We sat in the waiting room with eight other people, all black or Latino, while prison authorities “counted” -- presumably -- the prisoners. An hour and a half later we went through the “screening” machine while our shoes got x rayed -- the airport has moved to the prison; or was it vice versa?
A guard put an invisible stamp on our wrist; a heavy metal door opened electronically and we entered another room where a guard with a hand-held machine read the invisible stamp with some sci-fi machine. Another massive portal opened as if by dint of fairy magic and a guard barked orders to wait in the open-air passageway between the entrance building and the prison visiting room.
Inside, the well lit -- no passing secrets or contraband -- visiting room we went and a guard pointed to one of many small, cheap plastic tables with three plastic chairs -- amidst the other plastic accommodations in the room. Inmates and families conversed. We waited. After 10 minutes, Gerardo Hernández appeared, hugged Danny and thanked him for making the YouTube video (look it up) explaining the case of the Cuban five.
Then he hugged Saul who said he’d just returned from Cuba and brought greetings from people who knew him
“How are people responding to the new reforms?” he wanted to know, referring to the economic changes – re-opening some of the private sector shut down by the 1968 “revolutionary offensive” and partially reopened in the mid-1990s, and to the massive layoff (500,000) of “superfluous” state workers as Raul Castro called them.
Saul reported people seemed anxious, but also dealing with the new reality. Gerardo nodded. “It was necessary,” he opined.
He had read newspapers and watched TV news related to next week’s election. “Will the Democrats lose one House or both?” he asked.
We didn’t know. Danny and Saul had watched CNN in the airport waiting room before we boarded the plane to go to Southern California and heard Wolf Blitzer and the other CNN “anchors” vie for fast-talk-say-nothing medals. We remarked on how cable news needs to create conflict (news?) 24/7 as its life’s blood. If no issue exists, create one. But crises arise. Sometimes even Lindsay Lohan and Wynona Rider don’t get caught taking drugs or shop lifting and CNN has to create conflict between gay former army officers and members of Obama’s staff over “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This was part of CNN’s “election coverage.”
The prison authorities deny Gerardo access to email or computers, although convicted murderers and rapists don’t have those restrictions. He is able to talk to his wife on the phone. “Imagine, I can’t even send her an email,” he laughed sardonically.
Gerardo also can’t email his lawyers who recently filed a new appeal focusing on government documents showing payments made to Miami-area journalists who wrote articles designed to make the already “pervasive community prejudice” worse so that a Miami trial would become an impossible venue for Gerardo and his four mates to get a fair trial.
One Miami-based journalist, Pablo Alfonso, received $58,600 during the Five’s detention and trial period, but he only wrote 16 damaging articles [while he worked for El Nuevo Herald, Miami’s most important newspaper in Spanish]. Other government-paid journalists did negative TV and radio shows about the five men who had admitted their mission involved spying – but not on the U.S. government. Gerardo explained that Cuban Intelligence sent the men to Miami to penetrate violent exile groups who had planted more than a dozen bombs in one year (1997) in Cuban tourist sites.
The FBI did not arrest the bomb plotters, but rather grabbed the very people who had furnished the Bureau with evidence of terrorist activities based in South Florida.
A May 2005 United Nation’s Human Rights Commission concluded the original trial “did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality” required for fair trials. The Commission’s report called for a new trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a previous appeal from the Five. But now, in addition to the bribing of journalists, appeal lawyer Leonard Weinglass has found the prosecutors had “withheld evidence that would have demonstrated [Gerardo’s] innocence.” Indeed, the government, Weinglass says, withheld “satellite imagery which would have shown that the shoot down on Feb. 24, 1996, occurred in Cuban airspace and not in international airspace. The key agency of the United States government which maintains satellite data has, up to now, refused to admit or deny that they are holding such data.”
On that day, three Brothers to the Rescue airplanes flew into Cuban air space after receiving multiple warnings not to do so. Cuban MIGs shot down 2 of the planes, killing pilots and co-pilots. This fact, reasoned Weinglass, would have given the Five and the MIG pilots a clear-cut defense to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
Ironically, the government never established Gerardo’s connection to the shoot down. They showed a communication commending him for his role in “the operation.” But Gerardo explained, “the operation” related to his helping another agent leave the country, not the shoot down. “They had other documents they didn’t show to the defense that would have shown I knew nothing about the events that day.” Weinglass included this in his new appeal.
Gerardo asked Danny about meeting his wife, Adriana, in Paris. Danny told him about the emotional encounter and Gerardo’s face lit up.
An inmate took photos of us. We said good-bye. Gerardo gave us the “keep the faith” fist in the air. We waved, left and began our drive south toward the Ontario airport passing the rows of unsold and empty houses in Victorville and the seemingly endless signs advertising chain stores and restaurants.
“Wow,” Danny said as he drove. “What an inspiring guy!”
Saul agreed. It was so worth the round trip, airport hassle, rent-a-car drive and wait in the prison – all the ugliness – to see how many inner resources one man could employ to keep his spirit high, and use them to inspire others.
Danny Glover is an activist and actor. Saul Laundau is a filmmaker and writer.