Photo Credit: Rae Louise Breaux

After last week’s 12th Annual Human Rights Awards event – our hearts are full and our determination for radical change and real democracy revitalized.

May 8th was a night to remember! Please find photos from the event on our Facebook page.

We had a great time with everyone who came to the Palace of Fine Arts, and we’re grateful for the support of our donors, sponsors, and volunteers. Together, we helped shine a spotlight on the work of our amazing 2014 honorees: the Freedom Schools, María Estela Barco Huerta, and the Cuban Five.

A big thanks to the evening’s human rights heroes and our special guest, Aisha Fukushima, who moved the audience with her heartfelt spoken word and song performance.


Accepting the award for the Cuban Five was María Eugenia Guerrero Rodriguez, the sister of Antonio Guerrero. The Global Exchange People’s Choice Award marks the first time these men have received recognition in the U.S., and the first time a family member of the Cuban 5 has spoken publicly in the U.S. on their behalf. Prior to the event, they sent letters to Global Exchange. See María Eugenia Guerrero Rodriguez’s speech on our Vimeo page.


Photo Credit: Rae Louise Breaux

Sharing her story of struggle and success working to protect the rights of indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, International Honoree María Estela Barco Huerta, moved the audience with her words as she made a passionate call for us all to protect Mother Nature and to be defenders of human rights and dignity. See María Estela Barco Huerta’s speech on our Vimeo page.

Freedom Schools visionary Charlie Cobb and Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew both took the stage to accept the Domestic Award for the Freedom Schools. Both channeled the power of history in honoring the struggle for civil rights and demanded that while we commemorate this history, we must recognize that there is still work to be done. See Phillip Agnew and Charlie Cobb’s speech on our Vimeo page.

We took the spirit of these speeches, and rounded out the evening in song with all attendees joining hand-in-hand to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon, legendary songwriter, singer and civil rights advocate, unfortunately was not able to join us on Thursday but sent in remarks.

Besides the inspiring speeches and music, the evening included a silent auction, delicious locally sourced food, wine from Frey Vineyards, and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream buffet.

We thank all those, once again, who helped make this event a success.  Our work would not be possible without the dedicated support of our members and donors. Not yet a member, or inspired to make an additional gift? – click here to donate today.


Photo credit: Bill Hackwell

GXHRA_Slides_CubanFiveGlobal Exchange announced the Cuban Five as the winner of the People’s Choice Award in April  2014, in advance of the 12th Annual Human Rights Awards, held May 8 in San Francisco, CA.

Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero – three of the Cuban Five – remain in prison in the United States, and René González and Fernando Gonzales have recently been released, after serving the entirety of their sentences. All have written letters to Global Exchange, expressing appreciation for the Award and awareness raising of their cases.

Just before the event night, we received this email from author Stephen Kimber, who has written about the Cuban Five in his book What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. He said:


Like many of you in this room, I was a latecomer to the story of the Cuban Five, and to the injustices they’ve suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of U.S. authorities. This People’s Choice award is an overdue recognition of the importance of  their contributions to the cause of human rights. In the face of overwhelming pressure from the authorities, they refused to abandon their principles or one another. By shining a light on their case and their accomplishments, Global Exchange and people’s choice voters have made an important statement in favour of human rights.

We are happy to share the letters below, and hope that, once hearing of the cases of the Cuban Five, you will take action. Support events and actions can be found on the website of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five. Most immediately, join the ‘5 Days for the Cuban 5’ in Washington DC, June 4-11, 2014.

The night of the Human Rights Awards, letters of solidarity and wishes were collected to send to the Cuban Five. If you have any words of solidarity to share, please leave them in the comments section.

Gerardo HernandezGerardo Hernandez
USP Victorville, California

On behalf of the Cuban Five let me first extend our gratitude for being awarded the People’s Choice Award category of your 12th Annual Human Rights Awards. It is an honor for us to accept this from an organization such as yours. We know the amount of effort that Global Exchange has put in over the years in bringing groups from the U.S. to visit Cuba. We feel that the best way to break through all the misconceptions and lies we see daily in the media about our country is to let people experience it by themselves and draw their own conclusions.

This award is especially meaningful to us because it reflects in a certain way the amount of support that we have around the world. Through email, word of mouth, and social media the network of groups and individuals working on the struggle for our freedom were able to rally and make this possible. You gave them the opportunity and we extend a heartfelt thanks to you for that and to all of them in that network who seized the moment and participated. Their continued support is an endless source of encouragement and inspiration to us.

We understand that this award comes with a monetary consideration as well. I have been able to communicate with my four brothers and our families and we all feel that the best way to use this money would be to put it towards the upcoming “5 days for the Cuban 5” in Washington DC June 4-11 being organized by the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5.

