BY RÓGER CALERO
AND MARY-ALICE WATERS
HAVANA — The 10th International Colloquium for the Freedom of the Cuban Five held here Sept. 11-12 brought together nearly 300 delegates from 48 countries to advance the international campaign to free the Cuban Five. Among the highlights of the weekend of political activity was the inauguration of 16 new prison paintings by Antonio (Tony) Guerrero, one of the five Cuban revolutionaries framed up and jailed by the U.S. government in 1998. (See “Who Are the Cuban Five?” on page 6.)
Following the inauguration of the watercolor series titled “Absolved by Solidarity,” María Eugenia (Maruchi) Guerrero, Antonio’s sister, spoke with the Militant about her brother and his latest work.
“Tony told us that he wanted to find a way to be part of the colloquium through the paintings,” said Maruchi. “But he got behind because he’s always taking on projects, including an exhibition in the prison of paintings by inmates. He had talked with the directors of the prison about allowing the inmates to have an exhibition, and he did most of the work of organizing it. It took time and he hadn’t been able to work on his own paintings.
“So when he realized it was already Aug. 3, he said, ‘I’m going to see if I can do a painting a day’ and he began to work out a plan.”
“Tony set himself a deadline, a goal, 16 watercolors in 16 days,” Maruchi said. “It was an intense period of work, but then you know what my brother is like. He’s very stubborn. When he sets a goal he always meets it, no matter how difficult it might be.”
He succeeded and the original watercolors were on display during the colloquium. High-quality reproductions were also shown at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C., Sept. 13 as part of activities in the U.S. marking the 16th anniversary of the arrest of the Five.
“Through the paintings Tony’s saying, ‘The world recognizes that the trial was an injustice, that we should be free,’” said Maruchi, explaining why her brother titled the exhibit “Absolved by Solidarity.”
Over the last year a previous work — a series of 15 watercolors titled “I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived” — has been shown broadly to audiences at community and cultural centers, libraries, churches, universities, restaurants, art galleries, festivals, union-sponsored events and other venues in the U.S., Canada and around the world. Each of those 15 paintings depicts an aspect of the first 17 months of incarceration, during which the five revolutionaries were kept in punishment isolation cells known as the Special Housing Unit, or simply “the hole,” at the Federal Detention Center in Miami awaiting trial.
A true-to-life replica of the punishment cell based on the watercolors was built by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva Machado, known as Kcho, and is part of an exhibit of Guerrero’s paintings at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. Participants visited the installation during the two-day anniversary activities here.
“Tony said, ‘OK, I’ve done the paintings on the hole, one of the experiences that had such an impact on us. There’s another moment that shines a spotlight on the injustice. That’s our trial,’” Maruchi said. “Tony spoke with Kcho by phone at the opening of the Fine Arts Museum exhibit last April and Tony told him, ‘Now I want to do the same thing with watercolors about the trial.’”
The seven-month-long trial, which began in Miami on Nov. 27, 2000, was marked by blatant denial of constitutional protections, something not unfamiliar to millions of working people caught up in the U.S. system of capitalist “justice.” Guerrero’s 16 paintings recall aspects of the frame-up, denial of due process and dehumanizing prison treatment. These include the judge’s denial of 11 requests by the Five to move the trial outside Miami due to the extensive biased publicity and actions by Cuban-American counterrevolutionaries to intimidate the jury there; the confiscation by the FBI of thousands of pages of documents that belonged to the Five, material that was then classified as “secret,” thus denying the defendants access to “evidence” used against them; and the fact that journalists writing about the trial in the Miami press were simultaneously on the payroll of the U.S. government’s Office of Cuban Broadcasting.
The U.S. government, its FBI agents and prison officials also tried many and diverse methods in failed attempts to break the Five. These included not only long stints of solitary confinement and other routine prison abuses, but other more personal reprisals. Olga Salanueva, married to René González, was arrested by FBI and immigration agents in Miami on Aug. 16, 2000, and deported on Nov. 21, 2000, just six days before the trial began. She and Adriana Pérez, wife of Gerardo Hernández, were then denied entry to the U.S. to visit their husbands.
The new series of watercolors starts out with “Change of Venue Denied” and ends with “Five Distant Prisons,” showing how prison authorities separated the Five after they were convicted and sent them to widely separated prisons across the country, obstructing their ability to prepare their appeals.
“Several of the paintings could be accompanied by documents that relate to the specific moment they depict,” Maruchi told Militant reporters as they looked at each work. “For example, the painting about the diary that René began to write Nov. 21, when Olguita was deported, could have the letter René wrote that day.”
“The painting of the newspaper clipping about the journalists for hire could be accompanied by one of the articles about that,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things Tony was thinking about to round out the exhibit. But we haven’t had time to prepare any of that yet.”
Guerrero’s latest work, like the previous “I Will Die the Way I’ve Lived,” provides supporters of the Five around the world with new opportunities to broaden the defense campaign to win their release.
When the exhibit is mounted at the Museum of Fine Arts “my brother says that Kcho will have to build a replica of the courtroom where the trial took place,” said Maruchi, as she commented on the paintings.
“This one, the painting of the foot, represents the strip search they had to undergo each day before being transported to the courtroom. He couldn’t paint someone naked, bent over, the way they force you to do it. He painted just the foot. But his commentary explains what it stands for.”
‘This is the real jury’
“Then there’s the beautiful painting representing the moment they were returned to their prison cells the day the verdict came down. When they were brought in the other inmates greeted them with a powerful round of applause. You see their hands clapping.
“In the accompanying note Tony explains what this meant to them. This was the real jury, he says — the first great expression of the wave of solidarity that has spread around the world.”
The resilience, dignity and sense of humor of the Five comes through in the exhibit as well. In the watercolor titled “The Evidence,” Maruchi said, “my brother wants people to see that one of the ‘secret documents’ seized by the FBI was a family recipe” — for roast pork!
“It’s wonderful what he did with the paintings,” Maruchi added. “It reflects his creativity, his strength.”
“We never felt defeated,” Antonio writes in his introductory note to the new paintings. “We knew we would be acquitted by the honest men and women of the world who have today become an unbroken tide of solidarity that will not be stemmed until it carries us back to our homes.”
“Antonio’s 15 paintings portraying their lives in the punishment cells have given impetus to a ‘renewal of the campaign’ to free the Five,” Kcho told the Militant in Havana several days later, commenting on Guerrero’s previous watercolor series, which have been viewed by some 15,000 visitors to Havana’s Fine Arts Museum. “We’re reversing a complacency that has grown up, an insensitivity toward what it means to be imprisoned for 16 years.”
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