By Yosbel Bullaín Viltres and Yuliat Danay Acosta on July 26, 2015
Peace is vitally important to Gerardo Hérnandez. Anyone who’s been deprived of natural light and contact with their loved ones as a result of risking their life to defend the lives of others is uniquely positioned to recognize the value of a safe, peaceful environment. This Sunday, Gerardo will have a second chance to experience something as though for the very first time. After more than 16 years of imprisonment, he will once again be able to celebrate with his loved ones the commemoration of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution’s final triumphant struggle: July 26. But his memories remain intact, like a photo album in chronological order. Personal experience is impossible to erase.
Gerardo took this opportunity to speak to Cubadebate, in the name of the Cuban Five, about his motivations for defending his ideas, the personally symbolic ways the Five celebrated the Cuban Revolution’s historic dates from afar, and about how those who live in the United States are subjected to manipulated media reports directed against Cuba on such occasions.…
“In addition to the regular punishment that imprisonment implies, we had certain additional punishments, and one of them was that if we felt like watching television at any given moment, we had to suffer through the same propaganda that everyone in the United States suffers. For example, on May 20, Univision made a point of broadcasting its congratulations to Cuba on its Independence Day! And sometimes prisoners would hear that and turn around and say to me, ‘Hey Cuba, congratulations!’ And I’d say to them, ‘Don’t congratulate me today; I’m not celebrating yet!’ ‘But why?’ And then I’d have to explain: ‘January 1st is the day you should congratulate me!’ These were prime opportunities for giving them a history lesson, because they were congratulating me in good faith. It happened constantly: “Congratulations Cuba! Congratulations!”
On July 26, of course, the vast majority of the television channels never so much as mentioned the date, although at times on some of the English channels something appeared, especially if there was a very large rally in Cuba. They would refer to the date and explain a little, in very broad strokes. And I always put on my little Cuban flag, which I still have, because I was able to recover it [later]. Although quite often I wore it anyway, for our own important national dates and celebrations. Whenever I wore it, people would notice and say to me, ‘Hey Cuba, you’re all dressed up today!’ ‘No,’ I’d explain, ‘[it’s because] today’s an important day.’ And so that was how it was on January 1st, on Fidel’s birthday, on July 26…our significant dates… This was our way of commemorating them, because there was no way to do anything else. Nevertheless, these dates certainly served to educate many people about these kinds of questions, because when they would see ‘Congratulations to Cuba on its Independence Day,’ everyone thought that for Cuba that meant May 20, because they have no knowledge of the political background behind this disinformation.
“For a long time, that’s how it was with July 26th, until after a while, as the years passed, people who’d spent a long time with you already knew. And well, it goes without saying that the same thing happened with the case of the Five. We always used our case as an example when we spoke with the other prisoners. There was also the fact that the media painted pre-revolutionary Cuba as an earthly paradise. I always offered this anecdote: Before my prison sentence, while I was still in the street, I would listen to Miami radio in order to keep tabs on Radio Marti. One day, a woman called in and said: ‘Oh Martha, those communists with their claims…! It’s all a lie, Martha! Because I remember, Martha, we had a yacht and we lived in Miramar and we used to go down and get on the yacht and go out sailing on those lovely Cuban afternoons. And all that about people being taken prisoner and being tortured, all lies, Martha! If you knew someone in the government, they’d get you out, Martha.’ And I’d say to myself, ‘What this woman is saying is incredible!’
“When the other prisoners had come to trust you, they’d ask, ‘Was that how it was [after the Revolution]? Were people sent to firing squads?’ And we had to explain the kinds of things that were found in the police stations [after the Revolution], filled with every kind of torture instrument, things for removing people’s eyeballs. Nobody could conceive of such things, much less Cubans! In a young man’s mind, it’s not easy to comprehend, you need time to process it. And those Bohemia magazines with those pictures, of young people who’d been murdered, tortured and thrown into a pond with a pipe bomb in their chest, and they said they were terrorists; it marked me!
“When you got to the U.S., where they show the pictures of those who were shot in the [post-Revolutionary] firing squads and talk about those executed by Castro, those executed by Che, they would always show a very famous picture of Blanco Rico, who was I believe, chief of police. When he was shot, I remember the guy was wearing a white suit, and Bohemia said that his last words had been:
‘Okay, you boys got this far…keep pushing this revolution…!’ And the guy was a ruthless murderer! So [in the U.S.] they show the clip of his execution, when he falls into a pit, and they show the pictures of those executed in Castro’s firing squads, but they never tell you who that man really was. When they would show documentaries like that, I would tell the young prisoners: Yes, but what they don’t say is who he actually was. And I would start to tell about all the torture devices that were found in the police stations.
“Afterwards, when we received the book from Cuba containing work by various artists – Desde la soledad y la esperanza, there was a part that included those photos from the Bohemia magazines where they showed those same instruments for removing fingernails or eyes, and I’d say: ‘Look here, this is the Cuba that they want you to think was a paradise!’ I think this is something we must insist on, because right now when I speak with my nephews for example, they are unfamiliar with these photos. We need to continue to insist on this, so that people know what really happened here. Although now 1950’s cars, 1950’s architecture, 1950’s music are in fashion, nobody is talking about the other thing that happened here in the 1950’s. We must constantly remind young people of that, because if we don’t, then those who want to portray those years as Cuba’s golden age will have won the battle, and we’ll be very much the worse for it.
