BY JOHN STUDER
Getting to know Cuban revolutionary Ramón Labañino while in a federal prison in Miami has had a big impact on Secundino Pérez.
“Ramón is a person with principles and values,” said Pérez, speaking on a popular Spanish-language radio program in Miami. “He’s someone you become proud to know.”
Labañino is one of five Cuban revolutionaries fighting a political frame-up by the U.S. government. (See “Who Are the Cuban Five” on page 7.)
Interviewed last January on Radio Progreso’s La tarde se mueve (Afternoon on the Move), Pérez told host Edmundo García about his experiences with Labañino during a six-month period they were both in the same unit in the Federal Detention Center in late 2009 and early 2010. At that time, Labañino was awaiting a resentencing hearing in federal court. Pérez has since been released on parole.
“At first I was nervous about approaching Ramón,” said Pérez, who had heard only biased propaganda about the Cuban Five from the local media, which falsely branded them “Cuban spies.” But as he got to know Labañino, “I saw the kind of person he is. We became good friends — based on respect for each other’s ideas.”
In conversations among prisoners, “he didn’t just tell you, ‘This is how things are.’ He tried to get you to understand things. … So you would gradually understand how things really are,” said Pérez, who came to the U.S. some 14 years ago from Pinar del Río province in Cuba, where he had worked as a doctor.
Respected by fellow inmates
In the prison world some individuals elicit “respect out of fear,” Pérez said. Labañino earned a different kind of respect, one “that comes from the heart.”
“He always respected everyone’s ideas and beliefs,” Pérez said. And everyone respected him, “even the guards.”
If he saw a fellow inmate not feeling well, Labañino “was the first one to go over and try to cheer him up,” Pérez said. “He didn’t care what nationality you were — Cuban, Nicaraguan, whatever, he’d ask you about your problem, and if there was something he could do, he did it with pleasure. That’s Ramón.”
Ramón would always tell him, “Try to keep your mind occupied with something productive. Since we’re here, occupy yourself with something productive like chess, read a good book, make yourself a good meal.”
Labañino read a lot, loaned books to fellow prisoners, followed the press, and received a lot of messages of support and other correspondence, Pérez said.
He would talk a lot about the Cuban Revolution. “Ramón was very interested about everything that happened in Cuba, and he has a broad understanding. On any question about Cuba, any issue, we would sit down and talk. He wasn’t trying to convince you — we’d talk, and we would reach a certain understanding.”
Pérez added, “We kept on top of the news.” They would listen to Radio Progreso, as well as radio broadcasts from Cuba. Using small battery-powered radios, “we had to be creative. You had to stand right up against the wall” to pick up a signal.
As they discussed the U.S. government’s frame-up of the Cuban Five, Labañino showed him the trial record. “He gave it to me so I could read it, so it wouldn’t be just what he said but so I could see the facts,” Pérez said.
‘Feel indebted’ for what the Five did
Many fellow inmates at the Federal Detention Center became convinced that the Five “had been unjustly imprisoned,” he noted. By infiltrating Cuban-American paramilitary groups in Florida, “they were watching out for the Cuban people, to prevent terrorism in Cuba. The trial never proved anything but that this is what they were doing.”
He pointed to the selfless conduct of the Five, including separation from loved ones, not being able to tell their families what they were doing until after their arrests, and the long prison sentences imposed on them. “The things they gave up in order to protect the Cuban people — you feel indebted to them for life, because it was such a beautiful gesture full of love and sacrifice,” he said.
“Ramón is a big guy” and he was an athlete in his youth, Pérez noted. But years in prison take their toll. “He’s had some health problems, like with his knees, but he exercises a lot.” Labañino now suffers from arthritis, which affects his ability to walk.
Pérez said he saw Labañino’s wife, Elizabeth Palmeiro, once when she came to visit at the Miami prison. “My family has met his family in Cuba and they started a friendship that has continued. Elizabeth has waged a fight from Cuba and has made efforts so his three daughters know their father is with them, in spirit even if he is not there physically. That is very important and she’s done this very well and with great courage. Support from family is important for anyone who’s in prison.”
Labañino, along with Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González, was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Miami in September 2009 after a federal appeals court ordered resentencing hearings for the three on the grounds that their prison terms exceeded federal guidelines. The U.S. authorities’ hope, in the words of federal prosecutor Caroline Heck Miller, was to calm the “contentiousness” and “noise” stirred up by the international campaign to free the Cuban Five. At a hearing on Dec. 8, 2009, Labañino’s life sentence on trumped-up charges of “conspiracy to gather and transmit to a foreign government information relating to national defense ” was reduced to 30 years.
“I remember he was feeling a little bad that evening,” Pérez said. “But he’s someone who bounces back, who doesn’t let himself get down, and the next day he appeared more at ease. He told me, ‘This fight isn’t over, we have to keep on fighting.’”
Pérez said he was struck above all by the fact that Ramón “wasn’t concerned about himself — he felt it was necessary to continue fighting for Gerardo.”
Of the Five, Gerardo Hernández was given the harshest sentence: two concurrent life sentences plus 15 years. Although the life sentences on espionage conspiracy charges were reduced for Labañino and Guerrero, in Hernández’s case it was left unchanged because the court deemed it was “irrelevant to the time he will serve in prison.”
Hernández’s other life sentence was for “conspiracy to commit murder,” based on the false claim that Hernández bore responsibility for the Cuban government’s 1996 shootdown of two hostile aircraft that had invaded Cuban airspace in disregard of repeated warnings from Havana. The planes were flown by the rightist group Brothers to the Rescue, part of the group’s escalating provocations designed to ignite a confrontation between Havana and Washington.
Asked how he was influenced by Labañino, Pérez replied, “I learned you can make mistakes in your life, but you can’t live a lie. When you live the truth you have no fear. And that’s Ramón.”
‘The caliber they are made of’
When Labañino was about to be transferred out of the Miami prison, Pérez told him, “I’m getting out of prison before you, and I’ll be there for whatever you need of me.”
Interviewer Edmundo García was among the supporters of the Cuban Five who attended the 2009 resentencing hearings. “You saw Ramón in prison, and I saw him in the courtroom,” he said in closing the program. “And there are things I will never forget.”
Ramón, he told Pérez, “entered the courtroom with his hands held high, handcuffed, and turned toward the people who, as he knew, were committed to the release of the Five for the reasons you explained. He raised his handcuffed hands in a symbol of victory, and this was very moving for me.”
García thanked Pérez “for this testimony of the human qualities of Ramón Labañino.” He concluded, “These are the same human qualities of all the Five, because this is precisely the caliber of men they are.”