René González, one of five Cuban revolutionaries arrested by the U.S. government in 1998 on trumped-up charges, returned home to Cuba at the beginning of May, having served 14 and a half years in the custody of the U.S. “justice” system. This victory has given a powerful boost to the fight to free Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González, the four who remain in prison (see box on this page).
Rodolfo “Roddy” Rodríguez served time alongside René González in the Federal Correctional Institute in Marianna, Fla. In the following interview he describes the friendship they shared, giving us a glimpse of the respect and support González — and his four comrades-in-arms — have won among fellow inmates, and even some of the prison guards, through their unwavering integrity and dignity.
Rodríguez was speaking on Edmundo García’s popular call-in radio program La tarde se mueve (Afternoon on the Move), broadcast June 13, 2012, on Radio Progreso, a Spanish-language station in Miami.
As he mentions here, Rodríguez was among the 128,000 Cubans who came to the United States in April 1980 as part of what was popularly known as the Mariel boatlift. At that time, the U.S. government was stepping up aggressive actions throughout the Caribbean and Central America in response to the 1979 revolutionary victories in Nicaragua and Grenada and sharpening class battles in El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere in the region. Part of the political propaganda of the administration of U.S. President James Carter was the claim that Havana prevented Cubans from leaving the island. The revolutionary government called Washington’s bluff, opening the port of Mariel to private boats coming from the United States to pick up anyone who wanted to emigrate. More than 100,000 did before the U.S. government demanded that the Cuban government halt the operation.
In celebration of the release of René González, and in tribute to each and every one of the Five, below are major excerpts from the hourlong interview. The translation from Spanish is by the Militant.
EDMUNDO GARCÍA: Today’s program is one we’ve been looking forward to all week. My guest is Rodolfo Rodríguez. He’s 55 years old and everyone calls him Roddy.
Roddy, you came to the U.S. from Mariel.
RODOLFO RODRÍGUEZ: That’s right. My odyssey in the United States began in 1980.
GARCÍA: Roddy was in the same prison with the Cuban anti-terrorist fighter and Hero of the Republic of Cuba, René González. For several years, between 2004 and René’s release in 2011, Roddy got to know René, and this left an imprint on his life.
How did you meet René?
RODRÍGUEZ: I arrived at the Marianna prison in 2002. In 2004 a hurricane destroyed the place and the National Guard took us out. After two months, I was part of the first group that went back. The next day a group was brought in from another prison, and René González was among them.
I was introduced to him by a fellow Cuban who said, “Hey, man, let me introduce you to the spy.” Everyone there called them “spies” — that’s the way it was and they accepted that. It’s what they were accused of, even though they were never involved in espionage.
That’s how I met René, and I can truly tell you it has been one of the friendships that changed my life the most.
I was raised in a home where there was a lot of hostility toward the government of our country. Today I thank God that my thinking is completely different.
I believe in God, and in prison I was seen as the one who brought in religion. I have to tell you that so you’ll understand what follows.
When I first met René, right off the bat I told him that I believe in God. I expected René to take me on, to start arguing with me.
What happened? He replied, “That’s great. I don’t. But I believe that a true Christian will want the best for humanity, and if my friendship with you helps you become a better Christian, I’ll feel very happy.” That had a tremendous impact on me.
So that’s how our friendship began. We lived two cells apart. We weren’t cellmates because we each had too many things — especially books — to fit in the same cell. We would see each other whenever the doors were opened, except when René went running. It wasn’t easy to keep up with him — he ran a lot.
It was my relationship with René that began changing the way I thought. I began to see things for myself, and eventually I was convinced.
In prison I met people from different countries — out of respect, I don’t want to mention which ones — and it pained me to notice that some couldn’t read or write. Then I thought about the Cuban people — even those who are here — and I told myself: “Wow, there’s not a single one who doesn’t know how to read! I come from a country that’s been blessed.”
Now I understand all the positive sides of Cuba that I didn’t see before. And all that I began to understand thanks to René.
René is a man of principles, like all of the Five. He would tell me, “Principles have no price, because whoever has them won’t sell them, and whoever sells himself doesn’t have principles.” I believe their principles have helped make them popular and respected in the prisons they’ve been in.
I’ll never forget the time René got me a book of Bible stories from the library. He asked me, “Would you like to read this book together?” It was in English — I can read English but he reads it well — and he began to translate it into Spanish. We read the whole book — the story of Abraham, everything.
Things like that made me realize René was not some fanatic, that he was true to his principles. He lives up to what he says. You can tell him what you think, without upsetting him. He respects your ideas. “You have the right to say what you think,” he’d always say. “Just as I have the right to think as I do.”
GARCÍA: Did other prisoners have the same respect for him?
RODRÍGUEZ: I think everyone did. I’ll never forget this young Black guy, his cellmate, who composed a rap song with a political theme about the U.S. and sang it for everyone in the yard where we held events on special occasions like July 4 or Christmas Eve. I can’t tell you exactly what his political ideas were, but I think perhaps he was inspired by his relationship with René, by coming to understand the cause of the Five. Many people didn’t know what was happening around the Five and when they learned they were surprised. We even had a T-shirt made with the symbol of the Five and the star from the Cuban flag.
GARCÍA: What did you do on a typical day in those years?
RODRÍGUEZ: René ran a lot, as I said. And when he wasn’t running he was reading. You could see the solidarity he got from around the world by the mail he received. It was a moment we all looked forward to every day — seeing tons of letters come in, and all to one address, René’s: from Australia, Russia, China, from all over. Some inmates would say to him, “Listen, save me the stamps.” In fact, I have a lot of them myself.
