By: Roxana Olaru
Sometimes life has a funny way of aligning a myriad of seemingly unrelated elements in order for us to be in the right place at the right time, without any forewarning or explanation. This is how I came to attend the “5 Days for the Cuban 5” in Washington, D.C. from June 5-8, 2014. I had just returned from a month long journey in Cuba, where I completed my field placement as a first year Community Worker student. This experience was filled with cultural expansion, personal development and an intimate glimpse into the daily struggles of Cubans dealing with the effects of the illegal, immoral US-imposed embargo. Prior to completing this placement, I had very little knowledge about the Cuban Five. I was introduced to the topic in my International Placement class, and quickly became engaged in this horrific breach of human rights. But my curiosity for how such a gross miscarriage of justice was taking place, right across the border, while many Canadians had never even heard of this case, was never satisfied, as the more I learned the more I desired to know. Upon arriving in Cuba and speaking with the Cuban people about the Cuban Five, I came to see that this act of injustice affects people all over the world, on a much larger scale than I could ever have imagined. Despite the ignorance I’ve observed in Canada regarding the case, there is an international network of support that works tirelessly for the release of the remaining three in prison; holding actions, writing letters and campaigning to educate and spread awareness. Cubans speak freely and passionately about the anti-terrorist heroes, whose faces are plastered all over billboards, and local schoolchildren can easily recite the names and details of the case. I don’t consider myself naïve to the matters of media control, filtering and corruption, but the immense power of the US media to completely eradicate any and all mention of this unprecedented criminal proceeding, not only in the United States but in Canada, and all across the globe. This completely shook my understanding and perspective on just how powerful the impact of media convergence is on democracy: we know only what those in power want us to know.
About midway through my time in Cuba, I met a member of the Che Guevara brigade who resided in Vancouver and was on his way back to Canada. We only spoke briefly, and agreed to connect on social media to chat about our time in Cuba. It was through this chance encounter that I came to hear about the “5 Days for the Cuban 5” event, through a Facebook post by my new comrade. I returned to Canada on May 25, 2014, and after a few days back, I already felt restless. I was experiencing a reverse culture shock and felt that Toronto lacked the sensations I had grown accustomed to and immersed myself in for the past month: the smells, sights and sounds of Cuba. I longed for the smell of fresh churros frying in the market, and the feel of the warm tropical wind on my skin. I craved the sound of the honks of the bici-taxis racing past each other, and the salsa music blasting all day and night. And where were all the children playing in the street? And the street vendors I once considered pesky? In comparison to this month of sensory stimulation, Toronto seemed crowded but cold; a community eerily individualistic despite its many cafes, patios and neon “open” signs. Perhaps the problem Toronto faces is not the lack of opportunity for community involvement, but our society’s unwillingness to be open, vulnerable and trusting of one another to the degree necessary to create a feeling of community, which the Cubans have perfected.
After seeing the announcement of the Washington event, I thought to myself how fitting and perfect this opportunity was; “I have to go” I thought. The event was in a matter of days, so I contacted my new friend and arranged to take the bus down to Washington, and stay with the Vancouver members of the Che Guevara brigade at the house they were renting for the event. Keep in mind that I had only just met my friend, and had just returned from a month abroad and was therefore broke. I was in the mood for another adventure, and, without hesitation, agreed to go on this journey. Something was telling me to go for it, and I’m slowly learning that to stray away from one’s intuition is unwise. Of course, my family and friends thought I was insane: where was I going? How could I afford it? Who was I staying with? Was I going alone? Yes, I stated. I’m going alone, on a 15 hour bus ride to Washington, D.C., to attend a two-day forum on the Cuban Five featuring speakers from all over the world, followed by a rally and protest in front the White House to demand the release of these brave heroes. This was followed by another set of warnings from my friends and colleagues: “Protest?! In front of the White House?! But you’ll be arrested!” I quickly assured them this was not the case; protests happen in front of the White House every day. But on the inside I was beginning to feel apprehensive. What if they’re right? What if I get arrested, or what if staying in a house with a group of strangers turns out terribly? I brushed aside these annoying little hesitations as I felt confident that my philosophy in life, everything happens for a reason, was serving me well here; it seemed that the universe was conspiring behind the scenes to work everything out for me and all I had to do was trust in the process. And that is exactly what I did. I hopped on the bus a week and a half after I returned from Cuba and went on my way to experience even more of the invaluable lessons life had begun to teach me while I was away: about community, taking chances, and standing up for what you believe in.
