The following are remarks by Rafael Cancel Miranda, one of the most prominent leaders of the Puerto Rican independence struggle for nearly six decades. He was speaking at a Sept. 14 meeting in Washington, D.C., that called on the U.S. government to free Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González. The five are Cuban revolutionaries who have been imprisoned by the U.S. government on trumped-up conspiracy charges for more than 14 years.
The meeting, which drew more than 100 people, was sponsored by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five and endorsed by local groups including the D.C. Metro Coalition to Free the Five and Takoma Park Free the Five Committee.
Cancel Miranda and four other Puerto Rican independence fighters, supporters of the Nationalist Party led by Pedro Albizu Campos, spent more than a quarter century in U.S. prisons for their pro-independence actions.
In 1954 Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores walked into the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, unfurled a Puerto Rican flag in the balcony and fired pistols, wounding five congressmen. Convicted and given prison sentences of up to 81 years, they joined a fifth Nationalist, Oscar Collazo, imprisoned four years earlier for an armed attack on the residence of U.S. President Harry Truman.
In face of a mounting international campaign, President James Carter extended executive clemency and commuted the sentences of Figueroa Cordero in 1977 and Cancel Miranda, Lebrón, Flores and Collazo in 1979. The release of the five Nationalists—who refused anything short of their unconditional freedom—came under the pressure of a resurgent Puerto Rican independence struggle that coincided with more than a decade of massive opposition to Washington’s war against the people of Vietnam, expanding struggles for Black and Chicano liberation and women’s equality, and revolutionary victories from Grenada and Nicaragua to Iran.
Cancel Miranda addressed his audience in English. Also speaking at the event were Tom Hayden, editorial board member of the Nation; Liz Derias of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; Michelle Tingling-Clemmons of the African Awareness Association; and José Pertierra, attorney for the Venezuelan government in its efforts to extradite CIA-trained Cuban counterrevolutionary Luis Posada Carriles, wanted in Venezuela on 73 counts of murder. An article on the event was published in the Oct. 1 issue of the Militant.
The transcription, footnotes, text in brackets and subtitles are by the Militant.
Why do we fight for the five? Because we are fighting for ourselves.
We’re not doing them a favor. We’re doing ourselves a favor because we are fighting for us, for our freedom.
Why are the five in prison? For protecting their country. For preventing those killers from murdering their people.
You know, I’ve been called a terrorist. In fact, today they threatened me here in Washington. One of those rightists wrote, “A terrorist Puerto Rican is in town.” That doesn’t bother me. If they call me a terrorist, it means I’m doing something right. If they pat me on the shoulder, then I’m doing something wrong. [Applause]
Now, I was in the same prison with Orlando Bosch before he set off the bomb on the plane. We were both in the Marion penitentiary.1
When they first brought him to Marion, the warden called me in saying he wanted to talk to me about something. I normally didn’t talk much with the prison officials. I was taken to his office and he told me, “We’re going to bring two prisoners here. If anything happens to them, you’re responsible.” I told the warden, “As long as they don’t step on my toes, everything will be all right.” I didn’t even know who they were.
About a week or two later I saw them. They were Orlando Bosch and Rolando Masferrer.2 Every time these guys came in my direction, if I went this way they would go another way. See how brave Bosch was? Outside prison he would place bombs and things like that in the middle of the night. But man to man, he was a coward. He would never come close to me.
By the way, after Rolando Masferrer got out, he was killed. They had planted a bomb in his car—they would kill each other too, you know.
We have to keep alive the names of the five. For two reasons.
First, because as we fight for them—and it is a fight, we’re fighting for their freedom—they are giving off their light and their strength while in prison.
Thanks to them—to Antonio, to Fernando, to René, to Gerardo, to Ramón—many thousands or millions of people have been enlightened about the truth of who the enemy is.
A little while ago I talked with Gerardo by phone. It was the first time we had talked. He didn’t say a single word like “Oh, poor me,” nothing like that. Men and women like him are strong.
But there is another reason why we must fight for the five. I once told [Cuban National Assembly President] Ricardo Alarcón that we need to keep the struggle alive because we are protecting their lives. The more people get involved in fighting for them, the more careful their jailers will be about how they handle them.
I’m here today thanks to people like you, who kept fighting and fighting and fighting. And if I’m still alive, it’s thanks to people like you. Because in the prison and in Washington, they knew there were many thousands of people watching out for us. So they were more careful.
Sometimes we get a little frustrated. I never do. Sometimes we want things to happen. But things won’t happen until people make them happen. We will keep pushing, pushing.
When they learn about meetings like this, you’re giving them strength. Not that they need more strength—they are strong. But I know that when we were in prison, every time I got a letter of solidarity, it made me feel good.
By the way, I told [José] Pertierra that I was in prison for 27 and a half years. The second time I spent 25 and a half years because of those firecrackers we set off in Washington in 1954.
The first time, they put me in prison for not shooting. And the next time they put me in prison, it was for shooting. It depends who you’re shooting at. [Laughter and applause]
The first time they put me in prison, I was in high school in Puerto Rico. It was during the Korean War. I was 18 year old. They wanted me to be part of their army.
By the way, they invaded my country. They bombarded my country on May 12, 1898, killing Puerto Ricans. And on July 25, 1898, they invaded us, killing Puerto Ricans. That was done by the U.S. Army—the same army they wanted to put me in—and the Marines.
