By Diana Block
How do you break through the 12-year blockade of silence that has kept five Cuban political prisoners invisible to the American public? How can art transcend U.S. prison walls and present the truth about these men, locked up in five distant prisons scattered across the United States, to a Southern California community?
On May 22-23, a collaboration of artists, actors, organizations and organizers addressed these issues by hosting two events, at SPARC and Beyond Baroque, dedicated to the freedom of the Cuban 5. The Five have been held in U.S. prisons since 1998, charged with spying against the United States. In reality, they were monitoring the activities of violent Cuban exile groups in Miami to prevent future terrorist actions against Cuba (for detailed information about the Cuban 5 see www.thecuban5.org).
During his years in prison, one of the Five, Antonio Guerrero, learned how to paint, and an exhibit of his artwork was put together by his supporters on the outside. Over 150 people attended the opening of the exhibit, titled From My Altitude. This was followed the next day by an educational and fundraising brunch that focused on the denial of family visits to the wives of the prisoners. Both events, presented by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five, successfully raised awareness and material support for the Five and advanced a collective commitment to the continuing campaign to win their freedom.
The art show was held in the gallery of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). Ironically, the SPARC gallery is situated in the old city jail building which, for the past 33 years, has been converted into a “liberated” space. SPARC promotes public art based on the vision that “the arts can have significant transformative impact on the most significant social problems of our time” (from the SPARC brochure), so this was a very fitting venue for the paintings of a political prisoner. The gallery in which Guerrero’s paintings were displayed includes a preserved portion of an original cell from the old jail, and one of the curators of the exhibit, Debra Padilla, SPARC’s Executive Director, effectively used this cell to highlight the current confined situation of the artist.
As people arrived, they entered the gallery unsure of what to expect. Quickly, they came face-to-face with the set of bars that encased the small cell space. After entering through the narrow door way to the cell, their experience of the tiny, enclosed area was offset by the paintings hanging on the wall and a colorful banner with the strong faces of the five prisoners which was set above Guerrero’s artist’s statement. In 2003, searching for an occupation which could take him away from the tension and violence of the prison climate, Guerrero began to take a drawing class taught by an African-American prisoner, André. When André was transferred to another prison, Guerrero continued his study with a Native American prisoner and gradually moved from pencil, to watercolor, then pastels and finally oils. In developing his art, Guerrero was guided by José Marti’s precept, “Truth needs art,” and he continues to see his painting as a means of communicating the truth about himself, the Five, and the Cuban people. “Each work expresses not only my human essence, but that of the Five, united as we are by unbreakable principles.”
After this compelling introduction, visitors went on to view a range of other paintings. The scenes, drawn primarily from Guerrero’s memory, included portraits of the mothers of the Five, paintings of Cuban cityscapes and countrysides, as well as pictures of Elian Gonzales, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Judy Baca, the founder and current artistic director of SPARC and a world-renowned muralist, scholar and educator, welcomed the crowd to the exhibit. She made it clear that SPARC was honored to host the exhibit and to support the struggle for freedom of the Cuban 5. Baca pointed out that there are very few artistic spaces that will support such socially significant efforts, but the city of Los Angles is now threatening to take away SPARC’s lease of this historic space in order to make more money, which would endanger its future existence.
After touring the gallery, people expressed amazement that Guerrero could have produced such inspired paintings while living in the dehumanizing prison environment. The intergenerational, multicultural crowd included people who knew little or nothing about the Five, as well as those who had been following the case for many years. At 90 years old, Esther Cicconi was probably the oldest visitor that evening. She explained that her eyes were not good enough to clearly see the paintings, but she wanted to come to the exhibit anyway in order to express her long term support for the Cuban people. “I’ve been fighting injustice all my life and to me this case is just one more example of that,” she exclaimed.
At 8:30, the crowd moved next door to the old Venice city hall building, home to Beyond Baroque. After Richard Modiano, a board member, welcomed everyone to the theater space, Suzanne Thompson, producer of the weekend’s events, explained her connection to the case. Several years ago, Thompson produced a documentary about the case that focused on Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys for the Five. This past December, she experienced Cuba for herself, met family members of the Five, and became convinced that she had to do something more. “I refuse to allow a small group of reactionary right-wing, Miami Cuban-Americans to dictate U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba!” She also commented, “In all my years of producing concerts, events, and exhibitions, I’ve never experienced such a lack of response from the corporate press – a media black out, silence about the case of the Cuban 5. So we need to become the media.”
Thompson then introduced a documentary-in-progress by filmmakers, Saul Landau and Jack Willis, titled, “Will the Real Terrorists Please Stand Up?” The film exposes the aggressive terrorist activities that right-wing Cuban groups based in Miami unleashed against Cuba during the 1990s and dramatically shows the context which motivated five young Cubans to volunteer to infiltrate these groups in order to prevent further death and destruction in Cuba.
