By Steve Patt
Steve Patt is the webmaster for the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five. This article was originally posted on Feb. 12.
As a long-time activist with the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, my heart was filled with joy at the news of December 17 that the remaining three imprisoned members of the Five were returning home. That happiness was compounded on seeing the first photos of them in Cuba, embracing Raúl and their family members. Soon after, the birth of baby Gema to Gerardo and Adriana, unable to even see each other for 16 years, brought tears to my eyes.
But for me, personally, all of that was just prelude to what happened in Cuba last week. I was going to be in Cuba for two weeks on a long-planned birdwatching trip, and held out hopes that a short visit with the Five might be possible. The birdwatching was everything I hoped it would be – 145 different species of birds, including 23 of the 26 “endemics” (birds found only in Cuba). Among the endemics were the world’s smallest bird, the aptly-named Bee Hummingbird or Zunzuncito, the adorably cute Cuban Tody (Cartacuba), the striking Cuban Green Woodpecker (Carpintero Verde), and many more.
On the last day of the trip, our only day in Havana, we had arranged a visit to ICAP (Cuban Institute for the Friendship of the Peoples) to deliver some gifts to Gema from our Committee. While we (my wife Deborah and I) were there having a productive discussion about the future of Cuba solidarity work in the United States, some phone calls were made, and we were invited to come back in the afternoon to meet with Tony Guerrero and his mother Mirta!
We left ICAP and went straight to the National Museum of Natural History, which has an exhibit of Tony’s prison paintings of birds and butterflies. I took particular note of one paragraph in a letter Tony wrote to accompany the exhibit:
“Only through the unified solidarity of our peoples, of all the peoples of the world, will it be possible to build a better and more secure world where all the birds, and more than that, all the species, including our own, can have their survival guaranteed.”
To think that this talented, heroic, sensitive man, a man who can express such a beautiful sentiment, could be imprisoned by the United States for 16 years as a “threat,” would be unthinkable if one wasn’t familiar with the nature of the U.S. government.
In the afternoon we returned to ICAP and there were Tony and Mirta waiting for us! Seeing him there, free in Cuba, and embracing him, was a feeling beyond compare. It was a day that one hardly dared even dream about during the previous ten years, and yet, here it was.
I had seen the two of them once before, in Miami in 2009, when I and others attended Tony’s resentencing hearing to show our support. Mirta was able to meet with us, but Tony wasn’t even permitted to look at us (he told me he was able to sneak a peek, but that was it). That hearing was particularly notable because it was there that the prosecutor urged a reduction of sentence to “quiet the waters of contentiousness that swirl about this case,” a clear acknowledgement of the effect that the world solidarity movement had had on the legal process.
What followed at ICAP was a one-hour conversation with Tony that, for me, was the ultimate reward for years of hard work. He talked to us about his correspondence in prison. In the first years, from the arrest on Sept. 12, 1998 until the conviction on June 8, 2001, he said that the only people writing were his friends and coworkers from Key West. A few weeks after the conviction the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five was formed, soon joined by hundreds of other committees around the world, and the letters multiplied. All together he received 27,000 letters over the years, and he answered every one. Well, every person, anyway; some people wrote so frequently he couldn’t answer every individual letter!
Tony talked to us about how he started writing poetry. A friend sent him a book called “A Poem a Day” with 365 different poems, one for each day. Although he had never written a poem, he resolved to summon the courage to do so (and succeeded admirably, as several published books of poems demonstrate!).
He started painting because he wanted to do some calligraphy, but an inmate who had a set of watercolors would only sell him the complete set, so with them he decided to start painting. There he succeeded admirably as well. Not only does he have an exhibit at the Museum, but other paintings which have been exhibited across the United States and around the world as a tool for building awareness of the case and solidarity with the Five. To top it off, the Cuban postal service decided to use his paintings as the basis for several series of postage stamps, something which made Tony extremely proud.
Although Tony had painted dozens of birds from photos and other drawings, his experience seeing them in person, like most people, was limited. So I talked with him about our birding experiences during our trip, and showed him some of the photos I had taken. There are now actually more endemics than existed when he painted them (ornithologists are constantly reclassifying species), so he was particularly excited to see my photos of the new endemics, like the beautiful Cuban Oriole (Solibio). He made me promise to send him copies of the photos so that he could use them as the basis for new paintings.
You can’t buy current Cuban stamps in the U.S., so I had never heard of the stamps which featured Tony’s paintings, but because of our shared interest, he promised to give me some copies. It wasn’t going to be easy, since we were leaving the next morning, but he promised he’d try.
The next morning he called our hotel room and said he’d be there in 30 minutes. We decided to wait outside the front door, and waited, and waited, but no Tony. My wife went into the lobby to see if he was there and came running out excitedly. No Tony, but someone else – Gerardo Hernández! He had come to our hotel just to see me and thank me for our efforts on behalf of the Five through the years, as well as for the presents which he had already received. What an incredible honor and what immeasurable happiness I felt! We knew that one day, if nothing else happened, all the others would eventually complete their sentences and return to Cuba. But Gerardo had a double-life sentence, so the idea that I would one day be in Havana embracing Gerardo, calling each other brother, was simply something beyond belief. Of course we were all working for that day, and never gave up hope, but even so…
Gerardo was on his way to an appointment, so he couldn’t talk for more than a few minutes, some of which were consumed as he tried to get out the door and had to stop and have his hand shaken by pretty much every hotel worker in sight (the tourists probably didn’t know who he was; the workers were probably wondering who I was!). After he left, I went up to the room to get the luggage, and there on the bed was an envelope, containing not just stamps, but First Day Covers! One was signed by Tony, “With a deep appreciation and eternal gratitude from the Five.” My cup runneth over!
I hope to return to Cuba many times in the future, and see and talk with Tony and Gerardo and the others, and even go on a birding trip with Tony. But nothing can match the happiness I felt on those days in Havana, when I first met Tony and Gerardo.