligent. That’s one guy who was very bright before coming to prison but he’s brighter now. We learned of course about Peltier. We were in contact with the Puerto Rican cause through the friends of the Puerto Ricans. So we know about each other, we supported each other when we could write a public statement for one of them.
But I believe the problem with the political prisoners in the US is a reflection of a bigger problem, which is the whole judicial system, which is a system built on humiliating you, on forcing the defendant to renounce his own rights to go to a trial, to have a fair trial. And of course if you’re a political prisoner, there is a dignity inside you that prevents you from doing that. And then they go after you with vengeance, with hatred which is also increased of course by the political difference between the prosecutor and the political prisoner himself. So in my opinion it’s part of the biggest problem that I hope American society awakens to. Because it’s a real problem. It’s an industry. It’s an uncivilized system. The judges are stupid dogs. That’s what they are, most of them. They don’t have any sense of justice at all. And when a political guy ends up being a defendant, what falls on him is the whole hatred of a system that is unjust in itself. That hatred increases because of his views and is criminal. So in my opinion, everybody who supports political prisoners should get together there. Don’t forget that we are fighting against something which is bigger than that. It’s the whole judicial system that is an industry that should come to an end.
NF: Thank you, I don’t have any other questions. Any final words? Anything you’d like listeners to hear about, particularly if you were talking to the Washington, D.C. community?
RG: Well, we’re going to have an event in Washington in June for the Five (2014). I believe it’s a very important event. And I believe it should be prepared in advance, in order to make it resound in the whole city. We are trying to put there not only Americans, but people from all over the world. I encourage everybody who has some sensibility to participate. But I would say more. I believe that it shouldn’t be only about the Five. I believe that everybody who supports a political prisoner should find a way to manifest there. I believe we have to fight together for that.
NF: Thank you brother. Thank you for your work for humanity. Thanks so much.
NOTE: June 4th – 11th, 2014 will be the Third 5 Days for the Cuban 5 in Washington DC, a series of events and actions in DC to advance the cause to free the Cuban 5. For more information visit www.thecuban5.org
Netfa Freeman is Events Coordinator at the Institute for Policy Studies, an organizer with the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, and a radio co-producer/co-host for Voices With Vision on WPFW 89.3 FM in Washington DC. Netfa can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.