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Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada

Forbidden Heroes

Remember Elian?

The case of Elian González, a six year-old boy forcefully retained by his unknown great-uncles against the will of his father and in clear defiance of US law and decency was widely reported by media around the world. Miami, the place of the kidnapping, became a kind of secessionist city in North America when the Mayor, the chief of police, the politicians, every newspaper and local radio and TV broadcasters, together with religious and business institutions, joined with some of the most notorious terrorist and violent groups in opposing the courts’ and government’s orders to free the boy.

It was necessary for a Special Forces team sent from Washington DC to launch a surreptitious and swift operation to occupy several houses, disarm the heavily armed individuals hidden there and in the neighborhood to save the child and restore law.

Everybody followed that story. Day in and day out.

But practically nobody knew that, at the very same time, in exactly the same place —Miami— five other young Cubans were arbitrarily deprived of their freedom and subjected to a gross miscarriage of justice.

Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González were detained in the early hours of Saturday September 12th, 1998, and locked for the next 17 months in punishment cells, in solitary confinement. The main accusation against them —as recognized by the prosecutors and the judge from their indictment to the last day of the trial— was that they had peacefully, with no weapons, penetrated anti-Cuban terrorist groups with a view of reporting back to Cuba about their criminal plans.

Was it conceivable to have a fair trial in Miami for any Cuban revolutionary facing such an accusation? Could that happen while the kidnapping of Elian was going on with its surrounding atmosphere of violence, hatred and fear?

According to the prosecution it was perfectly possible. In their words Miami was “a very large, diverse, heterogeneous community” capable of handling any sensitive issue, even those involving the Cuban Revolution. The prosecutros repeated that line when rejecting the more than ten motions presented by the defense lawyers requesting a change of venue before the start of the trial.

The same government that was obligated to deal with Miami as a sort of rebel city and to secretly send there its forces to restore legality, lied repeatedly about the venue issue, denying the defendants a right so cherished by Americans, and refused to move the proceedings to the neighbouring city of Fort Lauderdale, half an hour away from Miami.

Ironically, a few years later, in 2002, when the government was the object of a civilian complaint of an administrative nature, of far lesser significance—later resolved by an out of Court settlement—and only indirectly related to the Elian case, they asked for a change of venue to Fort Lauderdale, affirming that “anything related to Cuba” was impossible to get a fair trial in Miami. [1]

Such a flagrant contradiction, a clear proof of prosecutorial misconduct, of real prevarication, was one of the main factors leading to the unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals panel, in 2005, to vacate the convictions of the Five and order a new trial [2]. That historic decision was later reversed by the majority of the entire Court under pressure from Attorney General Alberto González in an action that went contrary to the normal US legal practice. Mr. González’s successful move, a manifestation of his peculiar legal philosophy, foreclosed the possibility of a just resolution of this case in a manner that would have honoured the United States.

The panel decision, an exceptionally sound and solid 93 pages document, including irrefutable facts about the half century old terrorist war against Cuba, remains an outstanding moment in the best American tradition and will continue to be a text to be analyzed with respect by scholars and law school students.

But that’s another chapter in the long saga of the Cuban Five.

Elian Elian González now is about to finish High School and continues to attract the attention of foreign media and visitors who keep going to Cárdenas, the beautiful town where he lives. When travelling towards Elian’s home they will be surprised by billboards demanding freedom for five youngsters they never heard off before.

In Leonard Weinglass’ words:

“The trial was kept secret by the American media. It is inconceivable that the longest trial in the United States at the time it was taking place was only covered by the local Miami press, particularly where generals and an admiral as well as a White House advisor were all called to testify for the defense. Where was the American media for six months? Not only was this the longest trial, but it was the one case involving mayor issues of foreign policy and international terrorism. The question should be directed to the American media, which continues to refuse to cover a case with such gross violations of fundamental rights, and even violations of human rights of prisoner” [3].

Elian was saved because Americans knew about his case and got involved and made justice prevail. The Five are still incarcerated—it will be 11 years next September—victims of a terrible injustice, because Americans are not permitted to know.

The Five are cruelly punished because they fought against terrorism. They are heroes. But forbidden heroes.