“For example, in the place where I went to high school, in the former Police Station #14, I’m sure that many of the young people studying there today have no clear idea of what happened there before, of how many young kids were tortured down in the basement where they now take shop classes. We’ve got to constantly emphasize that, otherwise it’s just another school, just another building, but every place has its history. How many times do we pass by a plaque without anyone paying it the least attention, when on that very street corner, a student might have been shot and killed, yet people pass by as though nothing had ever happened. This happens because we were born into a peaceful country; a country where such crimes don’t happen and we take for granted that this was something normal that happened once upon a time.
“The five of us spent 16 years in the company of young Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, young Americans, listening to their stories. The last cellmate I had was a young man, 24 years old, who was serving a double life sentence, and he would say to me ‘Cuba, what happened is that I grew up in this environment – my dad had to join the gangs in order to support my family and so I grew up seeing that. One day some pickup trucks arrived at my house looking for my dad and he found a place to hide. They took my uncle, and by the next morning he’d been killed, and that divided my family forever, because my grandmother never forgave my father and said that it was his fault my uncle had been killed. But that’s how it is,’ he told me, ‘in that city you go out with your girlfriend and you have to be very careful about it, because if you pass by the wrong place and see someone and they say to you: “I like that girl,” then she is snatched from your hands and you never see her again.’”
“I remember the first time he told me that story, I naively asked him: ‘But can’t you go to the police and register a complaint against those people?’ And after he stopped laughing at my question, he answered, ‘The police work for them.’”
“That’s a case from a Latin American country, but in the United States, it’s no different. I was imprisoned in the maximum security prison closest to Los Angeles. The crème de la crème of the gangs of Los Angeles would end up there, and they would be your cellmates, and you’d hear the stories…They would talk about the 37th street gang, ‘la ganga de la 37,’ the 41st, Los Locos from wherever…if you crossed into the territory of one of these and weren’t from there, you’d get shot.
“They’ve been in that environment ever since they were born. They would say to me, ‘Look, Cuba,’ because sometimes I would start to talk with them and ask myself what factors brought a boy of 24 to a maximum security prison under two life sentences. They would say, ‘Look, the problem is that when you go to elementary school here, you have two options: either you’re in a gang or you’re abused by the gangs, and so it’s preferable to be a gangster than to be abused. And once you enter that world, one day someone puts a gun in your hand and tells you to kill someone who’s right there, and you have to do it because if you don’t, they’ll kill you.’
“When we talk about the achievements of the Revolution, Cuba’s healthcare and education are internationally recognized, but hardly anything is ever mentioned about the tranquility of our everyday life, the safety that we enjoy here, the fact a child can be playing until dawn on a street corner near his home and nothing will happen to him. And that any tourist can go into the worst possible neighborhood and the worst that will happen, the very worst thing, is that they’ll have their gold necklace snatched or a knife pulled on them while they’re robbed. That’s the absolute worst. But in any one of these other countries, a stray bullet could kill anyone in broad daylight. There’ve been so many cases like that!
“In prison, we lived in a micro-world. You went into the dining room and the African-Americans were sitting on one side, certain Hispanics on another, but watch out! Don’t mistakenly sit down at the table that’s not for you, or else you’re looking for trouble. It was that way out in the courtyard as well, and it’s a reflection of the society itself: the blacks in one neighborhood, the whites in another…
“In spite of all of our problems, we have the enormous privilege of living in a society that doesn’t yet suffer from these evils, and hopefully it never will. We must do whatever it takes to prevent that from ever arriving here. But we also have to educate young people, so that they understand this privilege we enjoy, because they were born with it and the majority don’t know anything else and take it for granted. They believe that it’s like this everywhere, and they don’t value it, and for that reason we have to engage in constant education.
“In that sense, for us, prison was also a remarkable school, because as I said, we lived in a micro-world there inside, and we got to know the problems of very many places around the world, which unfortunately are common to many countries.”
“We’re victims of the corporate media and the Empire’s great publicity machine, which it uses to highlight whatever it finds convenient: nonsense, banalities…It’s a constant, 24 hour bombardment, and unfortunately there are people who believe that this is all there is, that capitalism is a house with two cars and a swimming pool. That Haiti’s not capitalism, and Central America’s not capitalism, and the poor neighborhoods of the United States are not capitalism. Capitalism is what they show to serve their interests!
“The ideological battle is the real battle that we must undertake with young people. We have to engage in that battle; if we’ve managed to do it in other areas, how are we not going to achieve it on the ideological plane, something so extremely important, especially now. Because on the positive side we’re probably looking at a huge influx of tourists, but the negative side is that we’ll also be overrun with people writing propaganda about how great things are there [on the U.S. side] or at least what they want people to believe exists there.
“This is the anniversary of what we Cubans mark as our victorious struggle that culminated with the tremendous triumph of 1959. We are living through the experience of meeting our fellow citizens wherever we go, as we walk through the streets, as we visit our schools, and having them tell us ‘Thank you for what you did for Cuba,’ but we are also conscious of the fact that we must also be grateful. I think that behind this victory there are many anonymous heroes who have no set working hours: who worked so hard in the mornings, afternoons, nights, middle of the night or even many sleepless nights, so that the Five could be here to enjoy this date along with our people, and experience these moments of happiness.