The five Cuban revolutionaries who spent years in Washington’s prisons for their actions in defense of the Cuban Revolution have been speaking to audiences across the island almost daily since Dec. 17. On that day, three of them — Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero — returned home to a hero’s welcome after more than 16 years behind bars. They joined Fernando González and René González, who had been released earlier after serving their entire sentences.
One of the many events they have taken part in was a Feb. 19 meeting at Havana’s main engineering and science university, known as CUJAE. There Tony, René, and Fernando held a lively exchange with 300 youth and professors.
The meeting, which took place during the Havana International Book Fair, was a presentation of Absolved by Solidarity , published by U.S.-based Pathfinder Press. The book reproduces a set of 16 watercolors that Guerrero painted last year while still in the federal prison in Marianna, Florida. The paintings depict Washington’s political frame-up trial against them, in which they received prison sentences of up to a double life term without parole.
Also on the speakers platform were Mary-Alice Waters, editor of Absolved by Solidarity; CUJAE rector Alicia Alonso; and professor Julián Gutiérrez, who organized the meeting — the culmination of years of regular monthly campus events campaigning to win the release of the Cuban Five.
Guerrero spoke after Waters described the book and how it is being used in the United States and around the world. Then he and his two comrades-in-arms answered questions. The lively exchange lasted two hours. The March 9 Militant published an article on the event along with Waters’ presentation.
Below are excerpts of the remarks by Tony, René, and Fernando.
From opening remarks by Antonio GuerreroIt’s an honor to be here and to see the youth, the professors, the workers. During the question and answer period it will be Fernando and René’s turn to speak.
First, we want to thank the compañeros from Pathfinder, who day in and day out, under conditions you can’t even imagine, are defending socialism within the United States. We had the honor to get to know these compañeros during our years in prison, from the time our situation became known in 2001 and we were able to communicate.
For us Cubans it’s easy to conclude that socialism is the only road possible to make this a better world. Only in a society with a different kind of mentality — like the one we’ve built here with so much sacrifice — can we expect the world to survive the conditions we’re living through, as Fidel has alerted us more than once. In the United States it’s difficult to raise consciousness about this. It’s easier here in Cuba because of our history, because of the revolution and the greatness of this endeavor, which of course isn’t perfect. We have many things to learn, to correct, to change — but to change within our own conditions, within our own ideals.
When I met these compañeros in person a few days ago, it felt like I had known them for many years. They supported us from the very beginning. They kept sending us magazines, books, and newspapers, in both English and Spanish. This helped us establish many relations with people inside the prisons. We began to win the admiration of other prisoners because of the support we were receiving from the outside. We passed around the books they sent us, and other prisoners would say, “This is very interesting.”
Thanks to the education we received in our country, we were able to sit down and have frank discussions with anyone about any subject. Often I would be asked, “What’s communism, what’s socialism?” That’s easy for us to explain. But we also had an important weapon — these books. They also sent us a newspaper called the Militant that is published in both languages. Other prisoners would get interested in reading it too.
We began to do some projects together with these compañeros. They were interested in portraying the human side of the Five, as an important way to condemn the injustice against us. One of the biggest projects we worked on was the previous book with 15 watercolors.…
These compañeros — there’s not a lot of them, they’re unassuming, but they’re bold in how they use their resources. They took exhibits of the watercolors to places you wouldn’t imagine. And so we received letters from students, youth, children from across the United States. I remember that when the Militant arrived every week, it would publish the list of exhibits. It said: “I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived” will be shown in this city, this city, that city. The next week it said: now it will be shown here, here, and there.
From New Zealand, high school students sent me wonderful letters and photos. That too was the result of their work.
These exhibits of the watercolors about the “hole” became a very effective weapon. The graphic images attract you, they stay in your mind. And there was an explanation underneath each image.
So after they did an exhibit in Miami, I decided to paint a new set of watercolors. Time was short. Presenting the subject of the trial was more complex. But by Sept. 12, 2014, they already had in their hands each of the 16 watercolors, “Absolved by Solidarity.” They were exhibited in Washington, D.C.
The compañeros from Pathfinder wrote me a letter and sent me a mock-up for a new book with these watercolors. They had planned to publish it by Jan. 1. It was already announced in the Militant newspaper. And then, suddenly on Dec. 17, the three of us were back here.
