The old lady came to us and asked, timidly, while she was pointing at the short moustachioed man who was talking to us: “Is that Fernando?”. “Yes, that’s him”, we told her. Her face lit up. She ran towards the group of women pensioners who gather in this central park in Havana every morning to do their daily exercises, and confirmed what we had just told her: “yes, it is Fernando”, she said, her voice trembling with emotion. Immediately, they stopped their morning routine, turned towards us and started clapping and chanting slogans which I didn’t at first understand.
A group of school children was also in the park doing physical education. As soon as the teacher noticed the clapping, he also turned towards us and saw what was going on. He told the children: “Kids, that’s Fernando”. One by one, the old people and the children came towards Fernando and started to hug him and kiss him.
Wherever we walked, people recognised him: “it is Fernando.” The man we are talking about is not a movie star, a famous singer, a renowned painter or a political leader. Fernando González Llort spent 15 years in a US prison accused of espionage. He was arrested together with René González (no relation), Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernández in 1998. Tried in 2001, Fernando was sentenced to 19 years, of which he has served 15. He returned to Cuba in March this year. René was given a lesser sentence and returned to the island for good in 2013 (he had been given permission to travel to Cuba for personal reasons in 2011) on condition that he gave up his American citizenship (he was born in Chicago).
The Cuba Five were accused of spying on the Cuban American community at the behest of the Cuban government ,whcih was afraid of terrorist attacks on the island. The trial was so flawed that even Amnesty International, an organisation renowned for its criticism of the Cuban government’s human rights record, took up their case, saying that there was no reason for such harsh treatment. Two of the five, Antonio and Gerardo, are serving long-term prison sentences and Ramón is due to be released in 2025.
You can see interviews with relatives of the five and an analysis of the history of the case in the program the author made for HispanTV (below).
Since his release and return to Cuba, Fernando has been fêted as a hero. He goes everywhere with a minder, attends the opening of rum factories and gives conferences. And yet, for all his status, he is longing for a more normal life. He is aware that he has the responsibilities of a celebrity and must greet Cubans, especially because the Cuba Five is the most important international political campaign the country has conducted in the past 16 years. But there is also the private man: “It is difficult to adapt”, he tells me,” but I have my family, friends, and others and that helps.” He has been invited to travel abroad to talk about his experience but he has refused: “I need Cuba now, a lot of Cuba”, he says.
Fernando reflects about the whole trial, the redacted testimonies from “witnesses” which not even his lawyers were allowed to read, the initial solitary confinement in a Florida jail, and the comrades he has left behind. Although Fernando and René are free, the Cuba Five have not become the Cuba Three. And Fernando and René tell me that, for as long as Ramón, Antonio and Gerardo remain in prison, they are not free either.
The campaign in Cuba has been relentless. In the recent attempts to improve relations between Cuba and the USA, the Cuba Five remain an irritant in an otherwise more positive atmosphere, with the implementation of a migration reform by Cuba and the relaxation of restrictions on the sending of remesas (money remittances) and on trips by US and indeed Cuban American citizens to the island.
René is more relaxed. After all, he has been back for quite some time. Although he only moved permanently to Cuba in 2013, he had been travelling to Havana regularly since 2011, when he was given permission to visit his dying brother. He still gets the odd salute or hug but he has learned to cope with fame.
The relatives of the remaining three have established a bond with Fernando and René, as they are the only link with their imprisoned loved ones. They have the consolation that human rights organisations which are usually critical of Cuba are against the way the USA has politicised the case and put behind bars Cubans who did what Americans do all the time: go abroad to assess the dangers of terrorist attacks.
Although Fernando is enjoying the first months of freedom, his thoughts, he tells me, are across the sea in the US, where the remaining three still languish in prison. He shakes hands, kisses old ladies, encourages children to study, smiles at people, and copes with life in the limelight. He is back in Cuban soil but a part of him has not landed, not just yet.