Hypocrisy over Cuba's 'political prisoners'

September 19, 2009

Political prisoners and Cuba can be a confusing mix, in our time of mass propaganda. Three groups have attracted international attention over the past decade.

The first group, 70 or so (the "dissidents"), were arrested in March 2003 by the Cuban government and charged with taking money from a US program aiming to overthrow the Cuban constitution.

Amnesty International and many European states, along with the US government, declared them "prisoners of conscience". A number have since been released.

The second group of several hundred ("enemy combatants") were collected by the US government in Afghanistan and Pakistan over 2001-2002 and have been held in concentration camps at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay. This area of Cuba is, over Cuban government objections, annexed by the US.

Eight years on, many are still held without charge or trial.

The third group comprises five men ("the Cuban Five") arrested in the US in 1998. They are accused of being spies for passing on information about groups in south Florida preparing terrorist attacks on Cuba.

US courts have rubber-stamped their convictions. On September 12, they completed 11 years in US jails.

The "dissidents" have been championed by the Miami-based, Cuban-American mafia that has long sought the overthrow of Cuban socialism. Yet it is precisely these groups that "the Cuban Five" had under surveillance.

These right-wing Miami-based forces have organised dozens of armed attacks on the Cuban coast, blew up a Cuban airliner in 1976 (killing all passengers) and carried out a wave of bombings on Cuban tourist hotels in the mid-1990s.

The Cuban Five were informing Cuba about these armed, Miami-based operations. In 1997, the Cuban government passed on this information to the US government through the FBI, hoping US President Bill Clinton might do something to stop these terrorist operations.

Rather than arrest the terrorists, the FBI arrested the Cuban Five and had them tried in a Miami court — a place the five could never expect a fair trial.

The jury was intimidated and the judge handed out monstrous sentences for supposed "conspiracy to commit espionage".

The Cuban Five have been supported within the US by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and, when the case came to the Supreme Court, 12 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates added their concerns.

Yet there was a US media blackout.

Cuban Five attorney Leonard Weinglass said: "The trial was kept secret … Where was the American media for six months?

"[This] was the one case involving major issues of foreign policy and international terrorism."

Despite the extraordinary treatment of the Cuban Five, the case of the "dissidents" has received far more media coverage in the US. These were said to be the victims of "brutal Cuban communism".

Australian journalists were drawn into this campaign. In 2005, Fairfax journalist Paul McGeough interviewed Raul Rivero, a "dissident" who had been released.

In a feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald, McGeogh wrote: "Rivero's crime was twofold — possession of a typewriter, and a will to dream."

The article failed to point out that Rivero was actually charged and convicted with taking money from the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), as part of its campaign to overthrow the Cuban government.

The CANF was the principal organiser of the wave of terrorist bombings in Cuba in the 1990s.

The evidence against Rivero was available a 2003 book called The Dissidents, by Cuban journalists Rosa Elizalde and Luis Baez.

The Cuban Five, on the other hand, were jailed for trying to stop terrorist attacks on their country.

This fact was apparently not appreciated in the US, despite its self-declared "war on terrorism". The five had been passing on information about these groups and not, it should be noted, about any US government agencies or any matter that affected US national security.

The Cuban government and the Cuban people, for their part, have carried out an extraordinary campaign in support of the Cuban Five. Despite the US media blackout, detailed information on the campaign and the case can be found at the websites, and .

In December 2008, Cuban President Raul Castro offered the US a prisoner exchange. He would exchange the remaining 50-odd "dissidents" in jail for the Cuban Five.

"We'll send them over there with families and all. Let them return our five heroes", Castro said.

The US State Department rejected the offer.

Perhaps the "dissidents" are better value to the US in prison than in the US?

Regardless, the Cubans certainly want their five heroes back home.

[This article first appeared on the Cuba: Exposing the Myths Facebook group. It has been abridged for length. Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University. He recently made Doctors of Tomorrow, a film about Cuba's assistance to train doctors in East Timor.]

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