I arrived in Washington at 11:30 a.m.; the conference had started at 10:00 a.m. and my bus was late to arrive. The nice thing about travelling alone is that you feel a sense of accomplishment in making it to your destination, all by yourself. As an inexperienced lone traveler, I was feeling pretty elated. Here I was in Washington, ready to learn more about the Cuban Five and work with like-minded people towards their freedom. I made my way to the church hosting the conference via public transit, and arrived just in time for lunch. Another stroke of luck appeared just as I arrived. As I was signing into the event, a man appeared beside me and introduced himself as Thomas, a member of the Vancouver brigade with whom I had spoken on the phone with but had never met. To say that I was surprised and grateful would be an understatement. From that moment on, I was adopted as a member of the Vancouver Free the Cuban 5 Committee with unquestioning love and support. I met the rest of the members that were present at the conference that day, and eventually there were 21 members of the Vancouver committee present, and me. From the beginning they accepted me as one of their own; taking care of me and ensuring that I was always looked after. Including me in every aspect of their planning and activities, from their daily meetings to their debriefs, even outfitting me in their very own personalized group t-shirt. I was very lucky to be involved in every single political, educational and social activity that we partook in during my stay in Washington. This team became my family for the next three days: all eating, sleeping and living together in the same house, while all present and motivated by the sense of injustice that fills our hearts and makes it difficult to go on with our lives in a feigned state of ignorance. Their dedication, awareness and passion inspired me to continue to work on this project and engage my fellow community members upon my return to Toronto.
The afternoon of the first day of the conference featured a film on the recent London Commission of Inquiry into the case of the Cuban Five; many attendees at the conference were also present at the Commission, and offered valuable information and personal insight on the outcome and effectiveness of the Commission of Inquiry. Following this was a panel discussion on the history of terrorism against Cuba, featuring speakers of both legislative and activist backgrounds. Of note was the poem and speech given by Chilean artist and writer Francisco Letelier, whose father, Orlando Letelier, was the subject of an assassination in Washington, D.C. in 1976, when a bomb strapped to his car detonated, killing him and his colleague, Ronni Moffitt. This assassination was orchestrated by the Chilean secret police, and carried out by right-wing Cuban militants in Washington.
The conference went into the evening with a pre-recorded greeting from the intelligent, charismatic and passionate activist for LGBTQ rights Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuan National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and daughter of Raul Castro. As usual, she exuded natural grace and diplomacy, and was uplifting in a literal sense of the word; the room was abuzz with positivity and excitement after the video. Her message was filled with hope for the future of the Cuban Five and an honest appreciation for the work of her international comrades in the battle for justice. Shortly after there was a panel discussion on cultural exchange and the right to travel to Cuba, with voices from the United States, Latin America, Cuba and even France discussing the challenges and regulations surrounding the right of Americans, or lack of, to travel to Cuba.
The second day of the conference proceeded with an intense momentum that could be felt in the room; everyone was eager to continue learning and sharing, encouraged by a successful first day behind them, and building up towards the rally at the White House the following day. The morning’s session included a panel discussion on the legality of the lawsuit, including high-profile figures such as the lead attorney working on the case, Martin Garbus, and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
The afternoon session began with Saul Landau’s unfinished film, “Cuba’s Sexual Revolution”, a candid and bold documentary about Cuba’s struggle for LGBTQ equality and the growing movement for progressive policies relating to sexuality. This film evoked raw emotions among the audience members, and set the stage for the next panel discussion on political prisoners. The keynote speaker was Rafael Cancel Miranda, a leader in the Puerto Rican independence movement who has spent 25 years in prison as a political prisoner. Miranda’s spirit is the essence of revolutionary, encompassing pride for his country in parallel with his indomitable will to never give up the fight for justice and freedom, and he provided invaluable motivation and support to us all fighting for the freedom of the Cuban Five that only one with his experiences could have the wisdom and authenticity to disclose.
