The following talk was presented Feb. 18 at an event of 150 people during the Havana International Book Fair launching three books on the Cuban Five, the Cuban Revolution and the U.S. working class. Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
Before anything else, on behalf of Pathfinder I want to thank the Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Nuevo Milenio, and Editorial José Martí for the publication of these excellent Cuban editions of two Pathfinder titles — Voces desde la cárcel: Los Cinco Cubanos [Voices From Prison: The Cuban Five] and the bilingual edition of Antonio Guerrero’s fifteen watercolors, I will die the way I’ve lived/Yo me muero como viví.
Nancy Hernández, director of Editorial José Martí, and Juan Ramón Rodríguez, editor of this beautiful presentation of Antonio’s paintings, are here with us today, as are Juan Carlos Santana, director of Nuevo Milenio, and Javier Bertrán, who prepared this edition of Voces desde la cárcel.
You will be hearing more about both these publications this afternoon.
I want to express special appreciation to the compañeras and compañeros of ICAP [Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples], starting with Kenia [Serrano] and Fernando [González]; our chairperson Sandra [Ramírez], director of ICAP’s North America department; and Rafaela Valerino, who volunteered her expert editorial skills to work with us in preparing The Cuban Five Talk About Their Lives Within the US Working Class.
All three books were born as weapons in the fight for the freedom of our comrades known around the world as the Cuban Five. None of them would have been possible without the collaboration we received from ICAP.
It is a privilege to have such an outstanding panel here today, especially the presence of compañero [Ricardo] Alarcón, whose tireless efforts on behalf of the Five are known to us all, as well as Jorge Hernández from the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of Hemispheric Affairs and the United States, and compañero José Angel Maury, speaking for the National Bureau of the UJC [Union of Young Communists].
And that’s not to mention the honor of Ramón’s [Labañino] and Tony’s [Guerrero] participation, and the presence of Gerardo [Hernández], Fernando, René [González], and many of their family members.
All I can add is please don’t be frightened by the number of occupied seats you see on the platform today. Like you, we all want to hear from Ramón and Tony above all, and the rest of us have promised Sandra we will speak briefly.
The Cuban Five Talk About Their Lives Within the US Working Class, Pathfinder’s newest book, grows out of the victory that was registered on December 17, 2014. Even if it feels like years have passed since that day, it was only fourteen short months ago that Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio heard the prison doors close behind them for the last time.
But the account given by the Five in the pages of this book could not have been known until every one of them was free.
It is also a fact that had we waited longer than last August to sit down together to talk with all five comrades about their lives as part of the US working class, the richness of those years of experience may never have been recorded. At least the vividness of their memories, of the things they wanted all of us to know about, would have faded.
We’ve been asked several times, who is the author of this book? The answer, quite simply, is “The Cuban Five” themselves. This is their story. And I can assure everyone, you will be surprised by many of the things you will learn in these pages.
Not the least important part of the book is the more than forty photographs, many of them provided by Gerardo, Ramón, and one of René’s prison mates. Countless readers have expressed their amazement at what the photos reveal. You will see Gerardo, Ramón, and René with their fellow prisoners in various activities — from a game of handball, to Gerardo speaking about the historical links between Cuba and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo celebration organized by some of his Mexican brothers.
And I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity to beg Tony and Fernando — René has already complied — to somehow find the time to search their boxes in storage for similar photos of their years in prison, so we can incorporate them in the next printing.
The first response to the book’s title from a number of readers, in both the US and Cuba, has been to think, and sometimes ask, “How can you say the Cuban Five were part of the US working class? They were prisoners.”
The title is not meant to be provocative. But it highlights something about the social relations of capitalism in the United States that many both there and around the world are unaware of. The US is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yes, the highest on earth.
Five percent of the adult male population in the US — and 17 percent of adult males who are Black — are currently in prison, or have been at some time in their lives. We’re talking about millions and millions of human beings.
One of the useful things you will find in the book is a table that summarizes these and a few other facts about class “justice” in the US.
But in US government statistics you won’t find the 2.2 million men and women behind bars today accounted for as part of the labor force. Prisoners are not included in the ranks of the unemployed, nor are they counted as employed — even though federal prisoners are obliged to work, and many are “employed,” earning as little as 23 cents an hour, in the prison factories the five comrades talk about in the interview.
One of the photos in The Cuban Five Talk About Their Lives Within the US Working Class is of Gerardo with the Federal Prisons Industries (UNICOR) factory behind him.
That brings me to the second point I want to emphasize about the account given us by our five compañeros: the respect and solidarity they extended to their fellow inmates, and the respect and solidarity they earned in return. I think it is summed up well in the words of Ramón that are highlighted on the book’s cover: “It’s the poor who face the savagery of the US ‘justice’ system.”
