Campaign News | Monday, 23 June 2003

View from USP Beaumont


Reminiscent of the words "arbeit mach frei" (work shall make you free) that adorn the gates of Auschwitz the visitor to the US Penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas is greeted with a similar cynical exhortation to "Pride – Dedication – Commitment".

Birds may make their nests in the razor wire forming the perimeter fence and the sun may be constantly shining in this traditional heart of the Texan oilfields yet none of this disguises the brutal reality of prison life where punishment and retribution outweigh any idea of reform and rehabilitation.

Not that Ramon Labanino, known by his prison name Luis Medina, has done anything wrong. Together with four other political prisoners – Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez - known as the Miami Five, who are scattered in federal prisons around the US, he is the subject of a malicious campaign that resulted in the harshest possible sentences.

The five were arrested in 1998 and tried in Miami on charges ranging from using a false identity to conspiracy to commit espionage and even murder for which they were given sentences of fifteen years up to double life.

As they had come from Cuba to infiltrate right-wing terrorist organisations backed by Washington that have wreaked havoc against their country for over forty years the last place they could expect to receive a fair hearing for defending their people was a place controlled by the Miami Mafia.

Outraged by the hypocrisy and double standards of the so-called "war on terrorism" Labanino begs the question, "How can the US claim the right to infiltrate Al Queida and other terrorist groups when denying Cuba the right to do the same?"

Yet Labanino remains strong, healthy and in good spirits confident that ultimately truth and justice will prevail. At his trial he had proclaimed "I will wear the prison uniform with the same honour and pride with which a soldier wears his prized insignia".

Too young to fight in the original Cuban Revolution that triumphed in 1959 he believes that this is now his opportunity to fight for the Revolution today when Cuba is under increased threat from the US aided and abetted by its European allies with their recent package of political sanctions. In fact he sees his time in prison as his destiny.

Of course Labanino considers that he is fighting not just for Cuba but for the whole of humanity. Overwhelmed and touched by the love, respect and affection of the international solidarity movement he is convinced that the left and progressive forces must unite to defeat the new imperialism which is the greatest threat to humanity at the present time.

Quoting Rosa Luxembourg who warned the world of the stark choice between socialism or barbarism he passionately believes that only socialism can resolve the world’s problems. By way of priority we need to create an alternative media outside the control of the press barons in order to counter the lies, spin and double-speak of the new world order.

Labanino is indignant about the recent criticism of Cuba for taking strong action against the so-called "dissidents" hired by the US to undermine the government and the hijackers of a ferry who could have wittingly provoked a US attack against Cuba by sparking off a mass exodus of illegal immigrants.

Although he is against the death penalty in principle Labanino supports his government in defending Cuba and addressing the threat to its survival. He has written a strong poem expressing his country’s wish to live at peace with the world where people can respect one another’s differences and engage in friendly criticism.

Describing conditions in his Texan prison Labanino says that the worst feature is the violence. Mexican, Black, Native American and Italian mafias control a burgeoning industry in alcohol, drugs and gambling with fatal knifings as the penalty for non-payment of debts.

Thanks to him a school of the revolution has attracted a number of inmates who want to know more about Cuba and Socialism yet too much interest would make him a rival among the mafia leaders and a potential target of elimination.

Otherwise Labanino gets on well with the other prisoners and even the guards. There are twenty Cubans in Beaumont Penitentiary – many of them "Marielitos" who have been detained for up to 22 years – all of whom welcomed him after release from his recent month in solitary confinement.

Apart from the seventeen months the Five spent in the "Hole" in Miami before their trial this is not the first time Labanino has endured this particular privation. Upon arrival at Beaumont he was placed in solitary confinement for a week to try and break him but when this didn’t work he was told to report every two hours to a guard for the rest of his time in prison.

Labanino shares a cell with a Mexican where photos of his wife and three children find pride of place in his locker. On his walls are displayed posters of Che, Fidel and Nelson Mandela together with pictures of rallies in Cuba and demonstrations in Britain and Germany.

He receives between 10 – 15 letters a day mainly from Britain and listens to Radio Havana after 10pm where he finds inspiration in the speeches of Ricardo Alarcon, the President of the National Assembly, who has special responsibility for the case of the Five.

Although he only receives $8 a month for working an hour a day as an orderly cleaning up the laundry room Labanino spends $1 a minute to ring home. In total he is only allowed 300 minutes of calls per month with the rest of the money coming from the Cuban government. The rest of his time is spent playing handball and chess.

Yet nothing can destroy the smiling, cheerful disposition of this latest in a long line of Cuban heroes. He has no words to thank everyone in the UK for their solidarity and is humbled to receive such internationalist support belonging to a country that is more used to giving it.

Meanwhile the next few months are critical as the appeal gets under way in Atlanta, Georgia. The defence briefs have been filed and the prosecution’s response is awaited. Oral arguments are expected to take place towards the end of the year when international solidarity will be more crucial than ever in throwing a spotlight on the justice of the case.

Confident of his innocence Labanino will be marching in spirit with his people on the 26th July to mark Moncada Day and looks forward to the time when he will be able to embrace and thank each one of them personally. He also relishes meeting up again with his four compatriots to celebrate their freedom in the company of all those who have campaigned on their behalf.

For Labanino the victory is certain. For all those who share his sense of history that day can’t come soon enough.

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