The fight to free the Cuban Five

A recent screening at Ellis Hall presented a new documentary about the imprisonment of men who say they were only trying to protect their homeland

Free the Five supporters have participated in rallies in Cuba, the United States and Canada.
Free the Five supporters have participated in rallies in Cuba, the United States and Canada.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of freethefive.org

Many North Americans see Cuba as a vacation destination, the island where the best cigars are made, and one of the few Communist countries left in the world.

Thoughts about Cuba sometimes begin and end with these three widely known details about the Caribbean country. But a new documentary is determined to show there is more to the island than meets the eye, particularly when it comes to its relationship with the United States.

On Sept. 29, a screening of the Irish-Cuban documentary Mission Against Terror drew a crowd of students, faculty and members of the Kingston community to fill Ellis Auditorium.

The documentary, created by directors Bernadette Dwyer and Roberto Ruiz, examined Cuba’s ongoing struggle to protect itself against terrorism.

Opening with shots of a Cuban couple doing a traditional dance on the Havana waterfront—soon juxtaposed with black and white footage of a fire—Mission Against Terror used a combination of interview footage and old news footage in an attempt to make its point.

The documentary chronicles the fight of five Cuban men who worked to protect their country from acts of terrorism committed by what Ruiz calls “a sort of Cuban mafia”—an organization, the documentary alleges, that is subsidized by the U.S. government.

Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, René González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino—or “The Five,” as they are known to those familiar with their case—were arrested in Miami in 1998 on several charges, including conspiracy to commit espionage.

“They were fighting terrorism,” Dwyer said of The Five, an idea that is hammered home during the 48-minute documentary.

In the late 1950s, $420 million U.S. was stolen from the National Bank in Cuba, money that the film alleges was a reserve meant to stabilize the Cuban peso’s value.

Dwyer and Ruiz make the case in their documentary that this stolen money was used to finance infrastructure development in Miami.

Ruiz said the money was also used to create the criminal organization The Five were fighting.

One of the alleged criminals is Orlando Bosch. The film has footage of Bosch admitting his responsiblity for bombing an Air Cubana plane in 1976, which resulted in the death of all of its 73 passengers. Mission Against Terror also included footage of Bosch admitting he has attempted several times to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro. The directors added they believe the 1974 bombing of the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa was Bosch’s doing.

Though Bosch has admitted to such criminal activity, he lives freely in the U.S.. The Five, however, are serving long-term sentences—ranging from 15 years to two life terms—after being prosecuted on a variety of charges, including conspiracy to commit espionage and murder. They maintain they were simply fighting terrorism.

“The whole thing is outrageous,” Dwyer said. “It’s a huge miscarriage of justice that [The Five] are in prison at all.”

Dwyer and Ruiz said they believe Cuba is the target of more terrorist attacks than any other country in the world.

Despite ongoing developments in the trial of The Five, the case gets very little news coverage, according to Dwyer and Ruiz. They said the majority of their audiences think the U.S.-Cuba conflict is a thing of the past, something that faded with the Cold War.

But the documentary alleges that the U.S. continues to create problems for Cuba on the world stage, and has been trying for years to condemn Cuba for what the U.S. views to be human rights abuses.

Dwyer said she sees the conflict as bullying because Cuba is geographically strategic to the United States.

While some of the pressure from the U.S. is played out on the political level, Dwyer and Ruiz believe there are also clandestine U.S.-led operations occurring in Cuba.

The Five say they were monitoring these activities, and Mission Against Terror tells their story.

The film draws attention to striking facts and figures that the directors say have long escaped public notice. Numbers like 3,500: the number of Cubans Dwyer and Ruiz believe have died as a result of terrorism since the advent of communism in Cuba in 1959. Or 2,000: the number of Cubans Dwyer and Ruiz said have been disabled for life, either as the result of terrorist attacks or of biological warfare.

“They don’t publish that. Those figures,” Ruiz said.

Kingston was just one of the many stops the film has made on its cross-Canada tour. With showings in 22 cities from coast to coast, and several showings in the United States as well, Ruiz and Dwyer said they are inciting reactions in many of their audiences.

“The most common reaction in young people is a kind of shock,” said Ruiz. “The most important thing is that people become educated about what is really going on ... they don’t want to believe it.”

Ruiz and Dwyer said they wanted to portray Cuba in their documentary the way it is seen by Cubans, and not as it is portrayed on American television.

Evelyn Gervan, president of the Canadian Cuban Friendship Association-Kingston (CCFA-Kingston), introduced the film.

“The [United States-led] war on terror is aimed at only certain terrorists,” Gervan said.

Dwyer said that although people believe that the US is against terrorism, there is really a multiple standard.

“People pay no attention to [terrorism against Cubans] until it affects them,” she said.

Dwyer said terrorism against Cuba has been affecting Canadians for decades.

Over the last 40 years, she said, there have been nine major attacks on various Cuban offices in Canada, including the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa; the offices of the Cuban trade delegation in Montreal and Ottawa; the Cuban Consulate in Montreal, an attack which killed Cuban official Sergio Pérez Castillo; and the Cuba Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal.

Kingston resident Larry Chouinard, who attended the screening and travels frequently to the US and Cuba with his wife, said he’s been aware of The Five’s situation for a few years.

“Americans are upset [when they find out] we travel to Cuba,” Chouinard said.

Chouinard said most Americans don’t understand Cubans.

“The average American doesn’t realize how patriotic the average Cuban is.”

Gemma Corrigan, a St. Lawrence College student, said that she found the separation of The Five from their families the hardest part of the film to watch.

With their families still in Cuba, The Five’s imprisonment in the United States is a violation of international convention, the documentary contends.

Dwyer and Ruiz said that since two of the men are also American citizens, their imprisonment is a violation of a fundamental U.S. law.

Dwyer and Ruiz said they hope that by exposing students to these issues, progress will be made.

“I think that [awareness of The Five’s situation] is going to be very slow,” said Dwyer, adding that she also believes that the students of today “won’t be fooled [as] easily.” In 2001, Queen’s began running a two-week course offering students an opportunity to study at the University of Havana and learn about Cuban society first hand.

“When [students] can look at the arguments [surrounding Cuba] and examine them, it’s empowering,” said Susan Babbitt, a Queen’s philosophy professor and one of CCFA-Kingston’s founding members.

“Students returned saying that they [had] learned something about engaging the world.”

Babbitt was one of the faculty members involved with the course’s formation. She said the course was unique in Canada because it taught development ethics. “[Cuba is] a very dynamic society, and in my view, very humane,” she said.

The University chose not to offer the course this year. Babbitt described the decision to cancel the course as “insulting” to the course’s organizers at both Queen’s and the University of Havana. She said the course’s cancellation has been upsetting to other Canadian university students as well, since about five students per year from other schools across the country also participated in the Queen’s course.

Development Studies Director David McDonald said the decision not to offer the course, DEVS 309-Development Ethics, was a “largely administrative one” made by the Faculty of Arts and Science.

McDonald, who spent part of his sabbatical in Havana last year, said the course was a success in the past.

“It’s a wonderful place for students to go and learn,” he said.

“We’d like to see the continuation of the course and the expansion of student activities in Cuba.”

The documentary ended with footage of a rally in support of The Five in downtown Havana. The square was filled with waving Cuban flags, and everyone present sported t-shirts featuring the faces of The Five.

A large banner hung in the background, bearing the slogan “A Better World Is Possible.”

At the documentary’s end, Dwyer said, “If you feel that this moves you at all, you have a role to play.”

—With files from canadiannetworkoncuba.ca

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