We had been here for a little more than two months, and we were in one event after another — I didn’t even have time to ask myself what had happened with the book of watercolors. Then a few weeks ago, a compañero from the foreign ministry calls and tells me, “I have something for you that was brought by our U.N. ambassador. It was sent by the compañeros of Pathfinder.” It was this book.
Well, I don’t know how to describe how moved I was. During that brief period of time they had updated the book. You can see its quality, with photos of our return and items written by my brothers. All of it sheds light on the meaning of the title, which is Absolved by Solidarity — the solidarity, the victory won thanks to the jury of millions.
The battle doesn’t end here. No battle waged by revolutionaries ends with something you once did. What you did is in the past. Are you going to live off what you did? No, you have to live from what you do each day.
Every day you have to think about the tasks, the duty we face. About your future — the future of the revolution. Your future is not just about studying and taking exams and telling people, “Look, here’s my engineering diploma.” It’s about what that diploma represents. It’s about what you have today.
When I was a student like you, I always used to say, “I studied in the Soviet Union.” I would say, “Everything I have I owe to the revolution.” And I think I’ve never been wrong about thinking that way.
Times have changed. Some people in our country have started to think first and foremost about themselves. I’m not talking about you, but rather in a general sense. Selfishness has begun to reappear. I’ll just tell you one thing. The less selfish you are, the happier you will be. And you will be better revolutionaries, better men and women. [Applause]
From question-and-answer periodQUESTION: Could you explain how by being less selfish we’ll be happier?
TONY: When we speak of selflessness, the first person I think of is Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.1 I think of people who could have had everything and gave it up — even their lives — for something more valuable than material things. This is something you have to internalize. When they arrested us, I thought a lot about [Cuban national hero José] Martí and about Che [Guevara]. Everyone knows Martí could have been whatever he wanted. Che too — he was a doctor, right? So you begin to nourish yourself on these things.
The only way to be preparedWhy were we happy while we were in prison? Well, every morning when you get up, it’s a critical moment in your life, a new opportunity. But sometimes it’s more than critical — it’s a moment when you define who you are. The more you try to take the right path each time you get up, the more you stand on your own two feet with clear ideas, the more likely it is that when the decisive moment comes you’ll be prepared.
The only way to be prepared is to have internalized this freedom, these examples, this selflessness. It has to go beyond slogans or something you’ve read. It’s something inside you. And it allows you at night to rest your head on your pillow and sleep with a tremendous peace of mind.
Let’s take, for example, the situation in which we found ourselves when we were arrested in 1998. They put some guy in front of you asking you to admit to something you didn’t do. He tells you that if you go over to his side, you can get back all the material things you had, you’ll go back to your normal life.
The alternative is that things are going to get real tough. The guy tells you, “Look, we’re going to give you such a long sentence that you’re going to die in prison.”
So you have to be prepared for this. You have to have already developed within you an understanding of what you will do at any given moment. Once you passed that test and said no, you begin to realize you’re happier than those around you. People see you and say, “Damn! Why are you laughing all the time? Why are you so happy?”
Some of the prisoners had sold drugs and had money to own the latest car models and other things. They suffered because they missed those things. Some had sentences of five or 10 years — less than us — and they couldn’t endure it. When they were released, they went back to doing the same things over again, a vicious circle. But you have a choice.
Today you might have all those material things, like that nice overcoat. But perhaps tomorrow you won’t have it anymore.
When the Special Period began, Fidel told women here something we won’t forget. He said, “Take care of that nice dress you have now, because it might have to last for a number of years.” That’s what he told people, right?
And there were some who said, “No, I’m going north, I’m going to look for new clothes any way I can.” In exchange for what?
FERNANDO: I’m going to dare to say a few words on this subject. I agree with what Tony said. We human beings evolved out of the animal kingdom and have within us the instinct to fight for subsistence. But we separated from the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re conscious animals, even though the instinct to be selfish remains in us.
Human society has evolved through various economic systems. Capitalism, which today is predominant, is a system that fosters selfishness in all of us.
Socialism, on the other hand, will prevail to the degree it’s able to create a different culture, including the capacity to dedicate yourself to something greater than you as an individual. With all due respect to individuality, the most important thing, as José Martí, said, is to do something for society, for humanity.
