BEHIND THE WALLS WITH LABAÑINO OF CUBAN 5
Campaign News | Tuesday, 14 January 2003
"I WEAR THE PRISON UNIFORM WITH HONOR, PRIDE"
BEHIND THE WALLS WITH LABAÑINO OF CUBAN 5:
"I WEAR THE PRISON UNIFORM WITH HONOR, PRIDE"
By Gloria La Riva
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
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
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.
PUNISHED FOR FEELING FREE
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
[La Riva is national coordinator of the National Committee to Free the
APPEAL DATE SET FOR APRIL
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 www.freethefive.org
or call (415) 821-6545.