They massacred my people in Río Piedras on Oct. 24, 1935.
On March 21, 1937, they massacred my people again in Ponce, on orders from Blanton Winship.3
And then they expect us to throw them kisses and roses.
They invaded us, but they want us to say, “Thank you. You are so nice.” And they expect us to join that army to kill people in Korea and other countries.
We can be as peaceful as we want. But that doesn’t mean we have to take it, to let them do whatever they want to us. We have the right to fight back. [Applause]
As I said, I was in high school in Puerto Rico, nearly 18 years old, and they wanted to draft me into their army, to kill Korean people. But why should I? The Korean people didn’t invade my country.
I knew who invaded my country. If someone invades your country, you fight them, right?
They say they are not terrorists. They can kill, like they do in Iraq and Afghanistan—kill children and other people by the thousands. But those are “democratic” bombs.
When we defend ourselves, we are called “terrorists.” When Antonio defends his people, he’s a “terrorist.” Ramón, René, Gerardo, Fernando—they are terrorists because they care for their people, because they fought for their people.
If that’s being a terrorist, Lord, make me a terrorist all of my life. [Applause and cheers]
I forgot to tell you something. Batista put me in prison, too.4
Now, if someone like Batista doesn’t like you, that means you’re doing something right.
How the five Nationalists were freedNow, it was an international campaign that got me here, to be able to see people like you—an international campaign, and Cuba. When the United States government realized that having us in prison was no good for them, then they were willing to do an exchange of prisoners with Cuba.5 But it was because of people like you.
Carter was telling the whole world, “Human rights! We’re the champions of human rights!”
And people would say: “But you have five Nationalists in prison. How come they’ve been jailed for so long?”
You know, we could have been out of prison much earlier—four years before the exchange of prisoners. We got out of prison on Sept. 10, 1979. During the four previous years, the FBI came—again and again—to see Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores, Oscar Collazo and myself in prison.
You know, we were five, too—the five Nationalists—and now we have the five Cubans. Five seems to be a magic number!
Anyway, they came to us in prison to tell us that if we asked for forgiveness, the next day we’d be out. The FBI! They acted so nice. … [Laughter]
Why? Because we had become a symbol of resistance of our peoples—including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, other countries.6 And they wanted to crush that symbol.
But we told them, “You are the ones who have to ask us for forgiveness. You are the ones who bombed our country, massacred our people.”
So the international pressure was strong. And there came Fidel. When I say Fidel, I’m saying Cuba. Because if you look for a government that really represents the people, there is one—Cuba.
I was 23 years old when I walked up the steps of the Capitol. Today I’m 82 and I haven’t changed the way I think about anything.
Except that today maybe I’m a little more revolutionary, because I know the enemy better.
Today it is we who thank the Cuban Five. We thank them for the example they are giving us.
1. Orlando Bosch, a CIA-trained Cuban counterrevolutionary, was in the Marion, Ill., federal penitentiary following his conviction for launching a 1968 bazooka attack on a Polish freighter in the Miami harbor. Given a 10-year sentence, he was paroled after four years and went to Venezuela, where in 1976 he and fellow counterrevolutionary Luis Posada Carriles organized the bombing of a Cuban airliner over Barbados that killed all 73 people aboard. Speaking before Cancel Miranda at the Sept. 14 meeting, José Pertierra had told the story of the 1976 bombing.
2. Rolando Masferrer was the head of a pro-government death squad during the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. With the January 1959 revolutionary victory Masferrer fled to Miami, where he organized attacks against the Cuban Revolution. Convicted and jailed in 1968 on charges of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act, he was freed on parole in 1972. In 1975 he was blown up by a car bomb, presumably by rival counterrevolutionaries in a gangland assassination.
3. In 1898 the U.S. armed forces declared war with Spain and seized its colonies, including Puerto Rico. U.S. ships bombed San Juan on May 12 and U.S. troops invaded the island at Guánica on July 25 of that year. Since then Puerto Rico has remained under the U.S. colonial boot. On Oct. 24, 1935, four Nationalist Party supporters were killed by police under the command of Col. Francis Riggs at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. On March 21, 1937, police opened fire on a Nationalist Party rally in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, killing 21 and wounding 200. The colonial governor then was Gen. Blanton Winship, who had been appointed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
4. In reply to a question after his initial remarks, Cancel Miranda elaborated on the story of his days in Cuba in 1951–52. A coming issue of the Militant will reprint a fuller account of that story, which Cancel Miranda recounted in a 2006 interview entitled, “I was expelled by [U.S.-backed Fulgencio] Batista regime, embraced by Cuban revolutionaries.”
5. José Pertierra had told the audience that Cuba’s revolutionary government had offered to release four jailed U.S. agents, including admitted CIA operative Lawrence Lunt, if Washington freed the four Nationalists still in prison. It did so in September 1979, 10 days after the Puerto Rican revolutionaries returned home.
6. In 1979 revolutionary uprisings overturned U.S.-backed dictatorships and brought to power workers and farmers governments in Nicaragua and Grenada, giving an impetus to revolutionary struggles throughout Central America—especially in El Salvador and Guatemala—and more broadly around the world.
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