Saul Landau: Did you talk to the prosecution?
Gerardo Hernandez: No. Everything goes through our lawyers. Initially I talked with the government lawyer [public defender]. He suggested the possibility of cooperating with the government. I don’t know if he was presenting the prosecution’s idea or not. But I told him that if he wanted to continue being my attorney we should not touch that subject again. And he never mentioned it again. Although later they [the government] offered so-called plea bargains, meaning one would admit guilt and cooperate. We rejected all such attempts. But we never had direct contact with the prosecution.
Saul Landau: Did it occur to you to cooperate, so as to escape the nightmare you’ve described?
Gerardo Hernandez: Look, we’ve been in prison for over 10 years. People who know about this case have said to me: "Cuba must have paid you lots of money to do this!" I always laugh and say: "If I had done what I did for money, I wouldn’t be here." Because when one works for money, one works for the highest bidder. And Cuba could never pay what this country could pay. I would have accepted their [US] offers and saved myself 10 years behind bars without seeing my wife. A lot of people don’t understand; people brought up to think money means everything in life.
No, betrayal never crossed my mind. It’s so obvious that it becomes difficult to explain. It would mean not only self betrayal, as a revolutionary, but also a whole country, my family. It would mean betraying all the Cubans that in the hundred something years since the 1868 revolution, have given their lives so Cuba could be free, independent and sovereign. I was clear from the start: what I was doing was not wrong. I’m sorry I had to break some [US] laws, but it was for a greater good and absolutely necessary. So I have nothing to repent.
Saul Landau: One accusation against you: Conspiring to commit espionage. What evidence did the US government have?
Gerardo Hernandez: None. I’m accused of supervising others who were involved in that [information gathering operation]. Take Antonio [Guerrero, one of the five] for example. Antonio went to an [employment] office in Key West, where he lived, to look for a job.
A woman in the office told him about a plumber’s job at the Key West naval base. And he accepted. He didn’t seek that job. She offered it to him. We brought that employment agency woman to the trial [as a witness]. She testified she had kept insisting he take that job. Once he started working there, we informed Cuba. Cuba said: "We know that prior to a US invasion of another country, like Haiti and previously, there may be an increase in resources being deployed at that base. For example: "On a normal day there might be 12 planes. If you see 25 planes let us know because something funny is going on."
It was defensive. Cuba wanted to know about any extraordinary movements there. Remember, this is the base closest to Miami, where these folks [militant exiles] have so much influence. And they dream the US army will eliminate all the revolutionaries from Cuba, so they can return. So, Cuba has always had this concern. Occasionally, Antonio would say: "There’s a bad situation on the base; there are this many planes, this many left and this many returned." That is obviously military information. But according to US laws, it’s not espionage. Anyone driving along Route 1[in south Florida] can see how many airplanes there are; public information. There are extensive legal precedents that it’s not espionage.
The prosecution said: "You’re right, that’s not espionage. It’s conspiracy to commit espionage." Because some day Antonio would want clearance, so he could get another position with access to secret information." Throughout all those years [from 1993 to 1998] that never happened. But they say it could have happened. So they stretched that charge, and convicted him. It’s possibly the only case in the United States of someone being found guilty of "conspiracy to commit espionage" in which the person had absolutely no access to secret information.
Saul Landau: About you knowing Brothers to the Rescue would be flying on that day? Did you know the Cuban Air Force planned to attack them, and attack them over international waters?
Gerardo Hernandez: That’s the other charge. If you had initially asked the prosecution, "What involvement did he [Gerardo] have in making that happen?" they would say, "He sent them the flight plans." Later it was proved that I didn’t send the flight plans. The FAA, [Federal Aviation Administration] sent the flight plans. But besides that, what flight plan? Basulto had given a press conference, announcing they would be flying on February 24.
