CSC’s Father Geoff Bottoms visits one of the Five
Father Geoff Bottoms recently visited Gerardo Hernandez in Lompoc Prison
Lompoc US penitentiary is 170 miles north of Los Angeles. It is a grim grey maximum security prison which is more reminiscent of a concentration camp with its razor wire perimeter fence punctuated by the occasional watch tower. Together with a medium security facility, open prison and boot camp it forms a major complex five miles out of town.
Built in the 1940’s and showing signs of its age it can hold up to 2000 prisoners. But there is one in particular who is attracting particular attention thanks to the solidarity of an international campaign determined to secure his release and that of his four comrades detained in penal institutions across the US.
Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo is one of five Cuban political prisoners serving sentences in the United States from fifteen years to two life terms on charges ranging from being agents of a foreign power without disclosure to conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
They were unjustly sentenced in a trial rigged by the extreme right in Miami last December for infiltrating terrorist groups and sending information back home on plans to sabotage aircraft travelling to Cuba which was shared with the FBI to save the lives both of Cuban and US citizens.
Instead of arresting the real culprits who still walk the streets of Miami quite freely Gerardo together with Ramon Labanino Salazar, Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert and Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez were arrested by the FBI on 12 September 1998 and held in punishment cells for seventeen months.
Their subsequent farce of a trial held in the heart-land of the Miami mafia meant that they never stood a chance of receiving a fair hearing. In denying the application to switch the proceedings to a neutral location Federal Judge Joan Leonard commented, “This trial is going to be much more interesting than any TV programme”.
Yet despite the bullying of witnesses, withholding evidence from the defence and intimidation of the jury it was proved that the defendants were no threat to American society, had not sought information relevant to US national security, and had caused no damage to US civil or military installations.
Evidence that the five Cuban patriots had not been spying against the US was given by high-ranking officials of the FBI itself and the Southern Command while the defence clearly demonstrated that the very serious indictment of Gerardo Hernandez for conspiracy to murder was totally false. This sought to link him with the shooting down of light aircraft that invaded Cuban airspace on 24 February 1996.
Serving two life sentences plus fifteen years Gerardo remains in good spirits and is as committed to his people and their socialist Revolution as ever. A photo is pinned on the notice board in his cell showing a million Cubans on the march in Havana on the 26 July. “Those are my people,” he says “and that’s why I’m here” .
Gerardo is totally overwhelmed by the five to ten letters he receives every day mainly from Britain which bring him hope. He wants everyone to know that he is proud and honoured by their solidarity although he hopes they will be patient if it takes a little time to reply.
There are twenty other Cubans in Lompoc – mainly Marielitos – who regret having left Cuba in 1980 and now wish to return. Having served their sentences they are indefinitely detained as there is no extradition agreement between the US and Cuba. Although their case is reviewed each year their chances of ever getting home again are remote. Still supportive of the Revolution they respect Gerardo and express their solidarity by sharing their rice and beans with him that can be bought in the prison shop and cooked in microwaves on the unit. Even the other prisoners offer him their pencils enabling him to keep up with his cartooning.
Gerardo is allowed to ring his wife Adriana up to a maximum of fifteen minutes at a time costing him 99 cents per minute. His monthly quota of calls amounts to 300 minutes. These moments are precious as they have not seen one another for four years. Despite having a visa Adriana was recently denied entry to the US to visit her husband and faced the prospect of detention herself if she had decided to appeal against the decision.
Otherwise visits are restricted to a handful of people granted visiting privileges who can turn up any Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8.30am until 3.00pm. Even then it takes half an hour to clear security and it can be as late as 10.00am before G erardo finally arrives in the visiting hall. Occasionally there is an emergency which is code language for another knifing that is usually drug-related at the hands of one of the many gangs operating within the prison.
Then there is the system of visiting points. Gerardo is allowed 40 points per month which represents an hour per point on Fridays and half an hour per point on Saturdays and Sundays. A five hour visit at weekends consequently uses up a quarter of Gerardo’s monthly allowance.
The first priority for any visitor is to obtain food for the prisoner from one of the machines in the visiting hall otherwise he goes without a meal. Consisting of over-priced fast food that has to be cooked in the one microwave available it soon runs out and is only replaced for the following visiting session. It’s not surprising that Gerardo’s appetite is not what it used to be although he jokes that he could never eat on the scale of Ramon and Rene!
There are four factories in the prison complex making clothes, furniture, communication cables and signs for government agencies. Gerardo processes orders for signs by computer which gives him some scope for initiative and creativity. He works a 35 hour week for $80 per month although he is soon to be promoted to a higher grade paying him $110 per month. Pay is docked for visits on Fridays and other time which may be taken out.
This is the kind of price that Gerardo and his compatriots are paying for fighting against terrorism conceived in Florida and tolerated by Washington. It is a price that is also being paid by their families back in Cuba who struggle against the odds for a visa to visit their loved ones. Gerardo’s mother has been waiting for four months while Rene’s wife Olga who is a US citizen has been denied a visa together with her US born daughter.
For the past 43 years Cuba has been on the receiving end of thousands of terrorist attacks that have killed more than 3500 of its people and physically maimed more than 2000 others.
In the period 1990 – 2000 there were 108 such attacks both in Cuba and against its diplomatic corps abroad while in 1997 ten bombs exploded at tourist locations in Havana killing a young Italian Fabio Di Celmo.
Meanwhile the US and its British satellite wages a so-called “war on terror” killing thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and now proposing to turn its fire on the Iraqi people already suffering from sanctions and routine bombing. The irony is not lost on the Five and their families. Nor on those campaigning on their behalf in the name of justice, truth and the rule of law.
Yet the conviction that they will return home remains as firm as ever in the hearts of these examples of the “new man” of which Che spoke. Perhaps Antonio expresses it perfectly in one of his poems when he wrote,
Behind a faraway star,
Above your horizon,
I will bring you my tomorrow
With the dew of the forest.
Its brightness will be of gold,
Its beauty of ivory;
Decorous and full of light,
One should walk toward
Long has to be the road
With a tenacious effort,
But beautiful its destination
Building the peace.
They will come home