We extend a warm embrace of solidarity to all of you.

Ramon LabaninoRamón Labañino Salazar
F.C.I Ashland, Kentucky

We are profoundly moved and privileged to have received the great honor of such a prestigious award.

It is really an honor that belongs to the Cuban People for their humane efforts to create the better world that we all dream of.

For us five, this effort is also the most important responsibility, the one which we dedicate our life’s work to.

We wish to thank all our sisters and brothers from all the corners of the world who voted for us to win this award.

We will never stop defending human rights, the right for all to live in a peaceful world without wars or terrorism of any kind.

Any monetary retribution that is derived from the award, we wish to turn over completely to the “International Committee for the Freedom of the Five.”

Please receive a warm embrace from the Five, our families and the Cuban People.

Five Embraces.

Antonio GuerreroAntonio Guerrero Rodríguez
Marianna Federal Prison

As words of thanks to Global Exchange, and in the name of my brothers, I send a poem that I wrote on one of those tortuous days after they threw us into solitary confinement cells, known as “the hole,” for seventeen months after our arrest.

I think that these simple verses that I composed as a sonnet, reflect the essence of our heroic Cuban people that stand in solidarity with us and that we try with dignity to represent; also reflected in these verses are the reasons that so many friends from all around the world have supported us and have voted for us for the “People’s Choice Award.”

Yo quiero hacer canción de cada día,
en cada corazón descubrir a un hermano,
repartir lo que tengo a cada mano
sin temor a anhelar lo que tenia.

Yo quiero que una lluvia de armonía
penetre en la raíz del ser humano
y que la acción del vil y del profano
se transforme en bondad y en simpatía.

En cada amanecer, que una sonrisa
tenga la magnitud de una montaña
y que un gesto de paz nazca en la brisa

llegando a lo más hondo, nuestra entraña.
Que al germinar mostremos solo amor,
unidos como pétalos de una misma flor.

(Written on June 18, 1999, the birthday of my father.)

We will not fail our people nor our friends. “The homeland is humanity,” José Martí taught us. A better world is possible.

Our most sincere gratitude to Global Exchange, we commit to represent this award with dignity.
We shall overcome!

Five Embraces.

rene gonzalezLRené González Sehwerert

It is an honor to have been recognized with your award of this year. For the Five of us, who have been sent to prison for protecting the most sacred human right –that of preserving people’s lives-, having your recognition is an encouragement and a compromise with justice everywhere.

We also want to acknowledge all of those who first nominated us, and then to thank the hundreds who joined to make our award winning a reality.

That said we can’t forget all of those who were also nominated. Each of them represents a cause. Each of them reminds us that we still have to keep fighting for justice whenever injustice is imposed on a human being. We are called to correct the wrongs and abuses that hinder our aspirations of becoming a really intelligent specie.

To all and each of those of the nominated, some of which have and are fighting for their dignity in the face of abuses that match or surpasses the ones suffered by us, there goes my profound and sincere feelings of admiration, solidarity and support. On behalf of them let’s keep fighting until injustice is swept from the face of the earth.

A big hug to all, with my deep gratitude.

Fernando GonzalezFernando Gonzalez

It is an honor for the five of us to receive the “People’s Choice Award” given by the prestigious, solidarity organization.

The fact that the prize is the result of the votes of individuals from around the world is a testimony to the solidarity regarding the cause of our freedom. It is therefore a recognition of all those who have worked ardently for so long and have contributed their efforts to the struggle to achieve that objective.

We also thank the International Committee for the Freedom for the Five, for having nominated us for the award. Reading the list of the personalities and organizations that have received the “People’s Choice Award” in the past, the honor of us receiving it is multiplied.

I also wish to express my gratitude to Global Exchange for the solidarity we have received for more than 15 years, expressed in diverse ways and exemplified by the correspondence we received in prison and which Gerardo, Ramon and Antonio continue to receive.

Efforts for their freedom continue. We will work tirelessly until it has been achieved, as we know that our friends at Global Exchange will, as well as the various Committees for the Defense of the Five of which so many exist in the United States and in other countries.

The prize, with the support of those who voted for us, is a stimulus for struggle and commitment that fuels our decision to make every possible effort to bring them home.

A big thank you to all the friends whose votes made it possible for us to receive this distinction. Our gratitude goes out to Global Exchange along with our certainty that we will achieve victory.

Thank you.

Global Exchange thanks the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five for photos and Rebekah Olstad, Leslie Balog and Nelson Enriquez for translation.

GXHRA_Slides_CubanFiveOn April 4, 2014, Global Exchange announced the Cuban Five as winners of the 2014 People’s Choice Award.