The final panel of the conference was a discussion on books attempting to increase understanding about Cuba and various challenges it faces, such as the US embargo and the case of the Cuban Five. There have been many novels written with an aim to relay an honest account of the unfairness and prejudice surrounding the legal proceedings of the Five, exposing issues ranging from the denial to have the Trial moved and the bias of the jury, to the injudicious and cruel sentencing. Despite the availability of impartial, unbiased literary material, the difficulty lies in getting this information in the hands of the general public. Many publications were available for purchase at the conference, presumably with the hopes of sharing the truth with friends and family, as dispelling misinformation about Cuba is an important part of the battle in freedom for the Five. Among the authors present were Canadians Arnold August, Keith Bolender, and Stephen Kimber, whose novel “What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five” has just been long-listed for the 2013 Libris Canada’s Best Book of Non-Fiction Award.
The conference closed with a few words from peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who acknowledged and appreciated all of the amazing people who attended and made the conference possible: lawyers, activists, journalists, volunteers and many more who are relentless in their campaign for justice to be served and for relations between Cuba and the United States to be normalized; to end the embargo and all of the negative propaganda against Cuba that comes with it. The conference was optimistic, educational and inspirational, and we all left with an even stronger will and sense of purpose to educate the public and continue to make noise until the remaining three are free, our minds preoccupied with thoughts of our next rallies, petitions and tabling events. Despite the feeling of solidarity and encouragement in the room, our greatest desire was that we wouldn’t have to meet next year to discuss the Cuban Five and Cuba-US relations. That by this time next year, June 2015, Gerardo, Anton and Ramon will walk the streets of Cuba as free men. Free to embrace their families and free to be embraced by the millions of Cubans who have been waiting. Waiting, fighting, educating, and fighting some more for the moment when their heroes returned to their country, which they have fought so bravely for. Free to continue walking with their heads held high, for not a moment was spent in remorse or shame, but only in loyalty, allegiance and love for their homeland and their people. Free to share their story with their brothers and sisters all over the world to inspire and to urge us not to give up. For the fight isn’t over. There are many political prisoners, still waiting to be released, held captive for a crime they didn’t commit. Families continue to be torn apart and legal cases continue to be surrounded by deceit, injustice and corruption. Oligarchies continue to mold the word “terrorism” to their advantage; denouncing it when suitable and funding it when profitable. And as we filed out of the conference room that day, all we hoped for was that we would never have to return.
The following day was the day of the rally in front of the White House. But even more exciting was the bicycle tour that we were organizing beforehand. One of the leading members of the Vancouver Free the Cuban 5 Committee was contacted by Rene Gonzalez, who proposed the idea of biking around Washington to spread the word of the Cuban Five. So on Saturday, June 7, 2014, over 25 activists hit the streets of Washington, riding around to various tourist hot spots, such as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, bikes adorned with posters and yellow ribbons, chanting, handing out pamphlets and speaking with locals and tourists. Our goal was to increase awareness, and not surprisingly, many people had no idea who the Cuban Five were. But we were welcomed and questioned with honest interest and empathy, and recruited people to join the afternoon rally at the White House. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and by the time we biked up to the White House we were all fired up and ready to protest and march in solidarity with the other 500 people who showed up to support the Five.
There were groups from all over the world present, chanting in Spanish and English, holding up their signs and displaying their banners. Among the crowd there were youth and there were seniors; there were toddlers and even pregnant women. All ages, races, sexes and classes came together in this beautifully diverse display of unification for the release of these valiant men; humanity being the common denominator and not allowing any sort of oppressive labels to come between, to divide and conquer this community dedicated to seeing justice served. And the rally continued on as we walked from the White House to the Department of Justice, taking over the streets and growing louder in our demands for freedom and peace. Eventually the rally wound down, and the last few speakers gave their words of thanks, and it became very apparent that this was the most important event to date. That each event is more important than the last. For there are always more people present, therefore more people aware of the cause, and we are closer than ever with each event to reaching our goal. Because, in the end, all we can do is continue to share the story of the Cuban Five, and have faith that people of all backgrounds will find it to be terribly frightening that such evil, such bigotry exists in our world, and will put themselves in the shoes of the wives, children and parents of the Five and will choose to join in our fight. And perhaps it is a fruitless battle, but we idealists choose to believe that one day our world will be a peaceful, equitable and moral place for our children to enjoy without the need to wage wars of their own.