Those who have met veteran civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass cannot fail to be impressed by his unstinting commitment to social justice. The staff at the U.S. State Department of Justice must have winced when they saw his name connected to the case of the Miami Five.
Weinglass began his career in Newark, New Jersey because he wanted to represent poor African Americans against what he saw as an oppressive white administration.
Newark, which was notorious for its African American ghettos and police brutality, attracted civil rights activists including the young Tom Hayden, whom Weinglass later represented. Hayden was arrested for his role in the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in Chicago, Illinois and became part of the Chicago 8 trial. According to Weinglass: “Tom really became my teacher. He asked me to represent him at the trial and told me it would change my life. I appreciate how patient he was in helping me understand that it wasn’t just an issue of defending the poor and the powerless, I had to become part of a larger movement that sought to change the system.”
Subsequently, Weinglass represented Angela Davis, an alleged accomplice in the murder of Judge Harold Haley in 1970. Now he has his sights firmly set on freeing the Miami Five. That choice goes a long way to explaining why, at 73, Weinglass is still committed to fighting the system. With an energy belying his age, Weinglass went on a hectic ten-day tour of the UK in December in order to mobilize international support for the five Cubans, who are currently languishing in prisons across the U.S. Weinglass reported that, “The Miami Five are suffering real deprivation in maximum security jails for the same cause I believe in and that propels me forward. They live in the most difficult conditions you could imagine, but when you meet with them you see men who are strong, energized, and principled. When you leave them you come away with the feeling ‘I can do no less’.”
Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guer- rero, Fernando Gonzáles, and René Gonzáles were convicted on charges ranging from acting as unregistered agents to conspiracy to commit murder—three of them have life sentences without parole. Their “offense” is to have infiltrated terrorist cells in Miami that in the early 1990s had been orchestrating bombing campaigns against their homeland in order to smash the Cuban economy and bring about a change in government.
“By U.S. law,” Weinglass said, “no U.S. citizen can take up arms against another country. And the classic definition of terrorism is: attacks directed against civilians to change policy. The evidence provided by the Miami Five was passed on to the Cuban authorities who then invited the FBI to take action. The FBI did nothing—no arrests and no investigation. The Cubans then contacted the New York Times and gave reporters the names, addresses, and locations of the paramilitary camps. The newspaper published not a word.”
Instead, the Miami Five were arrested in September 1998 and tried in Miami.
Weinglass believes the case has to be placed in the context of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. “It is part of the argument that the U.S. can do whatever it wishes to another country, but if that country dares to protect itself or tries to interfere with the process—such as the Miami Five trying to stop terrorist attacks against their homeland—then the U.S. will deal with them most severely. The U.S. is using its court system to further political ends against another country.”
Three judges are currently considering an appeal. According to Weinglass, “We are at a crucial moment and we must mobilize support and fight to release these brave people…. We will prevail if we continue to struggle and build support, because in the end justice will out while the system that carries out these travesties corrodes.”
That is why Weinglass has completed a program of events—organized by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC)—which has included speeches in the UK to Members of Parliament and to the public at the House of Commons and to more than 600 delegates at the Latin America 2007 Conference. Says Weinglass, “The worst thing in the American judicial system is to be alone, but when there is an active support network, then there are always grounds for optimism. Although lawyers obviously have a role in political cases such as these, it is a limited role. We speak and write, but our words are only heard or read if there is major support for the case. That was the lesson from the Angela Davis case. The international campaign focused attention on the court and that led to her acquittal. That’s beginning to happen with the Miami Five, which is why the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s work in building the campaign is so critically important.
In 2007 CSC held a large public vigil outside the U.S. Embassy in London to mark the Miami Five’s ninth year in jail, lobbied MPs to sign an Early Day Motion about the case (signed by 110 MPs), and successfully lobbied members of the European Parliament to sign a motion calling on U.S. authorities to grant the wives access to their husbands (signed by 24 out of 80 UK MPs).
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to keep up to date on the legal case and the campaign to free the Miami Five (also called the Cuban Five).
Write to the five prisoners expressing your support. Addresses available via CSC’s website: www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk.
Write to the U.S. Attorney General’s office urging a retrial: U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC 20530-0001.
Weinglass was delighted by his reception in the UK: “The size and enthusiasm of the Miami Five’s support is greater here than in the United States and I am heartened by the campaign’s strength.”
Meanwhile, the case’s almost farcical twists and turns continue. A successful appeal on the grounds that Miami—notorious for its virulent anti-Castroism—was unsuitable as a venue for the trial was inexplicably overruled by a subsequent appeal. Weinglass remarked, “We were astonished. How could such a clear, unanimous verdict that described the case as ‘a perfect storm of prejudice’ be overturned?
“You cannot manufacture ‘facts’ not presented during the course of the trial, but the prosecutor said—on three occasions—that the Cubans had come to Miami in order to destroy the United States. There were 31 objections made during the summing up and 28 were sustained, the argument was completely out of bounds and driven to secure a conviction. If the appeal judges apply lawyer-like standards we will win, but the problem is that each U.S. government fears an acquittal would devastate its administration because of the 650,000 Cubans living in Miami. Politicians all look at Florida as the presidential maker and the chances of this shifting are very difficult to anticipate.”
Weinglass has met all of the Miami Five apart from Fernando, who was inexplicably shunted from one prison to another just before the two were to meet. “They are remarkable men,” says Weinglass. “When you meet them you can clearly witness what I call the Mandela Affect. Their fellow inmates and the prison guards all have tremendous respect for them. They are disciplined and none of them have committed a single violation of prison rules.”
After 9/11 the Cubans were placed in solitary confinement. They were supposed to be in solitary for a year, but were released after 30 days because of an international outcry. According to Weinglass, “Antonio had started Spanish lessons for the inmates and when he was placed in solitary, they went on strike. Whenever he was moved during his stay in solitary the areas were cleared of all people so that he could have no human contact. But the authorities will fail to break them.”
Weinglass remains confident the men will eventually be released, “but to win we must embarrass the authorities into making the right decision and we can only achieve that with mass support.”
Stephen Hallmark is manager of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.