Memory and Justice: Commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Cubana air disaster
Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column
Last Saturday, October 6th, marked the 36th anniversary of the Cubana air disaster in 1976. CU-455 crashed into the Caribbean Sea after two bombs exploded on board, just a few minutes after it took off from what was then Seawell International Airport (it would be changed to Grantley Adams International that same year). All 73 passengers and crew perished, among them 57 Cubans, 5 Koreans and 11 Guyanese. Many of the Cubans were coming from the Pan American Games in Venezuela; according to a report by José Pertierra, they had boarded the plane proudly wearing the medals they had swept at the competition.
Margaret Bradshaw. Sabrina Harrypaul. Seshnarine Kumar. Ann Nelson. Eric Norton. Raymond Persaud. Gordon M. Sobha. Rawle Thomas. Rita Thomas. Violet Thomas. Jacqueline Williams.
For some reason one image stuck in my head then – of a young woman, wearing what I think was a school uniform shirt, bespectacled, staring solemnly out from the pages. I cannot tell you why she has stayed with me all these years. As I prepared to write this column I went in search of that image, to see if it was my childhood imagination that had conjured that face. I found her in a Kaieteur News report, which included a photo of a display mounted by the Cuban embassy some years ago. I don’t know whether it was the same bank of pictures that the Chronicle carried 36 years ago but I recognized her immediately, second in the top row. How memory works. And how terror leaves its imprint on all of us. A plane left Guyana that morning. With children like us (Sabrina Harrypaul was just nine years old). With young women and men going off to study, just as many of us would perhaps do. With a mother on board, never to return to her recently born child. Like us. Like us. Just. Like. Us. This is what we remember .
In Barbados the Cubana Monument was dedicated in 1998. It sits in Payne’s Bay in the parish of St James. Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott tells us that the Sea is History, and one thinks of that here, with the waves breaking on the shore just behind the monument. In Spanish and English, the words are inscribed, “In memory of those who lost their lives in the bombing of the DC-8 Cubana aircraft which crashed in the sea off Barbados on October 6th, 1976. May their souls rest in peace.” These are the places where we remember.
How else do we remember? And how are our acts of remembering also actions for justice?
Last month, over the course of three crisp and sunny days (September 21-23), a historic event took place in Toronto. Organized by Canadian activists and with the support and endorsement of trade unions, aboriginal leaders, Cuban solidarity groups, lawyers, teachers and others, the International Peoples’ Tribunal and Assembly was convened to break through the silence of the mainstream media, to raise international awareness of and demand justice for the Cuban Five. The Five refers to Cubans René González, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino and Fernando González, who fourteen years ago were charged and convicted in Miami of “conspiracy to commit espionage” on behalf of the Cuban Government and against the United States. They are all serving lengthy sentences in federal prison in the United States, which has included periods of solitary confinement.According to one of the co-ordinators, HeideTrampus, “At the Peoples’ Tribunal we will hear testimonies given by expert witnesses and victims of terror to a panel of Magistrates of Conscience who will then render a verdict. This is a way to inform the public and to shed new light on this case.”
I attended some of the sessions in the packed Council Chambers of the Toronto City Hall. Among those attending and participating were Cindy Sheehan, American mother and anti-war activist whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, family members of the Cuban Five (one wife has never been granted a visa to visit her husband in prison in the US), members of the legal team for the Cuban Five, First Nations educator and cultural worker Lee Maracle, award-winning documentary film-maker Saul Landau. Actor Danny Glover sent an extended videotaped message to the gathering talking about his visits with the imprisoned Cubans and urging us all to redouble our efforts to free them.
How are the Cuban Five connected to the Cubana Air Disaster? At its simplest, the mastermind of the tragedy walks freely in Miami, while those who sought to expose the terrorist actions of groups that targeted Cuba from the safe haven of the United States, were put behind bars. Over the two days of the Tribunal, we heard testimony from legal counsel and expert witnesses on the historical and political context, the arrests, trials and convictions of the Cuban Five, and events since the trial in Florida that resulted in the convictions. We learned of more than 50 years of terrorist attacks against Cuba, masterminded by extremist groups in Miami that are known to the US Government, attacks that have so far left close to three and a half thousand dead and over two thousand seriously injured. In the face of ongoing terror, the five Cuban men travelled to Miami to collect evidence against the Cuban American groups, which they shared with the FBI in 1998. Instead of acting on this evidence, US authorities apprehended, charged and jailed the Five. As one witness to the Tribunal in Toronto put it, “The Cuban Five were not prosecuted for violating US law. They were prosecuted for attempting to expose those who were violating US law.” In an October 2012 report on the case of the Cuban Five, Amnesty International concluded that there are “serious doubts about the fairness of the proceedings leading to their conviction, in particular the prejudicial impact of publicity about the case on a jury in Miami.”
