From the Ontario California airport some 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles we drove north on Highway 15, the road to Las Vegas. Cars with expectant amateur gamblers and loaded big rigs climb and descend the mountains where the Angeles and San Bernadino National Forests meet.
To the east lies the high desert some 4000 feet above sea level. Amidst junipers, Joshua trees and sagebrush we turn off from the man-made freeway to the jester’s creation of a shopping mall in Hesperia where we pick up Chavela, Gerardo Hernandez’ older sister. (Danny changes trousers because the prison doesn’t allow visitors to wear Khaki).
We pass fast food joints with chain names, nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors, gas stations and min-marts (a drive by of American culture) going west and then north on 395 to the six year old US. Federal Penitentiary Complex, a 630,000 square foot high-security prison ($101.4 million); designed to cage 960 male inmates.
In the institutional grey Visitors’ Lobby a guard hands us forms with numbers on top, nods at a book to sign and eye-signals to a pile of pens. We write, hand him back the forms (Danny had to stand against the wall while a guard recorded his photo onto the prison computer) and sit in the gray waiting room with other visitors – all black and Latino. (Saul’s and Chavela’s pix were already stored in the prison computer from previous visits).
We wait for twenty minutes. A guard calls our number. We empty our pockets except for money. (Danny checks his car keys; Saul hands over a pen fastened to his shirt pocket). We pass through a sensitive airport-type screening machine, pick up our belts and eyeglasses that have gone through Xray, and extend our inner forearms for stamping by another uniformed guard. Two black women and an elderly Latino couple get the same treatment. We exchange nervous smiles. Visitors in a strange land!
He passes our ids through a drawer connected to another sealed room on the opposite side of a thick plastic window. A guard there checks the documents and pushes buttons to open a heavy metal door. The group enters an outdoor passage. Blinding late morning sun and desert heat shocks our bodies after the air-conditioned chambers. We wait. A guard confers through a small slit in the door of the building housing the inmates – gun towers on each side; masses of rolled barbed wire covering the tops of concrete walls.
We wait, get hot, then enter another air cooled chamber; finally, a door opens into the visitor room. A guard assigns us a tiny plastic table, surrounded by 3 three cheap plastic chairs, on one side (for us) and one on the other for Gerardo. African American and Latino children exchange places on their fathers’ laps as daddies in khaki prison overalls chat with their wives.
Chavela spots him 20 minutes later, waving, and bouncing across the room. Chavela almost crying says “He’s lost weight.” He seems the same weight as when Landau saw him in the Spring. Gerardo hugs and kisses his sister, embraces Saul and then Danny, thanking him for his efforts to spring him from the hole, where he spent 13 days in late July and early August.
Two FBI agents were investigating an incident unrelated to his case, he informs us, questioned Gerardo in prison. Then, prison authorities tossed Gerardo into the hole although there existed no evidence, logic or common sense could possibly have implicated him into the alleged occurrence. The temperatures inside the hole rose to the high nineties. “I had to use my drinking water to keep me cool, pouring it on head,” Gerardo told us. “It didn’t help my high blood pressure. I couldn’t even take my medicine. But, I think, thanks to the thousands of phone calls and letters from people everywhere they let me out.”
Chavela kept bringing junk food to the table – the only kind available from the vending machines. We nibbled compulsively while Gerardo told about living in a sweat-box for almost two weeks. “No air circulated in there,” he laughed, as if to say “no big deal.”
We talked about Cuba. He kept up on the news, reading, watching TV and from visitors who informed him. He felt encouraged by steps President Raul Castro had taken to deal with the crisis. He had watched on the prison television parts of Fidel’s speech and q and a at the Cuban National Assembly Meeting. “I saw Adriana [his wife],” who sat in the audience. His smile faded. “You know what’s painful. She’s 40 and I’m 45. We don’t have that much time to have a family together. The United States won’t even give her a visa to visit me. She’s behaved with such courage and dignity throughout this ordeal.”
Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban 5, is serving two life sentences for conspiracy to commit espionage and aiding and abetting murder. Prosecutors presented no evidence of espionage at the Miami trial. The aiding ad abetting charge presumed evidence not shown that Gerardo sent to Cuba flight details of the Brothers to the Rescue planes shot down by Cuban MIGs in February 1996, which he did not, and that he knew of secret Cuban government orders to shoot them down, which he did not. The 5 men monitored and reported on Cuban exile terrorists in Miami who had plotted bombings and assassinations in Cuba. Cuba then shared this information with the FBI. Larry Wilkerson, (retired army Colonel and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff) compared the 5’s chance of getting a fair trial in Miami to an accused “Israeli’s chance of justice in Teheran.”
We sipped cloyingly sweet, bottled, iced tea. Chavela brought more potato chips.
Gerardo, reanimated the mood by recalling an incident when in the 1980s, as a Lieutenant in Cabinda, Angola, he escorted top Cuban officers to a dinner-party with visiting Soviet brass. “I told my Colonel I had memorized a short Mayakovsky poem in Russian (from his school classes) and could recite it to the Soviet officers.
He recited the poem to us in Russian. We applauded. He smiled. “They were roasting a pig and had bottles of booze, a party.”
“I recited the poem. The Soviet Colonel hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks -- very emotional. I had to repeat my performance for the other officers. Finally, the Cuban Colonel told me I’d milked the scene long enough and I left.”
Two hours passed quickly. We waited for the guards to let us out. Gerardo stood at attention against a wall near the cell-block door next to another prisoner. We gave him a fist salute. He returned it. His sister blew a kiss. He grinned reassuringly – as if to remind us. “Stay strong.”
Danny Glover’s is an activist and an actor.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.