Visiting Gerardo of the Cuban Five Once Again
A chronicle of a visit to the Cuban Five agent in a California prison shows tight security and endless longing for justice.
6:50 a.m. Plane leaves Oakland California airport.
8:05 a.m. Plane lands in Ontario, California, wait for the rent-a-car bus, pick up the rental and drive northeast toward Las Vegas (how else to explain heavy traffic on Saturday morning?).
9:30 a.m. We step from the air-conditioned rent-a-car into the burning sun of the Mojave Desert, the landscape for the U.S. Correction Complex in Victorville, California.
The guard at the desk gives us forms. We fill out forms and wait with several women in the waiting room. There’s a sign missing in the gray metal room: “Unfriendly.”
10:30.a.m. Saul asks the desk guard how much longer we’ll have to wait. “They’re counting the prisoners,” he replies.
11:30 a.m. A guard calls our numbers. We pass metal detector and pat-down tests. A guard stamps our forearms. We are only permitted to carry quarters in our pockets; nothing else – the coin accepted by the venomous food machines in the visiting room.
A handle-less door opens. Danny, Saul and five women enter another chamber. An unseen prison guard inside a heavily sealed, thick glass office electronically closes the heavy metal door; another guard passes an ultra violet light machine over the invisible stamp on our arms. We wait. Moments later the invisible guard electronically opens another solid metal door.
The visitors stand outside in a naked passageway between grey concrete bunkers and enough barbed wire to seal some national borders. The scorching desert sun alerts us to the surroundings and the contrast between what the prison architect has done and the landscape on which the immense concrete bunkers got built: brooding mountains, desert, cactus, and unseen bones of dead pioneers and Indians.
One electronically sealed chamber later, we enter the visiting room – and wait.
12 p.m. (Noon) - We sit on miniature plastic chairs even K-mart wouldn’t sell. A door opens; Gerardo Hernandez emerges. In the 1990s, Cuban intelligence sent him to run an infiltration group in south Florida.
Bombs in hotels and restaurants don’t exactly draw vacationers, and Cuba’s economy depended on expanding its tourist sector. In 1997, in order to stop the wave of Havana hotel and restaurant bombings, Gerardo’s group penetrated violent exile groups.
Gerardo’s predecessors began infiltrating such groups before he was born. In 1959, former Batista officials and other anti-revolutionary exiles started their Florida-based air attacks against Cuba.
Cuba complained to Washington. President Eisenhower quipped: “Why don’t the Cubans just shoot the planes down?” asked Ike. But Washington didn’t stop the over flights.
More than three decades later, Jose Basulto formed Brothers to the Rescue to spot rafters between Cuba and the Florida Keys. After the 1994-5 Migration Accords eliminated the need for such an operation, Basulto changed his mission. He convinced wealthy right-wing exiles to fund the Brothers to enter Cuban air space and drop provocative leaflets.
The Cuban infiltrators also discovered that Basulto had developed some weapons he planned to drop. Gerardo, Havana’s control agent, helped one agent, Juan Pablo Roque, slip out of Miami. Back in Cuba, Roque held a press conference and revealed he had also doubled as an FBI informer. He offered eyewitness details of Basulto’s plans for violence against Cuba.
This dashing young pilot had fooled the Brothers to the Rescue and the Bureau. He also became the darling of ultra right Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtenin (a photo shows her slightly more than casual interest in Roque). Shortly after Roque’s press conference, Basulto announced his intention to fly over Cuban territory. A White House official and the FAA knew of the plans, but the government eventually charged Gerardo as Havana’s source of the Brothers’ flight plans – three planes – that allowed Cuban MiGs to shoot down two of them on February 24, 1996. Basulto’s plane returned to Miami.
After Roque had revealed his true identity, Miami’s right wing radio commentators began claiming Castro had taken over the FBI. In 1998, partly to undo that image, the FBI busted him and other Cuban agents (The Cuban Five), despite the fact they had provided the Bureau with details of hidden explosive and arms caches and other relevant information to stop terrorism.
The U.S. case relied on the supposition that the MiGs fired missiles over international airspace. Cuban vectors indicated the action occurred over Cuban airspace. The U.S. government has not released its satellite images on “national security” grounds. Gerardo’s trial lawyer did not demand them as evidence for the defense.
“Why,” asked Gerardo, “would the U.S. government not use these images available if they validated the prosecutor’s argument?” If the shoot downs occurred over Cuban air space, he emphasizes, there would have been no crime. An impending appeal – a motion to set aside the conviction – will make this point.
During the trial extremist exiles had photographed Miami jury members’ license plates. An acquittal, the jurors feared, might have resulted in their homes getting torched, or worse. The jury thus paid little attention to some facts. For example, Gerardo didn’t know the Brothers’ flight schedule, nor have access to Fidel’s decision to shoot down intruding aircraft. “An American Dreyfus case,” one lawyer called the judgment against the Cuban Five.
2:54 p.m. The loudspeaker declares visiting hours have ended. For three hours, guards had observed the visiting process. One inmate with his back to Danny had complimented him on his acting. Danny turned his head to thank him. A guard appeared. “Sorry, sir, you’re not allowed to turn around and talk to other inmates.”
Gerardo shrugged. A sign in one sealed chamber called the Victorville Prison a “humane, correctional” institution. At least the sign didn’t claim pigs could fly.
Gerardo wanted to see Saul’s new film, “Will The Real Terrorist Please Stand Up.” His voice, recorded during a phone conversation, appears in the documentary, as does Danny. The prison does not permit him to receive DVDs; he can see DVDs from the prison library, which is unlikely to acquire it.
Each day the guards go home. Gerardo stays. The sun sets over desert mountains, and mountains of concrete, steel and barbed wire. Danny and Saul sigh.
Gerardo, smiling, holds his fist high in a triumphal salute.
Danny Glover is an activist and actor. Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP premieres in Los Angeles at the Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, July 26, 7 p.m. and at Washington DC’s West End Cinema (23rd and “M” NW) at 7:30 - as part of a double feature about Cuba.