Rapping and Rallying for the “Cuban Five”

Right on time — and by pure coincidence — in this week of fireworks over prisoner swaps, a couple hundred artists and activists from 31 countries are in town to push for the release of Cuban nationals convicted of spying in Miami in 2001.

They’re known as the Cuban Five, even though only three remain in prison. Winning their freedom is a national cause celebre for Cubans and an emotional crusade for many progressives in this country. Actor Danny Glover had tears in his eyes as he addressed the audience at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington’s Chinatown, one of several locations where events are taking place through early next week.

“That becomes our mission as we leave here,” said Glover, wearing a ball cap that said “Cuba.” “We have to leave understanding that we have to do more, we have to talk more, we have to engage more.”


Actor Danny Glover sheds a tear as he speaks of the case of the Cuban Five, and of his friend, the late Washington filmmaker Saul Landau, at Calvary Baptist Church. (Bill Hackwell).

A five-day agenda packed with panels of lawyers and policy experts is leavened with politically-minded entertainment and Cuban culture. The unfinished final documentary by the late Washington filmmaker Saul Landau was to be screened at the church Friday afternoon. Titled “Cuba Sexual Revolution,” it was what Landau was working on last year as he battled cancer after a career exploring Cuba in films such as the  intimate portrait, “Fidel” (1971) — which included the scene where Castro removes his olive green comandante shirt to play baseball in a muddy pueblo, and whiffs several times at the plate — and “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” (2010). For the new work, Landau interviewed Mariela Castro, a champion of LGBT rights in Cuba and director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. She is the daughter of President Raúl Castro.

The activist rap duo Dead Prez was to perform Friday night with local political musicians at the Columbia Heights Education Campus. They’re announcing a new compilation album called “Battle Cry for Cuba and Zimbabwe.”

Might be an appropriate time for Dead Prez to reprise an old tune, “Globalization (Scene of the Crime)”:

Globalization really means the globalization of capital
You don’t hear people talking about the globalization of labor….

All they want is profits, it’s obvious in Africa
It’s obvious in Mexico, it’s obvious in Cuba
It’s obvious in Palestine, American invasion
Foreign occupation, covert operations
Oppressive domination, resiiiiiiist…

A rally in front of the White House is set for Saturday afternoon, and Monday is lobby day on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, the gathered artists and activists are all trying to parse what the trade of captive soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners  might mean for the Cubans in prison. Could the remaining three be traded for Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor from Potomac who has has been jailed in Cuba since 2009?  He was charged with “actions against the integrity of the state” for distributing communications equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba. Stephen Kimber, author of a recent book on the Cuban Five, as well as other commentators, said the Bergdahl trade showed that such deals are possible.

But then, does the ensuing backlash against the Bergdahl trade make such a swap less viable? At the State Department, a spokeswoman told reporters the administration’s position against a trade for the Cubans has not changed.

The Cuban Five were convicted in 2001 for passing non-classified material to the Cuban government. In addition, one of them, Gerardo Hernández, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the 1996 Cuban shoot-down of unarmed civilian planes piloted by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue. Hernández was sentenced to life. Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino also remain in prison. Fernando González and René González have been released after serving most or all of their sentences. At various times during the appeals process, at least one federal judge questioned whether the evidence against Hernández was compelling, and whether the five received a fair trial in Miami in the wake of the furor over Elián González, the refugee boy who was rescued from the sea and returned to his father in Cuba. The Cuban government said the agents were trying to uncover terrorist plots against Cuba.

 


José Ramón Cabañas, Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, addresses artists and activists gathered in Washington this week to press for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five prisoners. (Bill Hackwell).

Martin Garbus, a lawyer for one of the Cubans, unveiled his latest argument in favor of setting aside the verdict. Ever since it was revealed several years ago that some reporters in Miami who wrote or broadcast about the case were also being paid by the U.S. government, Garbus said he has been collecting information on the extent of the government payments. Late last year, he filed papers in federal court in Florida alleging that the payments fostered coverage that biased the jury against rendering a fair verdict.

Don’t under-estimate how much the Cuban Five mean to Cubans, said José Ramón Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

“It’s not an elite subject, an official thing. It’s something that comes from the very bottom of our society,” Cabañas said in an interview. “Those are our heroes. We shared the information they gathered with your authorities. Why is there a reason to have them here in prison?”

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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