This opinion piece was published by the Washington Post on October 4, 2013 by Stephen Kimber, titled “The Cuban Five were fighting terrorism. Why did we put them in jail?”. A required update to this article is that a second member of the Cuban Five, Fernando González, was released on February 27, 2014. Stephen Kimber teaches journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada, and is the author of “What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.”

Consider for a moment what would happen if American intelligence agents on the ground in a foreign country uncovered a major terrorist plot, with enough time to prevent it. And then consider how Americans would react if authorities in that country, rather than cooperate with us, arrested and imprisoned the U.S. agents for operating on their soil.

Those agents would be American heroes. The U.S. government would move heaven and Earth to get them back.

This sort of scenario has occurred, except that, in the real-life version, which unfolded 15 years ago last month, the Americans play the role of the foreign government, and Cuba — yes, Fidel Castro’s Cuba — plays the role of the aggrieved United States.

In the early 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union made the collapse of Cuba’s communist government seem inevitable, Miami’s militant Cuban exile groups ratcheted up their efforts to overthrow Castro by any means possible, including terrorist attacks. In 1994, for example, Rodolfo Frometa, the leader of an exile group, was nabbed in an FBI sting trying to buy a Stinger missile, a grenade launcher and anti-tank rockets that he said he planned to use to attack Cuba. In 1995, Cuban police arrested two Cuban Americans after they tried to plant a bomb at a resort in Varadero.

Those actions clearly violated U.S. neutrality laws, but America’s justice system mostly looked the other way. Although Frometa was charged, convicted and sentenced to almost four years in jail, law enforcement agencies rarely investigated allegations involving exile militants, and if they did, prosecutors rarely pursued charges. Too often, Florida’s politicians served as apologists for the exile community’s hard-line elements.

But the Cubans had their own agents on the ground in Florida. An intelligence network known as La Red Avispa was dispatched in the early 1990s to infiltrate militant exile groups. It had some successes. Agents thwarted a 1994 plan to set off bombs at the iconic Tropicana nightclub, a tourist hot spot in Havana. And they short-circuited a 1998 scheme to send a boat filled with explosives from the Miami River to the Dominican Republic to be used in an assassination attempt against Castro.

In the spring of 1998, Cuban agents uncovered a plot to blow up an airplane filled with beach-bound tourists from Europe or Latin America. The plot resonated: Before 2001, the most deadly act of air terrorism in the Americas had been the 1976 midair bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, which killed all 73 passengers and crew members.

Castro enlisted his friend, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to carry a secret message about the plot to President Bill Clinton. The White House took the threat seriously enough that the Federal Aviation Administration warned airlines.

In June of that year, FBI agents flew to Havana to meet with their Cuban counterparts. During three days in a safe house, the Cubans provided the FBI with evidence their agents had gathered on various plots, including the planned airplane attack and an ongoing campaign of bombings at Havana hotels that had taken the life of an Italian Canadian businessman.

But the FBI never arrested anyone in connection with the airplane plot or the hotel attacks — even after exile militant Luis Posada Carriles bragged about his role in the Havana bombings to the New York Times in July 1998. Instead, on Sept. 12, 1998, a heavily armed FBI SWAT team arrested the members of the Cuban intelligence network in Miami.

The five agents were tried in that hostile-to-anything-Cuban city, convicted on low-bar charges of “conspiracy to commit” everything from espionage to murder and sentenced to impossibly long prison terms, including one double life sentence plus 15 years.

Fifteen years later, four of the Cubans still languish in American prisons.

Now you begin to understand why the Cuban Five — as they have become known — are national heroes in their homeland, why pictures of their younger selves loom on highway billboards all over the island, why every Cuban schoolchild knows them by their first names: Gerardo, René, Ramon, Fernando and Antonio.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has stated that the Cuban Five “were all convicted in U.S. courts of committing crimes against the United States, including spying, treason.”

It is true that three of the five men — Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino and Fernando Gonzalez — did have, in part, military missions beyond simply infiltrating and reporting back on the activities of Miami’s exile groups. But their purpose was not to steal America’s military secrets or compromise U.S. security.

During the 1990s, Cuban authorities believed theirs might be the next Caribbean country to face an American military invasion. It wasn’t a stretch when you consider Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Haiti (1994). Then, too, there was the growing influence of militantly anti-Castro lobbying groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation, which were pushing Washington to overthrow Castro and his brother.

Based on its assessments of those earlier invasions, Cuban intelligence had developed a checklist of signals that an invasion might be imminent: a sudden influx of combat and reconnaissance aircraft to a southern military base, for example, or unexpected, unexplained visits by military brass to Southern Command headquarters in Miami.

