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Vol. 74/No. 32      August 23, 2010

Cuban 5 prisoner’s art
inspired by ‘just cause’
(feature article)
In the article below, Antonio Guerrero, one of five Cuban revolutionaries jailed in the United States for the last 12 years, tells the story of how he learned to draw and paint in prison.

Known internationally as the Cuban Five, Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, René González, and Fernando González, were arrested in September 1998 in Miami. They were convicted on frame-up charges ranging from “conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents” and “conspiracy to commit espionage,” and in the case of Hernández “conspiracy to commit murder.” They were given stiff sentences.

The five had been gathering information on right-wing Cuban exile groups in Florida with a long history of carrying out violent acts against the Cuban Revolution, with the complicity of the U.S. government.

Guerrero was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years. On Oct. 13, 2009, his sentence was reduced to 21 years and 10 months, after an appeals court ruled that the sentences of three of the five—Guerrero, Labañino, and Fernando González—were excessive. Guerrero is currently imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institute in Florence, Colorado.

At the original sentencing in December 2001, Guerrero told the court, “If I were asked once again to cooperate in this task, I would again do it with honor.”

In an interview published in the Sept. 2, 2008, issue of the Cuban magazine Bohemia, Guerrero said the Cuban Five should not be “viewed in a different dimension from millions of compatriots who each day give everything for the Revolution and who could have been in our place and would have acted in exactly the same way. We are nothing more than Cubans of these times, revolutionaries of these times.”

Guerrero was born in Miami, Oct. 16, 1958. His family returned to Cuba in November of that year and decided to stay after the triumph of the revolution in January 1959.

A book of poems written by Guerrero in prison was published in English and Spanish under the title From My Altitude. An exhibit of Guerrero’s paintings with the same title has been touring the United States. There have been shows in California, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. See box below for upcoming exhibit.

Translation into English is by the Militant.


Outline of my artistic development
Nov. 15, 2007

At the beginning of 2003, when I had just completed my first year of imprisonment in this penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, I searched, anxiously, for something that would occupy my time, far from the tense and violent atmosphere that reigned in this prison.

Poetry had been an effective weapon to overcome the long periods of unjust punishment in the cells of the so-called “hole,” as well as the prolonged “lockdowns,” which the whole prison population here was subjected to after any violent incident. But with the constant commotion during the “normal” routine of the prison, my muse, sometimes startled, would fade away and fail to inspire me.

So, one fine day, I went to the so-called “Hobby Craft,” (Department of Recreation) and I found a prisoner giving pencil drawing classes; basically everyone was making a portrait. I was impressed above all by the work of the instructor and I asked him how I could participate in his class. It turned out this person was very enthusiastic about teaching what he knew, and even more fortunate, he was in my dorm unit.

He gave me some materials and by the following day I had decided on my first project: a portrait of my beloved mother.

Before I even finished this first work, that sudden and vile punishment came in which we were isolated in cells in the “hole,” the five of us in our five prisons. It was the result of the application of the Special Administrative Measures (SAM), ordered by the U.S. Attorney General. International solidarity and the energetic demands of our attorneys made it possible for that unjust punishment to be lifted in one month.

It so happened that upon returning to my dormitory unit I had “lost” my placement and they had no cell in which to put me. I noticed that the inmate who gave the drawing classes was alone in his cell, and I told the guard: Put me with him. He was surprised because that prisoner was Black, what they call here Afro-American, and here it is rarely seen (nor is it accepted by the prisoners) that prisoners of different races or groups (or gangs) live together.

As I hoped, Andre accepted me into his cell. Living together my interest in drawing grew and we formed a good friendship.

Every day I dedicated several hours to drawing. My first five works required the help of the instructor. But I remember we were locked down for almost a month, and Andre told me, “Now you are going to do portraits on your own.” And it was during that lockdown that I made the portraits of José Martí and Cintio Vitier on my own. When I finished I realized that I could now continue my independent course, and it was the right moment because Andre was transferred to another penitentiary in California as soon as that lockdown was lifted.

A Native Indian, also imprisoned in my unit, took Andre’s place as instructor. We also became good friends. Every night we worked together on different projects. The combination of Andre’s and the new instructor’s teachings allowed me to create my own method of work.

On some occasions I was able to finish a painting in one day. Up to now I have created more than 100 works with pencil.

In 2005 I met a prisoner who offered to teach me calligraphy. I was interested in making a clean copy of all the poems I had written in these years of imprisonment. I acquired some essential materials, but I realized that the watercolors that I used as ink were not good, nor was there enough. Looking for something that could take the place of the ink (which they don’t authorize for purchase) a bunch of watercolor paint tubes fell into my hands from another prisoner. But using it for the calligraphy proved to be another disaster and I asked myself, “What do I do with all this?” I decided to try them out with small paintings. Nobody here painted with that technique, so I could only count on the help of some books I had bought with the paintings. Little by little I was gaining confidence in my strokes with the handful of brushes that I had and I started setting bigger goals.

Color gave another life to my creations. Painting made me happy. In one or two days now I finished each work.

With the help of a great friend of Cuba and the Five, Cindy O’Hara, who sent me books and photos, I was able to finish two interesting projects in watercolor: the birds that are endemic to Cuba and the species of Guacamayos. Other caring friends in the United States, like the tireless Priscilla Felia, have sent me books that have been very useful for my self-taught progress in these and other techniques.

At the end of 2005 a prisoner arrived from Marion in Illinois, who began to show impressive pastel photo works. They placed him in my dormitory unit and right away I became interested in this new technique. I acquired some materials, following his instructions. He had a great will to teach, but soon he had problems and was taken to the “hole.” He never returned to the general population.

Once again I found myself wondering what to do with the painting materials I had acquired and once more I returned to the books to immerse myself in an unfamiliar technique. I decided a portrait of Che would be my first work in pastel and after that I undertook a project of 14 portraits of the most relevant figures of our history. I have continued using pastels without interruption in my artwork. The most recent with this technique are a group of nudes which I have used to study the human figure and the different skin tones under the effect of lights and shadows.

Just two months ago, also being self-taught, I broached painting in acrylics, using an air gun (in English this technique is known as “airbrushing”).

And oil painting didn’t escape my interest either. Here they only authorize a type of oil paint that is soluble in water and although it is not the traditional paint it is similar enough in its use and results. Up to now I have completed five works with this technique.

Without a specific plan or guide, I believe that it was the right path to first do pencil portraits, and then to take on watercolor, pastels, and finally, oils. Of course, all of these works have been without benefit of the professional instruction that an art school would give, or the guide of an instructor with real knowledge of plastic arts.

What is most important, I think, is that I have overcome imprisonment with a healthy and useful activity like plastic arts. Each work expresses not only my human essence but that of the Five, united by unbreakable principles.

The little I have learned I share unselfishly with other prisoners, and, at times, with great patience. “Truth desires art” as José Martí said, and truth reigns in our hearts, forged with love and commitment to the just cause of our heroic people: That is my motivation for each work of art!
Related articles:
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Latino unionists demand visas for Cuban 5 wives
Write to the Cuban Five  
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