At the Tribunal, a moving statement from an Italian, Giustino Di Celmo was shared with us. Di Celmo, now 92, lost his 32 year old son Fabio on September 4, 1997, when a bomb exploded in the Copacabana Hotel in Havana. In his message, he said, “I only wanted to tell all of you that I am a hard-working and peace-loving man, a 92 year old man who, despite his pain, does not harbor any ill feelings of revenge. Since Fabio died I swore to have no rest until justice is served, and so I decided to stay in Cuba. I want to be part of the struggle that this country is waging for justice.”
The attack that took Fabio Di Celmo’s life was masterminded by Venezuelan terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who in a statement given in 1998 and published in the New York Times, stated that he did not lose any sleep over it (he slept like a baby, he is reported to have said), and that “the Italian was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”Carriles was also the mastermind behind the Cubana air disaster, which was discussed at length in the testimony of Washington based lawyer José Pertierra, who has a book, ‘The El Paso Diary,’ coming out soon on the Carriles case. Pertierra testified that the two Venezuelans who had placed the bombs fled Barbados the same day. They arrived in Trinidad and Tobago where they raised the suspicion of the police who arrested them at a local hotel, and extracted a handwritten confession from them that they had been hired by Luis Posada Carriles and trained by the CIA. They were extradited to Venezuela, convicted and sentenced. Carriles was indicted in 1985 for the Cubana attack, but escaped from the Venezuelan prison before the verdict was announced. Incredibly, he resurfaced shortly after in Latin America where, according to Pertierra, he worked for the US Central Intelligence Agency against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Later that year Carriles landed in the United States, and the Venezuelan government filed an extradition request, drawing on a 1922 treaty as well as an international convention that aims to protect passengers on civilian airplanes from terrorist acts. Rather than abide by international law, the US government chose to try Carriles on minor immigration violation charges, for which he was acquitted. Today he is a free man in the United States, despite having continued his deadly campaign against Cuba (as in the bomb that took the life of Fabio Di Celmo in 1997). He moves freely, despite the fact that as Pertierra shows, declassified US intelligence cables had evidence that Carriles was speaking of hitting a Cuban airliner just days before Flight 455 fell from the sky. He walks freely, notwithstanding United Nations Resolution 1373, which was passed in 2001 after the September 11th tragedy, and which explicitly calls on all states to “deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens.” Does this not include the United States’ obligation with respect to Carriles? And would this not entail returning to consider the case of the Cuban Five? If we are to honour the memories of all those lost to acts of terrorism, wherever they are and whoever they are, should consistency not be our guide? Justice can have no double standards.
On the second day, and before moving to picket outside the US embassy in Toronto, the People’s Tribunal issued its ruling. Having considered all of the evidence, it found that “the Cuban Five were unjustly detained, unjustly prosecuted, and unjustly sentenced, all contrary to international and U.S. domestic law including the U.S. Constitution. This Peoples’ Tribunal proposes the convictions be quashed, and that Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González Llort and René González be set free immediately, without any restrictions on their liberty. In the alternative, and in the interest of justice and healing, this Peoples’ Tribunal proposes that the President of the United States should exercise his prerogative of a Presidential Clemency and allow the Five to return home.”
For those of you reading this in Guyana who marked this 36th anniversary of the Air Cubana disaster last weekend, for all those who lost loved ones on that fateful flight, for all of us who knew they were ‘just like us,’ know that hundreds of people in a city called Toronto stood with you last month, publicly sharing your pain and declaring their commitment to justice. For this too is an example of how we can and should remember. By refusing to forget, by demanding justice in the names of all those lost to these unspeakable acts of terror. We shall not forget, and we shall not give up.
For more information on the People’s Tribunal and Assembly, see http://canadiannetworkoncuba.ca/tribunal/index.html