Following the film, Alicia Jrapko, national coordinator of the International Committee to Free the Cuban 5, noted that it was the birthday of Mirta Rodriguez, Guerrero’s mother. She also explained that most of the legal avenues for appealing the sentences of the Five had been exhausted, except for a current habeas corpus petition for Gerardo Hernández that was due to be heard in the middle of June.
Jrapko encouraged people to become involved with the grassroots efforts to free the Five which will be critical in the next period. Next was a videotaped greeting from actor Danny Glover who was originally supposed to be present at the event but was unable, at the last minute, to attend.
Glover read a beautiful story called “The Bird and the Prisoner” that Hernández had told Alicia on one of her visits to him at the federal prison in Victorville, just 100 miles away. The story, which Jrapko transcribed from memory after the visit, describes how Hernández nurtured a frail baby bird back to health and the special relationship that then developed between them, despite all the prison rules against such connections. At the end, Gerardo lost touch with the bird when the prison was locked down for an entire month and he was unable to go outside during this time.
People in the audience were visibly moved by this story which revealed so much about Gerardo’s character, his sensitivity, and the ways in which other prisoners looked up to him. (To request a copy of The Bird and the Prisoner, email [email protected]).
Actor Edward Asner (best known for his role as Lou Grant on TV and more recently, the voice of the grumpy old man, Carl Fredricksen in the film, “Up”), brought the evening’s program to a close. Asner, who has supported Latin American struggles for many years, pointed out that this is an important period for Americans to show solidarity with the developing unity in Latin America.
He then read two poems by Guerrero and a letter written by Ramón Labañino for his daughters when they first learned about his activities on behalf of the Cuban people. “Now you can understand why daddy couldn’t be with you longer, or share all the happy times with you like other fathers do with their children. For that, I’m very sorry…But I want you to know that I had to leave because of my love for you and everyone. That wherever I have been and wherever I will be, you have been and will always be with me.” (from Letters of Love and Hope, The Story of the Cuban Five).
Speaking with deep emotion after reading the letter, Asner concluded: “Justice in the U.S. these days is rarer than hens’ teeth, and the struggles we all engage in are never ending. But empires don’t last forever and perfidies will be exposed. So, keep on fighting!” After that, the audience took postcards to mail to President Obama on their way out of the theatre, urging him to use his executive power to free the Five. One woman commented, “I can’t believe how cruel and senseless it is to keep them in prison. And to think that Obama has the power to free them immediately. We just have to figure out how to build a strong enough campaign to make him do it!”
The following day a group of 50 people gathered for brunch and a closer examination of the way in which the U.S. has been violating the rights of the Five to family visits. They watched the video Against the Silence which features interviews with the mothers and wives of the Five.
All family members have experienced difficulty obtaining visas and scheduling visits. Even once they have visas, the constant lockdowns of the prisons prevent them from seeing their loved ones. Hernández’s wife, Adriana Pérez, and René González’s wife, Olga Salanueva have been denied visas for 12 years on the absurd grounds that they might meet with terrorist groups while they were in the United States or that they might try and remain in the U.S. illegally.
In 2002, Adriana was granted a visa, but when she arrived in Houston she was detained and interrogated for eleven hours and then was sent back to Cuba without ever seeing Hernández. Perez and Salanueva denounced this denial of family visitation as a weapon being employed by the U.S. to try and break the resolve of the men and their families. It is a clear violation of international law and has been condemned by Amnesty International, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and members of the European Parliament.
Following the film, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) addressed the group. She unequivocally condemned the right-wing Cubans, based in Miami , as the real terrorists. She described meeting with the families of the Five, in Cuba, and said that wherever she goes to speak she makes it her mission to talk about Cuba’s great accomplishments, especially in the areas of education and health. She pledged to continue working for the freedom of the Five and urged everyone to engage in political organizing as the means for achieving change. She ended her talk with the UFW’s landmark chant “Si se puede! Si se puede!” which was joined by everyone in the room.
The ensuing discussion was far reaching. Pacifica Radio KPFK host of “Sojourner Truth,” Margaret Prescod, pointed out the role of Cuban doctors and other international graduates of Cuba’s Medical School in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Another person spoke about the annual allocations of $30 million by the U.S. government to promote disinformation and destabilization programs in Cuba. Someone else exclaimed that Cuba was the one place in the world that the corporations don’t control and that is why the U.S. hates the revolution and incarcerates the Five. Finally, a young Cuban-American woman stood up. “The face of the Cuban exile in this country is changing,” she explained. She went on to say that the younger generation wants to heal the wounds inflicted by their parents’ generation and working for the freedom of the Five as a human issue is part of the process. All agreed that the weekend’s mix of art and advocacy had successfully broken through the silence about the Cuban 5 in this community. The energy that had been generated would serve as a strong launching pad for future work to Free the Five.
Antonio Guerrero’s exhibit closes June 11 at SPARC Gallery, 685 Venice Blvd.