Campaign News | Tuesday, 14 January 2003




By Gloria La Riva

Beaumont, Texas

Ramón Labañino would love nothing more than to be home in Cuba with his

wife, Elisabet Palmeiro, and his three young daughters. He missed out on

precious time with his mother, who died in 1998.

But Ramón gave up his personal life in Cuba to engage in an important

but dangerous mission inside the United States: protecting the Cuban

people from terrorist attacks coming out of southern Florida.

He moved to Tampa, Fla., in 1993 to protect not only his own family but

the 11 million people in Cuba from the aggression and hostility directed

against them from the United States ever since the Cuban Revolution.

Ramón was sent by Cuba to do what the U.S. government has refused to do

for decades: stop the countless bombings and sabotage plots emanating

from Miami.

For this heroic effort, he is serving a life sentence in the U.S.

federal penitentiary at Beaumont, Texas. There is no parole in federal


He and four others, known by their supporters as the Cuban Five, were

arrested by the FBI in September 1998, prosecuted by the U.S. government

and convicted by a Miami jury in June 2001. That says it all about the

U.S. policy: The terrorists run free in Miami while the anti-terrorists

are in prison.

I was privileged to visit Ramón in late December at Beaumont prison in

eastern Texas. Joining me in the two-day visit was Houston activist

Gloria Rubac, known to many Texas prisoners for her tireless defense of

their rights.

Gloria and I came away deeply moved by Ramón's personality, by the

strength of his principles and by the optimism he shows despite prison


The first thing he said when we met was: "First, I want to let you know

how deeply we, my four brothers and I, appreciate your solidarity and

the support of all our friends in the U.S. Please let everyone know we

thank them very much."

It was the midst of the holidays and Ramón was getting 10 to 15 letters

a day. The letters, from as far as Argentina and Scotland, were a real

morale boost. He laughed that some of his friends in prison say he is

famous. They have come to realize he is a political prisoner and a hero

to his people in Cuba.

Ramón was counting the hours until his family would come to visit. After

almost six months of delay in receiving a visa from U.S. authorities, his wife, daughters and father will finally be able to embrace him in

late January and early February, and share all the latest from back


In the middle of our visit, another prisoner had a sandwich delivered to

Ramón. It was clear he is respected. When we reciprocated with soft

drinks, his friend waved to his buddy, "big Medina." Ramón's official

name in prison is Luis Medina, because that was his identity when he

lived in Florida.

He had to live with an assumed name in Tampa. To operate openly would

have put him in danger. On the opening day of the trial, he and the two

Cubans who also had other identities--Gerardo Hernandez and Fernando

Gonzalez--proudly revealed their real names.

In prison, he'd rather be called by his real name, but it is hard to do

when he is officially Medina.

He nodded when we remarked how hard his last name is to pronounce. In

the videotapes the support committee has produced about the Five, we've

had to change narrators more than once because the "ñ" followed by "i"

is a real tongue-twister. He laughed at that.

We told him Mumia Abu-Jamal had just written a column on the Cuban Five, urging support for his Cuban brothers in "a real fight against

terrorism." Ramón was excited to hear the news and honored by Mumia's

gesture. He asked us to convey his appreciation and solidarity to him.

Ramón works a day shift at the prison. He is an orderly and keeps the

laundry room clean. Every free moment he is busy reading, writing

letters to his supporters and preparing for his appeals.


He related to us the story of his transfer to Beaumont after his

sentencing, and his interview by the prison staff, which is done with

every incoming inmate. One of the interviewers thought he'd give Ramón a

hard time. He wanted to drive the point home that he, Ramón, was a

prisoner and he'd better get used to it. Ramón said sincerely, "To tell

you the truth, I don't feel like I'm in prison. I am here for political


For a prisoner of conscience to feel free behind bars was too much for

the prison employee. He ordered Ramón into solitary confinement for a

week. To increase the punishment, he said that from then on, Ramón would

have to report every two hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., to prison


The order still stands. No matter what he is doing, exactly every two

hours he has to go to the guards on duty.

Ramón smiles when he recalls that he honestly thought for a moment it

was a privilege and told the interviewer, "Please don't give me any

special privileges, I'd like to be treated like the others." Ramón is

not one to complain.

But even guards have come to know him and treat him with a certain

respect. One of the staff read a book with the speech Ramón gave before

sentencing, and was amazed by the boldness of his words in the


The book is entitled, "With Honor, Courage and Pride," and carries the

inspiring and historic speeches of all five: Ramón Labañino, Gerardo

Hernandez, Antonio Gonzalez, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez.

Ramón ended his speech at sentencing by saying: "If preventing the death

of innocent human beings, defending our two countries from terrorism, and preventing a senseless invasion of Cuba is the reason I am being

sentenced today, then, let that sentence be welcomed.

"I will wear the prison uniform with the same honor and pride with which

a soldier wears his most prized insignia. This has been a political

trial; therefore, we are political prisoners."

After our visit, Ramón walked back to his cellblock through the metal

doors. We were reminded of his heroic words. And yes, he does walk tall

and proud.

[La Riva is national coordinator of the National Committee to Free the




April 7 has been set as the date for the Cuban Five's attorneys to file

their appeal briefs in the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta. The five will

file in a joint action. At a later date, oral arguments will be heard.

This makes the struggle for public opinion on behalf of the five all the

more urgent. The U.S. government prosecuted them. It will be up to the

people of the United States and the world to free them. To get involved, contact the Free the Five committees at

or call (415) 821-6545.

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