Cuban 5 Art Exhibit Opens at La Peña Cultural Center

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:55:00 AM
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker reads from "Letters of Love and Hope."
Bill Hackwell
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker reads from "Letters of Love and Hope."
Antonio Guerrero's painting of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Antonio Guerrero's painting of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The Cuban 5 have come to Berkeley—in spirit if not in person. 

“From My Altitude,” a touring exhibit of 25 paintings by Antonio Guerrero, one of the five men facing stiff sentences in U.S. prisons for spying, opened at La Peña Cultural Center Aug. 6 and will continue through the end of the month. 

Although hailed as heroes in their own country, most Americans know little—if anything—about the Cuban 5. The Cuban government asserts they were gathering information to protect Cuba from right-wing terrorists, not conspiring to commit a crime against the United States, as alleged. 

Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, René González and Fernando González were arrested in 1998 in Miami and convicted three years later of being unregistered foreign agents. 

The Associated Press reported that three of them were also found guilty of espionage for failed efforts to get military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command headquarters. The AP also reported that Hernández was convicted of a conspiracy to murder four Miami-based pilots who died when their planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba’s northern coast. 

Facing sentences that span from 15 years to life, all five have been working with their lawyers and international human rights advocates to draw attention to their situation.  

Hernández and René González have been involved in lengthy visitation rights battles over the U.S. government’s refusal, on at least nine occasions, to grant visas to Hernández’ wife Adrianna Perez and René González’ wife Olga Salanueva to visit their husbands. 

Labañino and Guerrero have been serving life sentences and Fernando González was sentenced to 19 years. A federal appeals court ruled their sentences were too long last year and ordered new sentences for all three. They are scheduled to be re-sentenced in October. 

The paintings Guerrero produced in the isolation of his cell in Florence Colorado Penitentiary include portraits of the prisoners’ mothers, wives and children, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and familiar landscapes from Cuba. 

“Even Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years of hard labor in prison on Robben Island under apartheid South Africa, was still allowed to see his wife,” said Alicia Jrapko, national coordinator for the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, the event organizer. “How is it that the U.S., which promotes itself as the champion of human rights, can be more punitive and cruel than apartheid South Africa when it comes to visitation rights for Olga and Adrianna?”   

Drawing comparisons between the problems that existed in Cuba and the City of Richmond, a sister city to Regla, Cuba, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stressed the importance of creating more awareness about the issue. 

“The mainstream press has dissed Richmond in the same way it has dissed Cuba,” said McLaughlin, who will be leading a delegation to Regla in November to meet with the families of the five men. The Richmond-Regla Sister City Association co-sponsored the exhibit at La Peña. “We know that the way to overcome hardship is to link in unity,” said McLaughlin, who last visited Cuba in 1986. “Richmond is making an effort to build a sustainable city—empowerment is the way forward. The Cuban people have made a revolution and are living it.” 

McLaughlin’s efforts to pass a resolution in the Richmond City Council calling for the freedom of the Cuban 5 and their visitation rights were successful. 

A five-minute video clip from the documentary Against the Silence: The Family of the Five Speak Out, by New York filmmakers Sally O'Brien and Jennifer Wager, showed Adrianna recalling how the news of her husband’s arrest changed the course of their marriage. 

She talked about sporadic phone conversations with Gerardo, during which only he was allowed to call her for a few minutes from the prison. Most of the five men’s children have grown up without their fathers, and some of them have not seen each other in 11 years. 

“I have traveled all over the world talking to lawyers,” said Adrianna, who is trying to raise awareness of the case. “Sadly, American people do not know.” 

The International Committee is planning to hold a series of gatherings this year featuring Nobel laureates, artists, actors and activists who will call on President Barack Obama to end the U.S. blockade to Cuba and support the cause of freedom for the Cuban 5. 

Local political analyst and author Michael Parenti, who is a member of the International Commission for the Rights of Family Visits, denounced the American government’s harsh treatment toward the Cuban 5. 

“Here are five exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, admirable, dedicated, and democratically minded men who committed no act of espionage or sabotage against the U.S. government,” Parenti said. “For their valiant efforts against the terrorists they have been given draconian sentences.” 

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker also spoke in support of the five men. 

“What has happened to them is shameful,” Walker told the Daily Planet before taking the podium. “For those of us who believe our country is for justice, it’s shameful. These men have left behind their wives and their children. Their only fault is trying to protect their country. The least we can do in this country is to speak up against the injustice and express our concern and affection for these people in the prison.” 

Walker, who lives in the Bay Area, has supported the Cuban revolution since she was 15 years old. 

“Injustice is the greatest foundation of hatred and this is what we continue to create, and we do it as if we don’t understand this,” Walker told the audience. “We understand this, but we keep harming people deliberately, making them suffer. Our government does this, our country does this over and over through the centuries. So what can our future be if we mistreat people in this way?” 

Walker said the painting she had been touched by the most was the one Guerrero made of the cell door he saw every day. 

She later read aloud from Letters of Love and Hope, a book chronicling the correspondence between the Cuban 5 and their families, for which she has written a prologue. 

“Time is short,” Walker said. “Does it mean anything to be an American if you can actually send these men to dungeons, not let them see their families, not let them embrace their children, or their wives? ... I think of how much I love the people that I love and how much I love snuggling with them, how much I love cuddling, and how much I love to feel them in the morning, to feel their touch. To take this away from human beings—just on a whim—is actually heartbreaking.” 


“From My Altitude” will be exhibited at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., through August. For more information visit www.thecuban5.org or www.laPeña.org.