We faced a choiceRENÉ : We faced some critical moments, such as the morning of Sept. 12, 1998. Each of us had developed our own way of living. We had our loved ones. We had living conditions that in fact were better than here in Cuba, because we were working in a country that is in the heart of the imperialist world. We each had a car and a house we supposedly owned — although we knew all that was a fallacy. History showed that later, when Olguita lost the house after my arrest. But it’s true we had a comfortable life.
Suddenly, on the morning of Sept. 12 we had to make a choice, as Antonio said. We knew that in one blow they could strip us of everything we possessed. We could have taken the other road. We knew we had to decide whether we’d betray Cuba and do whatever the prosecutor and the FBI wanted.
We chose not to betray Cuba. And from the moment they took us to the Federal Detention Center in Miami, we began to understand we would have to give up everything we had taken for granted up to that moment. All the material goods that you accumulate over years of work — the clothes, your car, the little house you fixed up.
Then came the fight to survive as human beings. The first thing they went after was our dignity — and they did so with all the force they had. Along with our happiness, as we were discussing earlier.
But gradually you realize it’s possible to defend your happiness even under those conditions. That becomes part of your resistance to the blackmail, arrogance, and abuses by the prosecutors.
During the trial there were people who were even more unhappy than us prisoners — the prosecutors. We made the prosecutors the unhappiest of all the people we saw during those seven months.
When they came to court the prosecutors were the butt of jokes by everyone, even the people in whose custody we were. They were objects of ridicule by the translator; the stenographer, Richard, who became our friend; Elizabeth, the judge’s secretary; and others.
For us every day of the trial, which began when we got up at 4:30 a.m., was such a pleasure that when we went to sleep every night, we couldn’t wait to demoralize them more the next day.
The prosecutors had everything. They would get up, I imagine, at 6:30 or 7 a.m. They ate whatever they wanted for breakfast. They drove to court in those 16-cylinder cars of theirs that guzzle half the fuel that CUJAE uses. They put on whatever clothes they wanted — the poor prosecutor had incredibly bad taste, but, well, that was her choice. [Laughter]
They were the most miserable-looking people you ever saw. When I publish my “diary” of the trial with Gerardo’s cartoons, you’ll see what I mean. Those cartoons by Gerardo circulated among the guards who escorted us, among the stenographers, among others who worked in the court.
The point is, you can learn to fight for your own happiness. Happiness is inside ourselves. The further away you seek it, the less you will find it. [Applause]
QUESTION: Where did you get the strength to create art and the other things you did in prison: Antonio’s paintings, Gerardo’s cartoons, all the letters you sent replying to thousands of people around the world?
QUESTION: Other leaders who spent time in prison have played a historic role, like Nelson Mandela and Fidel. We’re counting on you today and in the future as leaders.
QUESTION: What are some of the lessons you learned from your time in the United States?
TONY: To answer the question about how we got the strength to create art in prison. Martí said we must be cultured to be free, we must be educated to be free. When we speak of culture today, we’re speaking of what the revolution brought to our people. How much illiteracy was there in Cuba before the revolution? How many universities were there? Who could even think we would have something like CUJAE if there hadn’t been a revolution?
I was talking with a compañero on the way here, asking about the physical state of the school. I like the hallways, so nice and clean, with all the plants. But I know there are problems here, as there are throughout the country, above all due to the economic battle we’ve been waging since 1990. It’s been very difficult.
And I said to him, Look, the capitalists solve it one way. In the United States they say, “I’ll charge you $30,000 in tuition so you can enroll here. But since you don’t have that money, you’ll have to get a loan from the bank.” They pocket that money, and yes, you’ll have good air conditioning and other things in those universities. That’s their system.
Who gave us what we have here in Cuba? The revolution — the workers, those who cut cane, those who work. We have something different, and you have to understand this before you start complaining or making critical comments about it. Try to go deeper, don’t just stay on the surface. Get to the root of things.
When I spoke at the Lenin high school here, I told students their number one responsibility was to take care of the school and try to make it more attractive, not to criticize everything all the time. To think about how they came to have it, where it came from.
