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Vol. 78/No. 18      May 12, 2014

Havana art exhibit gives
feel for life in US prisons
(front page)
The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana has inaugurated a new work by renowned Cuban artist Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho) that brings to life a collection of paintings by Antonio Guerrero, one of five Cuban revolutionaries imprisoned in the United States since 1998.

Guerrero’s 15 watercolors, titled “I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived,” convey the conditions faced by the Cuban Five and how they fought back, with dignity, creativity, and humor during their first 17 months of imprisonment, when they were held in punishment cells at Miami’s Federal Detention Center. (See “Who Are the Cuban Five” on this page.)

Inspired by Guerrero’s work, Kcho created a true-to-life replica of a cell in the prison’s Special Housing Unit — the “hole” — where each of the five were held.

Visitors to the combined exhibit of Guerrero’s paintings and Kcho’s art installation come away with a vivid appreciation of the unbending resistance of the Five in face of the U.S. government’s unsuccessful efforts to break them.

Kcho’s project was born out of his collaboration with René González, who last year returned to Cuba after completing his sentence. González showed him the book I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived, with reproductions of the watercolors and commentary by three of the Five.

Working closely with René, Kcho drew on that book to ensure the replica was accurate to the last detail. In February, as the prison cell was being built, Fernando González returned to Cuba after more than 15 years in U.S. prisons and joined the effort.

Speaking at the April 5 inaugural event, René and Fernando thanked Kcho for his “magnificent work” and its contribution to the international fight to win the release of their three comrades: Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Gerardo Hernández.

“As long as they are not back home, Fernando and I will remain imprisoned together with them,” René González told the audience at the opening event. Among those present were Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel; Miguel Barnet, president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC); and family members of the Five.

Visitors to the exhibit “will discover one of the most sadistic aspects of the U.S. penal system,” wrote reporter Yimel Díaz in the Cuban newspaper Trabajadores. “They can choose to experience being locked up a cell that is 15 feet long by seven feet wide. For five minutes. The cell has no furniture other than an iron bunk with a thin mattress, a concrete table and stool, and a metal toilet, sink, and mirror that returns a sad reflection.”

Those entering the cell put on a prison-issue orange jumpsuit and flip-flops. The uniform has the name and sentence of one of the Five printed on the back. Before entering, a voice orders, “Open your mouth, stick out your tongue, shake out your hair, and bend back your ears. … Turn around!”

Visitors are bound with handcuffs and ankle chains, and uniformed “guards” escort them into the cell as a security camera monitors every move.

Inside the cell, many details, taken from I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived, capture the Five’s life in the “hole” — from cockroaches on the wall to the roll of toilet paper on the cot and the improvised chess set the Five crafted from cut-up milk cartons. There is also the “line,” made from strips of bed sheets attached to an empty toothpaste tube, which inmates use for “fishing” — exchanging newspapers and other items between cells.

An adjoining area serves as a classroom where visitors can watch audiovisual programs and read about the Five. Secured to the desks are copies of books I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived and Voices from Prison.

‘Indictment of an unjust regime’

“This work is an indictment of an unjust regime that treats people like garbage,” Kcho said at the inauguration. “The United States has more than 2 million prisoners,” he noted, underscoring how widespread the experience with police brutality and frame-ups and inhumane prison conditions is for working people in the U.S.

“Take the case of Herman Wallace,” he added, “the Black Panther who was released [last October] only when he was about to die, after being kept in solitary confinement for more than 41 years” in a Louisiana prison.

The art installation, titled “Don’t Be Thankful for the Silence,” is “a call to refuse to be complicit with the silence that engulfs those in prisons,” Kcho said.

“Part of the punishment is the isolation — you never see anyone,” Fernando González told the audience. For example, he said, “You had to wait for the sound of a key, to shout and see if they responded to you, and then to ask the guard for the cleaning agents to wash the cell with.”

The depiction of the cell “is a reminder of a battle that we won,” said René González. The U.S. prison authorities failed to crush their spirit and embitter them. As revolutionaries, he added, “We were happy before we went into the hole and we are still happy after getting out — the U.S. doesn’t have the moral capacity to take that away from us.”

The artwork “isn’t only for the Five,” Kcho told Trabajadores. “It’s also for the countless unknown Cubans who have suffered during these 50 years of confrontation with the United States. It’s for the Puerto Ricans and all political fighters who have confronted the empire.”

Gerardo Hernández, who was given a double life sentence, is imprisoned in the U.S. maximum-security penitentiary in Victorville, California. After seeing the exhibit, Adriana Pérez, his wife — who has been denied a visa to visit him for more than 15 years — commented that it is a vehicle “to understand why Cuba continues to resist, why the Five were able to resist in face of all those pressures, all that psychological torture, all those efforts to get them to trade away their principles.” Despite Washington’s continuing efforts to undermine the Cuban Revolution and create popular dissatisfaction, she said, “Our dignity and our determination are much stronger than any effort to make us submit.”
Related articles:
Paintings by Antonio Guerrero, one of Cuban 5
Who are the Cuban Five?
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