Agents such as Antonio Guerrero — who worked as a janitor at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West from 1993 until his arrest in 1998 and is serving 22 years in prison — were Cuba’s low-tech equivalents of U.S. spy satellites, counting planes on runways and reporting back to Havana.

Of course, Cuban authorities were eager to vacuum up every tidbit of gossip their agents could find, and Havana occasionally pressured Guerrero to up his game; he responded mostly by sending clippings from base newspapers. No wonder. Guerrero spoke little English and had no security clearance; military secrets were well above his pay grade. And U.S. military secrets were never Cuba’s real priority — it just wanted to know if the Yankees were about to invade.

Seven months after the FBI charged the five with relatively insignificant counts — failing to register as foreign agents, using false identities and, more seriously but less specifically, conspiracy to commit espionage — prosecutors tacked on the charge that would galvanize Cuba’s exile community.

They charged Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the network, with conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shootdown three years earlier of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft.

Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro group that had been rescuing rafters in the Straits of Florida but had lost its raison d’etre after a 1994 immigration deal between Washington and Havana, had been illegally violating Cuban airspace for more than a year, occasionally raining down anti-government leaflets on Havana. The Cubans protested the flights. The U.S. government did its best to prevent further incursions, but the wheels of the FAA bureaucracy ground slowly.

In early 1996, the Cubans sent messages to Washington through various intermediaries, warning that if the United States didn’t stop further Brothers flights, the Cubans would.

Washington didn’t.

So the Cubans did. On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban fighter jets blew two small, unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft out of the sky, killing all four men aboard.

The Cubans claim that the planes were inside their territory. The U.S. government claims — and the International Civil Aviation Organization agreed — that the planes were in international airspace when they were attacked.

But did Hernandez really know in advance that the Cuban government planned to shoot down those planes? Was he involved in the planning?

My answer is no. During my research for a book on the Cuban Five, I reviewed all 20,000-plus pages of the trial transcript and sifted through thousands of pages of decrypted communications between Havana and its agents. I found no evidence that Hernandez had any knowledge of, or influence on, the events that day.

The evidence instead paints a picture of a Cuban intelligence bureaucracy obsessed with compartmentalizing and controlling information. Hernandez, a field-level illegal intelligence officer, had no need to know what Cuba’s military planned. The messages and instructions from Havana were ambiguous, hardly slam-dunk evidence, particularly for a charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

In one message, for example, Hernandez’s bosses refer to a plan to “perfect the confrontation” with Brothers to the Rescue, which prosecutors insisted meant shooting down the planes.

But as Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch pointed out — in her 2008 dissent from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuitupholding the murder charge against Hernandez — “There are many ways a country could ‘confront’ foreign aircraft. Forced landings, warning shots, and forced escorted journeys out of a country’s territorial airspace are among them — as are shoot downs.” She said that prosecutors “presented no evidence” to link Hernandez to the shootdown. “I cannot say that a reasonable jury — given all the evidence — could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernandez agreed to a shoot down,” Kravitch wrote.

A “reasonable jury.” There’s the rub.

By the late 1990s, Miami juries had become so notorious in cases involving Cuban exiles that federal prosecutors in a different case opposed a defense motion for a change of venue from Puerto Rico to Miami for some Cuban exiles accused of plotting to assassinate Castro.

Miami “is a very difficult venue for securing a conviction for so-called freedom fighters,” former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey explained to the Miami Herald at the time. “I had some convictions, but some acquittals that defied all reason.”

Anti-Cuban militants, in fact, were considered heroes. In 2008, more than 500 Miami exile movers and shakers gathered to honor Posada’s contributions to la causa — as the effort to overthrow Castro is known in the community — at a gala dinner.

His contributions? Besides the Havana hotel attacks (“I sleep like a baby,” he told the New York Times, commenting on the tourist who was killed), Posada is the alleged mastermind of the bombing of Cubana Flight 455. Cuba and Venezuela have asked for his extradition. The United States has refused.

In 2000, Posada was arrested in Panama in connection with a plot to assassinate Castro; he was convicted and served four yearsbefore receiving a still-controversial pardon. That pardon was revoked in 2008.

The closest the U.S. government has come to prosecuting Posada was in 2009, when the Obama administration charged him — not for his role in the Havana bombings but for lying about his role on an immigration form. He was acquitted.

Today, Posada, 85, walks the streets of Miami, a living contradiction in America’s war on terrorism. How to square his freedom with President George W. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 declaration that “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime?” How to square Posada’s freedom with the continued imprisonment of the Cuban Five, whose primary goal was to prevent terrorist attacks?

It is a contradiction Americans should consider.

This opinion piece was re-posted from the Washington Post.