Getting back to the question of what gave us the strength to create art while in prison. It’s rooted in the culture our people gave us, the education we received, free of charge, from the time we were children.
We are product of the revolutionAnyone can write a poem. But to spend 17 months in the hole and 16 years in prison and not create paintings that contain a shred of hatred or bitterness, but rather optimism, love, and freedom — that’s different. That’s a product of the way we were educated as revolutionaries. It’s something we were able to achieve thanks to the revolution. When you find yourself behind bars, all that education and preparation helps you create.
FERNANDO: For us creativity was a form of freedom. Remember, none of us are professional artists. It came from the ability to resist, as Tony did with his paintings and his poems. As Gerardo did with his cartoons. As Ramón did with his poetry and René with his writings. Everyone in his own way. That spirit of resistance was rooted in the culture that Tony explained.
TONY: A compañero here spoke about our place in history. My friend, let’s not start telling a lot of stories about historical roles. Just think about Che: did he do that? It’s not about what someone did. It’s about what you will do. Everyone is important here. Don’t let anyone come here trying to be the indispensable one, the hero of the movie, OK?
That’s how we see it. We even made a pact among the five of us, a commitment among brothers, that if tomorrow we see one of us with a swelled head — which won’t happen — we’ll tell him, “Listen, you don’t seem like the person I knew.” We would discuss it, because that’s what you do among compañeros.
My point is, the tasks ahead are for everyone, not just of three or four people. The ones to blame for putting us in the spotlight are those who put us in jail. That’s where the great struggle and solidarity came from.
Everything that happened is not about us as individuals — it’s the Cuban people, who we represent. The standing we gained represents the resistance of our people. OK, it was us who this happened to. But it could just as well have happened to other compañeros we had over there.
We’re going to work togetherAnd that’s over. Now people are going to ask: So, when are you going to start working? What are your responsibilities? Are you working well?
We’re not going to be coming back here 37 more times to talk about the same things. My job can’t be to come here every day and give you a teque.2 Right now I have responsibilities to shoulder, and so do René and Fernando. We’re going to work like everyone else, and work together. [Applause]
On the question about lessons I learned in the U.S. After I was arrested, the FBI went looking for people who would testify against me. They couldn’t get a single person from Key West, where I lived. They went to see people at my job. They tried to pressure my companion Maggie — they made her go to the FBI office endless times. They searched and searched but found no one.
Just the opposite. I had a list of about 20 people I knew, and some of them testified in my favor. There were people who wrote to me from the first day. A woman in Key West, the one who gave me my first job, sent me a postcard every week.
When I was returning to Cuba I told them [U.S. officials], “You’re taking away my U.S. citizenship because Obama made that a condition for my release. But you can’t take away the affection toward the American people that I developed.” Like Martí, I could say that I got to know the monster because I lived inside its belly. But it’s not the people of the United States who are the monster.
RENÉ : If I learned something in the United States, it’s that all human beings have much more in common than what keeps us apart. U.S. society has completely different foundations from ours; its history has its consequences, just like ours has. But when you get to know someone there, person to person, the differences tend to dissolve. What separates us is this apparatus, refined over thousands of years as a class necessity. It pits us against each other, whether by raising the banners of religion, race, or political divisions.
I don’t know whether the role that we’re going to play in Cuba will be a historic one. Those things are for history to decide. As Antonio said so well, our history is now in the past. We are five Cubans like any of you. We will take a place in the trenches. And, like all of you, we will be judged by the work we do.
Under today’s conditions, dangers are going to arise and we have to be vigilant. They will try to corrupt us and buy us off. They will try to take advantage of the problems we have. They will come in through the cracks they can open among us. They will try to create a class in Cuba — the class that fortunately we were able to kick out in 1959. They’re going to try to create it here again. They’re already talking about starting to encourage certain sectors of the Cuban economy and society with that in mind.
That means there will be work to do, and all of us will have to join in. I would say victory will be shaped more by you than by us. You are the ones who are starting your life’s work under these new circumstances.
We will join in the work posed by these circumstances to the best of our ability. All we can aspire to is that, through our work, we will be able to live up to the standing that this episode has given us in your eyes.
As for history, I’ll be happy if, when I die, my daughters are proud of me. And if any of you say I did something well, then I will have surpassed my goal. [Applause]