People stop in Victorville California 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles because they have to see someone at one of its several prisons (federal, state, county and city) or have prison-related business, or because they're hot and tired coming back from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and the thought of a swimming pool and an air conditioned room seem irresistible.
We book rooms so we can get to the prison early and spend more time with Gerardo Hernandez. We know the way from Highway 15 west into rolling desert hills from whence one sees a massive gray concrete structure – the federal penitentiary complex.
We fill out the forms, pass through the X-ray machine, get patted down by a guard, get our wrists stamped with indelible ink that shows up under a scanner in the next room, and by 8:45 we are seated in the Visiting room, with black and Latino wives and kids who are seeing husbands and daddies.
Gerardo emerges; we hug and start talking. He told us that Martin Garbus, his lawyer, had filed a new writ (available at www.thecuban5.org) declaring Gerardo's trial violated basic law and the Constitution, and should be voided – freeing him and his comrades from their long sentences.
Documents show, according to the brief, that the U.S. government paid a host of Miami-based journalists to file negative stories on Gerardo and his fellow defendants (The Cuban 5). These U.S. government paid-for stories appeared in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV and influenced public opinion in the community, including jury members and their families, the writ argues, and therefore calls into deep question whether a fair trial in Miami was possible for the five accused men.
The brief states that the U.S. "government's successful secret subversion of the Miami print, radio, and television media to pursue a conviction was unprecedented," and "violated the integrity of the trial and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution."
Garbus further argues that "The Government, through millions of dollars of illegal payments and at least a thousand articles published over a six-year period, interfered with the trial and persuaded the jury to convict. The Government's Response to this motion is factually barren and legally incorrect. The conviction must now be vacated."
In the lengthy brief, Garbus shows how journalists wrote and spoke for news outlets for the sole purpose of painting a distorted picture of what the defendants were doing, which was trying to prevent Miami-based terrorism in Cuba, and instead, as Garbus' brief shows, to portray them as military spies trying to prepare south Florida for a military invasion from Cuba.
The Miami Herald fired the journalists on the grounds they had broken a basic code – taking money from the government to write stories. The brief states that "Thomas Fiedler, the Executive Editor and Vice President of The Miami Herald, when talking about the monies paid to his staff members and members of other media entities by the Government, said it was wrongful because it was "to carry out the mission of the U.S. Government, a propaganda mission. It was wrong even if it had not been secret." It was secret because the government officials knew it wrong and illegal.
Gerardo and four companions have served almost 14 years in federal lock up for trying to stop right wing Miami thugs from bombing Havana. In 1997, a series of bombs hit hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. One tourist died and many Cuban workers in these establishments were wounded. The bombings were orchestrated by Luis Posada Carriles, resident of Miami today, and financed by right wing exile money.
As we sat in the visiting room surrounded by mostly people of color, with four guards watching us and the other visitors, we nibbled on salted snacks from the vending machine ("prison gourmet").
Gerardo told us about his time in "the hole," for no bad behavior on his part, but for his "protection"! He spoke of deprivation of the routine monotony. "Look around," he said, "you don't see a lot of middle class people here. There were none. Most of the prisoners were black or Latino, plus one who Gerardo thought was a descendent of poor Okies. All share a lack of money to hire good lawyers.
"I was transferred here from Lompoc in 2004 because Lompoc was not going to be a maximum security prison any more," Gerardo told us. As if this cultured, disciplined man needed maximum security. We wondered how we would endure the punishment of imprisonment in a supposedly correctional and rehabilitative institution, where no correction or rehabilitation takes place.
We drove from the prison to the Ontario airport and asked ourselves: What, we asked ourselves, was a well-educated Cuban man doing in such a place? The U.S. government knew the Cuban agents had infiltrated Cuban exile groups that intended to cause damage to Cuba's tourist economy. The five were fighting terrorism and sharing information with the FBI. They should never have been charged and now, almost 14 years of prison later, they should at last be freed.
President Obama could and should pardon them and send them home. Cuba has indicated it would respond by freeing Alan Gross, who worked for a company contracted to USAID with a design to destabilize the Cuban government and was convicted in Cuba. It's time for President Obama to put this issue on his agenda.