Fighting for the Five - Leonard Weinglass interview
The Miami Five’s lead attorney has earned international acclaim by achieving stunning victories in a string of the United States’ most historic civil rights cases. CSC Campaigns Manager, Stephen Hallmark, caught up with him on his recent UK tour
Those who have met veteran campaigner Leonard Weinglass cannot fail to be impressed by his quiet, unassuming manner combined with his commanding knowledge and unstinting commitment to social justice.
And staff at the US State Department of Justice must have winced when they saw his name first connected to the case of the Miami Five.
The celebrated lawyer began his career in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, because he wanted to represent poor Afro-Americans against what he saw as an oppressive white administration.
That choice is symptomatic of Mr Weinglass, and goes along way to explaining why - at 73-years-old - he is still committed to fighting against the system rather than spending more time on his favourite hobby, growing fruit trees.
With an energy belying his age, the lawyer has just completed a hectic 10-day tour of the UK in order to mobilise international support for the five Cubans, who are currently languishing in prisons scattered across the US.
He said: “The Miami Five are suffering real deprivation in maximum security jails for the same cause I believe in, and that propels me forward.
“They live in the most difficult conditions you could imagine, but when you meet with them you see men who are strong, energised and principled.
“When you leave them you come away with the feeling ‘I can do no less’.”
Newark, which was notorious for its poor Afro-American ghettos and police brutality, attracted civil rights activists including the young Tom Hayden, whom Mr Weinglass represented.
Tom was later arrested for his role in the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in Illinois, Chicago, and became part of the “Chicago 8” trial that was a defining moment in 1960s America.
Mr Weinglass said: “Tom really became my teacher. He asked me to represent him at the trial and told me it would change my life.
“I appreciate how patient he was in helping me understand that it wasn’t just an issue of defending the poor and the powerless, I had to become part of a larger movement that sought to change the system.”
Representing communist and Black Panther member Angela Davis, an alleged accomplice in the murder of Judge Harold Haley, in 1970, and glamorous anti-war campaigner Jane Fonda, confirmed the lawyer’s status.
Now he has his sights firmly set on freeing the Miami Five.
Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzáles and René Gonzáles, were convicted on charges ranging from acting as unregistered agents to conspiracy to commit murder - and three of them have life sentences without parole. In the US, life means precisely that.
Their ‘offence’ is to have infiltrated terrorist cells in Miami that in the early 1990s had been orchestrating bombing campaigns against their homeland in order to smash the Cuban economy and bring about a change in government.
Mr Weinglass said: “By US law, no US citizen can take up arms against another country. And the classic definition of terrorism is: attacks directed against civilians to change policy.
“The evidence provided by the Miami Five was passed onto the Cuban authorities, they invited the FBI to take action.
“The FBI did nothing. No arrests. No investigation.
“The Cubans then contacted the New York Times, and gave reporters the names, addresses and locations of the paramilitary camps.
“The newspaper published not a word.”
Instead, the Miami Five were arrested in September, 1998, and tried in Miami.
Mr Weinglass, who represents Antonio (a “lifer” in US Penitentiary, Florence), believes the case has to be placed in the context of US foreign policy toward Latin America.
He said: “It is part of the argument that the US can do whatever it wishes to another country, but if that country dares to protect itself or tries to interfere with the process - such as the Miami Five trying to stop terrorist attacks against their homeland - then the US will deal with them most severely.
“The US is using its court system to further political ends against another country.”
Three judges are currently considering an appeal.
Mr Weinglass said: “We are at a crucial moment, and we must mobilise support and fight to release these brave men.
“They were convicted because of public pressure in Miami, public pressure is always the determining factor in a political trial such as this.
“We will prevail if we continue to struggle and build support, because in the end justice will out while the system that carries out these travesties corrodes.”
That is why the charismatic lawyer has completed a programme of events, organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, in the UK.
He said: “The worst thing in the American judicial system is to be alone, but when there is an active support network then there are always grounds for optimism.
“Although lawyers obviously have a role in political cases such as these, it is a limited role. We speak and write, but our words and what we write are only heard or read if there is major support for the case.
“That was the lesson from the Angela Davis case, the international campaign focused attention on the court and that lead to her acquittal.
“That’s now beginning to happen with the Miami Five, which is why the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s work in building the campaign is so critically important.”
Mr Weinglass has been delighted by his reception in the UK.
He said: “The size and enthusiasm of the Miami Five’s support is greater here than in the United States, and I am heartened by the campaign’s strength.”
Meanwhile the case’s almost farcical twists and turns continue. A successful appeal on the grounds that Miami - notorious for its virulent anti-Castroism - was unsuitable as a venue for the trial was inexplicably overruled by a subsequent appeal.
Mr Weinglass said: “We were astonished. How could such a clear, unanimous verdict that described the case as ‘a perfect storm of prejudice’ be overturned?”
The appeal now under consideration focuses on the legality of how the prosecutor summed-up the case.
Mr Weinglass said: “You cannot manufacture ‘facts’ not presented during the course of the trial, but the prosecutor said - on three occasions - that the Cubans had come to Miami in order to destroy the United States.
“There were 31 objections made during the summing up and 28 were sustained, the argument was completely out of bounds and driven to secure a conviction.
“If the appeal judges apply lawyer-like standards we will win, but the problem is that each US Government fears an acquittal would devastate its administration because of the 650,000 Cubans living in Miami. Many of them regard Cuba as their number one priority.
“Politicians all look at Florida as the presidential maker and the chances of this shifting are very difficult to anticipate.”
Mr Weinglass has met all of the Miami Five apart from Fernando, who was inexplicably shunted from one prison to another just before the two were to meet
The lawyer said: “They are remarkable men, which is not surprising because three of them volunteered to fight in Angola against the forces of apartheid.
“When you meet them you can clearly witness what I call the Mandella Affect, their fellow inmates and the prison guards all have tremendous respect for them. They are disciplined and none of them have committed a single violation of prison rules.”
After 9/11 the Cubans were placed in solitary confinement. Gerrado was stripped naked - in case he used his clothing to commit suicide - and placed in a windowless concrete box.
They were supposed to be in solitary for year, but were released after 30 days because of an international outcry.
Mr Weinglass said: “Antonio had started Spanish lessons for the inmates and when he was placed in solitary they went on strike.
“Whenever he was moved during his stay in solitary the areas were cleared of all people so that he could have no human contact.
“But the authorities will fail to break them.”
The lawyer remains “quietly confident” the men will eventually be released.
He added: “But to win we must embarrass the authorities into making the right decision, and we can only achieve that with mass support.”