This is not what anyone would call a “prison” book. It doesn’t look backward. It doesn’t look inward. It doesn’t dwell on the hardships of incarceration or the indignities and violence that mark prison life. It’s a book about the class struggle in the US. It is a powerful indictment of capitalism and the way it uses its prison system to protect its class interests, the way it grinds up human beings.
I just mentioned how prisoners disappear in Washington’s statistics on unemployed workers — and the many millions more who are underemployed. But we should always remind ourselves that the government’s lying manipulation of figures is really something best thought of as petty larceny. The capital crime is to society. It’s the absolute waste of humanity’s productive possibilities — another horrendous product of the property relations of the system Fidel rightly calls “dog eat dog.”
There is no romanticism in this book about prison life. Gerardo describes it as a microcosm of the capitalist society that has spawned those institutions of retribution and punishment. A system that cannot be reformed. But what we see through the eyes of our five comrades is not a suffering class. The portrait is one of resilience and working-class solidarity. We see a resisting class.
It’s a portrait drawn without an ounce of exaggeration. It is one that millions of US working people will identify with immediately. They will see themselves, their families and loved ones, their friends, neighbors, and workmates as part of the world our five comrades portray with objectivity, insight, and humor. They will understand that world better after reading this book.
It is René who sums up one of the facts that will come as a surprise to many of you here when he says, “All of us were able to do our time without any problems from officers or other prisoners.” And that is a tribute above all to the class solidarity each of the Five extended to those with whom they shared so many years of their lives.
That brings me to my third and final point.
On September 12, 1998, our compañeros were brutally and without notice forced into the ranks of this section of the US working class behind bars. What was it that prepared them to act with such dignity and resist with such steadfastness for the next sixteen years?
There is no better way to explain it than in Tony’s words during an exchange with students last year at CUJAE [the main engineering and science university in Havana]. It is one of the pieces included in the new book.
“Anyone can write a poem,” Antonio told the students. “To spend seventeen months in the hole, however, and sixteen years in prison and create paintings that don’t contain a shred of hatred …that’s a product of the way we were educated as revolutionaries. It’s something we were able to achieve thanks to the revolution.”
What equipped our comrades for that day in September was the Cuban Revolution itself — the dignity learned from our people, as Tony wrote. What prepared them was the education and values (the proletarian internationalist education and values, I would say) that they internalized as young people growing up in Cuba.
The prisons of the ruling classes are not unknown territory for working people fighting to defend our interests. There is ample proof of that throughout history, including the history of the Cuban people. How revolutionists, communists, conduct themselves in prison, however, is each time a test anew. And our five brothers have given us an example worthy of study and emulation by current and future generations.
In Cuba, “it’s normal for people to help each other, to cooperate with each other,” Ramón says. “It’s not a question of a ‘good policy.’ It’s simply a fact.” It’s the consequence of a revolution that overturned the cutthroat economic and social order of capitalism, and of a leadership that for decades has maintained that trajectory against all odds.
That is what Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando, and René brought with them into their lives within the US working class. And it is why this is as much a book about Cuba’s victorious socialist revolution as it is about the class struggle in the United States.
When our comrades were first imprisoned, there were many around the world who feared for their safety on the grounds that they were being thrown in with what the ruling class calls “common criminals.” The US judicial system does not recognize a category others call “political prisoners.”
As you will read in these pages, that fear turned out to be unfounded. To the contrary, the fact that our comrades served their time among ordinary working-class people turned out to be a salvation, a source of strength and protection for them. It multiplied many times over the power of the example they set and its reach in the US working class.
Our five comrades have written a new chapter in the history of intertwined revolutionary struggle in our two countries, a new chapter in the open book we know as “Cuba and the Coming American Revolution.” For that we will long be able to thank them.
I will end by bringing you a very special greeting from yet another Hero of the Republic of Cuba, José Ramón Fernández [who led the principal column that defeated the U.S.-organized invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961], Compañero Fernández, who is unable to be with us here today due to commitments related to his work, asked me to transmit the following message to this gathering:
Dear Friend Mary-Alice,
When you present the book, please ask the Five to excuse me for not being there. I stood shoulder to shoulder with them and their families during the entire period of their imprisonment. I have great respect and admiration for their firmness, for the stoicism with which they served their sentences, all the while knowing how unjust those sentences were.
I also ask that, during the presentation, you convey to them my fraternal embrace for their patriotism.
I’m sure that all of us here today can add our voices to that message of respect and admiration from one of the great soldiers and historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution.
Class struggle in US and the Cuban Revolution today are focus of new books on the Cuban Five
Students in Matanzas, Cuba, eager to learn about class politics in US
US capitalist ‘justice’ …some facts
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