Our own lawyers even made this mistake saying: "When you sent them information regarding the flight plans" No, I didn’t even do that. I sent absolutely no information concerning that flight. They said that out of carelessness; and even if it had happened, it would have nothing to do with anything, but it didn’t even happen. The crazy idea the prosecution invented is that not only did I know they [Cuba] were going to shoot the planes down — I did not know that — but I knew would do so over international waters; that Cuba was conspiring, not just to shoot down these planes invading Cuban air space, but over international waters. That’s the most absurd idea that anyone could ever invent. But the trial was held in Miami, and therefore I would be found guilty of any charge at all.
Saul Landau: Who in Cuba controls that kind of attack, MIG pilots or people on the ground?
Gerardo Hernandez: I assume it’d be Cuban Anti-Air Defense and the Armed Forces Ministry –including ground radar and the Air Force. My understanding is Fidel Castro and I believe Raul explained in detail on Cuban TV how the orders were given. I don’t have details about that because it happened while I was here. I assume the radar system, the Air Force and the high command worked together like a well-oiled machine.
Saul Landau: With Obama’s election, do you anticipate positive steps toward Cuba and your case?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. Obama, in his campaign, had the courage to say he’d be willing to talk with Cuba without preconditions. Previously in Miami, that was practically political suicide. Anyone doing that would know he’d lose the Florida Cuban vote. But he said it and I think everything US politicians say is calculated. So he knew the risk. He won without getting a majority of the Cuban vote. So he owes them nothing. He’s intelligent, and knows that 50 years of erroneous politics towards Cuba has not produced any result. So I wait, and without much hope or false expectations, for him to take more reasonable, rational measures towards Cuba. This country is moving towards a more respectful relationship with Cuba — in the interests of both countries.
In my case, I don’t expect anything to happen. My policy has always been: expect the worst; if something good happens, I’ll be grateful. In our situation — the 5 — one can’t live on false hopes and illusions. I’m facing life sentences and I’m prepared. If something should change, I’d welcome it, but I can’t think in ifs. Psychologically, you must be prepared for what will happen, not live on illusions.
Saul Landau: How do you survive each day?
Gerardo Hernandez: I spend most of the day reading and writing. I have an enormous and pleasant tragedy with correspondence. Some days I get 60, 80 letters. The record is 119. So imagine, just reading those letters is difficult. The days pass by incredibly fast. They help keep my mind distracted. I try to read what is published about Cuba, to keep myself current on my area of expertise, international relations. Sometimes people here ask me: "How can you read all the time?" I enjoy it. Unfortunately, I cannot answer all the letters. Some people even get mad. But it’s impossible because there are so many letters and not enough time.
Saul Landau: Do you have a message for Washington?
Gerardo Hernandez: Yes. If I could, I’d say: "if we are guilty of anything it is only of doing the same thing that many Americans patriots are doing right now, those in the mountains of Tora Bora searching for information about Al Qaeda, so that the acts committed on 9/11 are never repeated."
I’m sure those people are seen here as patriots. That’s exactly what we were doing here: collecting information in Florida to impede terrorist acts in Cuba. Terrorism against Cuba is not an abstraction. Those who have died because of those acts have first and last names; acts planned with impunity here in US territory. Our only crime is the one committed by young Americans who today receive medals for it. So it’s paradoxical: a country waging a war against terrorism houses terrorists [in Florida], protects those who put bombs on planes that killed dozens of people [Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch]; and they are glorified for doing so.
I’d also like the United States to understand: Cuba is a free and sovereign country. It has the right to choose its own path, to build its own destiny, its own system. Like it or not, we Cubans are the ones to decide what we will fix, what we must change, what to do differently, and how to build our society. If we had the necessary peace to build our social system the way we have always dreamt, things would be different today. We would have advanced much more. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the peace to be able to do that. I hope the day will come when the United States will understand that the island, small 90 miles away, has the right to choose its own destiny. I think that day will come as will the day in which American and Cuban peoples will feel more closely connected, based on mutual respect.
Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch A/K). His films are available on dvd through [email protected]