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Justice in Wonderland

Having been defeated on the issue of venue the outcome of the Cuban Five’s trial was predetermined. It will go strictly in accordance with the Queen’s prophecy.

The American media played a very important two-pronged role. Outside Miami it was, and it continues to be, how Attorney Leonard Weinglass so aptly described contrasting sharply with their role within Dade County, both offering an impressive show of discipline.

The local media not only intensively covered the case, but intervened actively in it, as if they were part of the prosecution. The Five were condemned by the media even before they were indicted.

Very early in the morning on Saturday September 12th 1998, each media outlet in Miami was talking breathlessly about the capture of some “terrible” Cuban agents “bent to destroy the United States” (the phrase that prosecutors love so much and will repeat time and again during the entire process). “Spies among us” was the headline that morning. At the same time, by the way, the Miami FBI chief was meeting with Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ross Lehtinen, representatives of the old Batista gang in federal Congress.

An unprecedented propaganda campaign was launched against five individuals who could not defend themselves, due to the fact that they were completely isolated from the outside world, day and night, for a year and a half, in what is accurately described in prison jargon as the “hole”.

A media circus has surrounded the Five since they were detained all the way until now. But only in Miami. Elsewhere in the United States the ordeal of the Five has only gotten silence. The rest of the country does not know much about this case and is kept in the dark, as if everybody accepted that Miami —that “very diverse, extremely heterogeneous community” as described by the D.A.— belongs to another planet.

That might have been a reasonable proposition, if it were not for some rather embarrassing facts recently discovered. Some of the media people involved in the Miami campaign—“journalists” and others—were paid by the US government, were in its payroll as employees of the radio and TV anti-Cuban propaganda machine that has cost many hundreds of millions of US tax payer’s dollars.

Without knowing it, Americans were forced to be very generous, indeed. There is a long list of “journalists” from Miami who covered the entire trial of the Five and, at the same time, were receiving juicy federal checks [4].

The Court of Appeals decision in 2005 provides also a good summary of the propaganda campaign before and during the trial. That was one of the reasons leading the panel “to vacate the convictions and order a new trial”. Miami was not a place to have even the appearance of justice. As the judges said “the evidence submitted in support of the motions for change of venue was massive”. [5].

Let’s clarify something. Here we are not talking about journalists in the sense Americans outside Miami may be thinking of. We are referring to Miami “journalists," something quite different.

Their role was not to report the news, but to create a climate guaranteeing conviction. They even called for public demonstrations outside the office of the defense counsel and harassed prospective jurors during the pretrial phase. The Court itself expressed concern about the “tremendous amount of requests for the voir questions in advance of their been asked, apparently destined to inform their listeners, including members of the venire, of the questions prior to the time they are posed to them by the Court”.

We are talking about a bunch of individuals who harassed the jurors, following them, with cameras, through the streets, filming their car licenses and showing them on TV, tracking them inside the Court building, down to the jury room’s door, during the entire seven months trial proceedings, all the way to the last day.

Judge Leonard more than once protested and begged the government to stop such a deplorable masquerade. She did that at the very beginning of the trial, on several occasions thereafter and until the very end. To no avail. [6].

The government was not interested in having a fair trial. During the jury selection process, the prosecution was very keen to exclude the majority of African American prospective jurors. It also excluded the three individuals who didn’t manifest strong anti-Castro sentiments.

By that time Elian González has been rescued but he was very much in the minds of the jurors. As one of them said during voir dire: “I would be concerned about the reaction that might take place … I don’t want rioting and stuff like that to happen like what happened in the Elian case”. Or in the words of another: “I would be a nervous wreck if you wanted to know the truth … I would have actual fear for my own safety if I didn’t come back with a verdict that was in agreement with the Cuban community”.

In that ambience of fear begun the longest trial at the moment in American history. And the one that the big media “chose” to ignore.

[1] Ramírez vs. Ashcroft, 01-4835 Civ-Huck, June 25, 2002.

[2] Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 01-17176, 03-11087.

[3] « Legal Process, an overview analysis of the trial », Antiterroristas.Cu, September 12, 2003.

[4] For more on the “work” of these journalist see: FreeTheFive.Org.

[5] Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 01-17176, 03-11087.

[6] Official transcripts of the trial, p. 22, 23, 111, 112, 625, 14644-14646.