He would get a lot of letters from Cuba — from people in the churches, even from prison inmates. At a prison in Granma province, some inmates organized a group to support the cause of the Five. It even included two prison officials, a captain and a lieutenant.
GARCÍA: Were some of the Cubans in Marianna hostile to René?
RODRÍGUEZ: You might say they weren’t so much hostile to René as they were to themselves, because they said things in his presence that could hurt, or shock. For example, someone, I don’t remember who, said one day, “My mother went to Havana for cataract surgery and she had to bring her own towel and sheets.”
Well, like Peter in the Bible, who marched forward sword in hand, I always spoke first. “Really,” I said. “And how much did she have to pay for the operation?”
“She had to bring her own sheets. It would have been an outrage if they had charged her,” he replied.
“You’re right,” I said. “When we took my father to the Beraja Medical Institute in Miami for cataract surgery, we didn’t have to take towels or sheets. But they charged him $1,200 for each eye. I don’t know how many boxes of sheets you could buy with that. Would you rather bring sheets or pay $2,400?”
Then they would tell me all kinds of nonsense.
GARCÍA: What would René do in those discussions?
RODRÍGUEZ: He’d laugh. But then he would make a comment I like a lot — and I’ve used it myself in conversations since then. “Look,” he said, “the problem is you base your discussions on things you’ve heard, not on what you’ve seen. Look at reality, look at the entire process, follow it through to the end.
“Just think of this: How does Cuba compare with other countries? Everyone wants to compare Cuba with the North,” he would say.
And it’s true, you can’t make such a comparison. I was in an immigration office and I saw Canadians, Australians, Chinese there — they all wanted to come to the U.S., because that’s where all the money is that was taken from the whole world. I’ve never seen a rafter head south, toward Guatemala. They all want to come here. Their goal isn’t to leave Cuba. It’s to come here.
GARCÍA: Tell us a little about what you and René did in your idle time.
RODRÍGUEZ: There was no idle time. It bothered René when someone would say, “I’m killing time.” He was never killing time. He would sit in a chair with his feet on the bed — I don’t know how he could read like that — and he devoured books. I thought I was a reader. But when I saw the way he read … and I’m talking about tough books, too.
GARCÍA: Did you get to know René’s family?
RODRÍGUEZ: Yes, it was a blessing to meet his family. I met Irma, René’s mother. That woman’s principles are incredible. She inspires those who meet her.
I’ve met all of the family except [René’s wife] Olguita, although she and I corresponded a lot by email when I was in prison. I still communicate with them, although I’m restricted.
GARCÍA: Let me explain to our listeners: Roddy and René, as former prisoners, aren’t allowed to communicate with each other under the conditions of supervised release they both face. But there’s no problem with Roddy being here to talk with me and our audience.
When the family visited, did you see their love for René?
RODRÍGUEZ: Yes, and it was incredible seeing him with his daughters, Irmita and Ivette. But you’ve touched on something that was a key part of what I call my mental metamorphosis. It wasn’t just because of the family. It was also seeing how all of Cuba supported René’s cause, the cause of the Five. That had a deep impact on me.
GARCÍA: How did the guards treat René?
RODRÍGUEZ: I think everyone respected him. Except for one officer we called the “pain in the butt,” but he was like that with pretty much everyone.
I’ll tell you a story. I can tell it now because the person involved is no longer there. Among the prison officers there was a lieutenant, a Black man, who came to our table in the lunchroom. In front of everyone, the guard shook René’s hand and said, “We support your cause.” I think in private life he was a Muslim. But in uniform, in front of everyone, he came and shook René’s hand.
GARCÍA: What did René tell you he wanted to do when he returned to Cuba?
RODRÍGUEZ: Well, one thing we agreed is that he and I are going to climb Mount Turquino [Cuba’s highest peak]. Together with Olguita and Sandra, my wife. Sandra hasn’t been to Cuba — she left when she was five and hasn’t been back. But we’re making plans, and she has her Cuban passport.
GARCÍA: You haven’t returned to Cuba either, Roddy.
RODRÍGUEZ: Unfortunately not. But eventually I will, and when I get there I won’t leave again.
GARCÍA: Did René ever seem sad or depressed?
RODRÍGUEZ: No, never. Angry, yes — on rare occasions, because he doesn’t easily get mad. He said he’d never give those people the privilege of seeing him get upset or whine.
From what I’ve seen of their letters, I’m sure each of the Five shares that principle. There is a total fraternity among them. There is a saying that “doing is the best way of saying,” and the Five truly live according to what they advocate.
GARCÍA: Were other non-Cubans interested in the issue René was involved in?
RODRÍGUEZ: Some. Many people would sit down with him and he’d talk with them.
Many inmates often came to René for help. He was always ready to translate something to English, help fill out legal forms, or get something from the library.
GARCÍA: At a certain point, before René was released on parole, you were transferred to another prison.
RODRÍGUEZ: That’s right. Saying good-bye was a big moment. I have many brothers in the church — today I’m an Evangelical teacher, and soon I’ll be ordained as a minister — and I love them very much, and there are many people I’ve learned from. But for me one of the greatest experiences in my life was getting to know René. I’ve said this to my family, to my wife, to my parents, who, incidentally, no longer think as they once did. They began to understand reality, because the truth is too big to hide.
GARCÍA: René is listening to this program. Do you have a message you want him to hear?
RODRÍGUEZ: I just want him to know that I’m still the same person. He’s in my prayers. And I thank him for having been my friend.
‘A little more free, we continue to be the Five’
‘Free the Cuban Five’ Rally at the White House,
Saturday, June 1, 1 p.m.
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