CUBADEBATE: Ramón: We did not go to the US to find the secret of the atomic bomb‏

Nov 27, 2015 by

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We did not go to the US to find
the secret of the atomic bomb (+ photos) 

November 15, 2015
 By Enrique Ojito

A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

Monday, December 15, 2014. In prison, before going to sleep, Ramón Labañino Salazar browses a photo album: the window through which he escapes when he wants to meet his loved ones, in spite of the gulf that lies between Ashland, Kentucky, USA and Havana, Cuba.

“Put the watch in your locker and put on your sneakers. Come with me”, the guard urges him.

The cell is left behind gulping down the injustice. Marching swiftly, Labañino almost steps on the guard’s heels. First, they go to the wardrobe; then to another place to put the chains on him. The gates open and close; and the metallic squeaks remind the Cuban that he’s not walking around Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.

“This inmate must be taken to the nearest airport and his properties transferred.”

Loud and clear, Ramon hears this and begins to think that something good is about to happen. Handcuffed, he is led into a van. At the airport, he overhears, “Hurry up, the other one is right behind us.” Destination: a prison hospital in North Carolina.

The scenes unfold as in a Hollywood-style movie, with the substantial difference that it is a true story, also starring Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez that day. They had not the faintest clue about the secret rounds of official talks between functionaries from Havana and Washington that had begun in 2013.

Ramón’s premonition is about to come true, although the guards with ceremonial faces who take him from one place to another give nothing away. Upon arriving at the hospital, he only has eyes to search for Gerardo and Antonio; however, there is not the slightest sign of them. Around eight in the morning of December 16, a guard warns him,

“You’re going to the visiting area.”

Hastily he is taken down the hallway; suddenly, right in front of him: his brothers. He forgets about the knee that has been troubling him for some time and runs toward them. Manly embrace, chest to chest: three men, same epic. Later on, they will learn that at 8:10 AM the next day they will be standing on warm and venerable Cuban ground.

For a second time I have returned to the headquarters of the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP) [Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples] on Havana’s 17th Street, the former mansion of the Marquis Avilés, built according to the Parisian codes of Beaux Arts. I am back in the same room with tall mirrors, the same purple-red chair. In front of me, another hero: Ramón. First, it had been René González.

At his side, Elizabeth Palmeiro Casado, attentive to some wayward date in her husband’s more than 16 years of confinement in prisons in the United States, who, since February 1992, had established himself in Florida as a Cuban security agent under the pseudonym Bear.

“My family knew nothing at all. As I am an economist, I said I would be managing an alleged company in Spain which –on account of the blockade– would be responsible for bringing goods to Cuba,” he says.


“Le debemos mucho a la solidaridad internacional”, destaca. Foto: Vicente Brito.
“We owe much to international solidarity,” he says. Photo: Vicente Brito.

 What route did you take to reach the United States? 

“Several countries, and finally Mexico. When I set foot in the US, I told myself, ‘I made it, I crossed.’ For us, crossing into another place is the most difficult moment because you do it under a false identity. All your training is tested there. If you cross over, it shows that it was a very good job.”

From that moment on, you would be the Puerto Rican Luis Medina.

Could it be said that you knew San Juan better than Havana?

“We had the elements to represent that character. I traveled to Puerto Rico; in my legend I even knew the color of the house where I had lived, where I had studied, the bus stop across the street. I was Luis Medina to the end.”

In Tampa, located on the west coast of Florida and whose name means fire slivers –in reference to the lightning storms that hit the area in the summer– Ramon settled in and initially rented a hotel room; but he soon goes looking for a cheaper place.

“I chose the southern part of the city, a low-income area. I started walking block by block, until I detected a house that had a little sign on the lawn that said For Rent. The house had a garage at the end that had been converted into an apartment. I spoke with the lady owner, of Haitian origin, very humble. I introduced myself as a college student. Luckily, she did not ask for any documents. I moved in; there is a picture somewhere that shows the house and a bicycle appears; there’s where I began my operational work.”


Nacido el 9 de junio de 1963, Labañino reconoce la contribución de los medios cubanos a la causa de los Cinco. Foto: Vicente Brito. Born June 9, 1963, Labañino acknowledges the contribution of Cuban media to the cause of The Five. Photo: Vicente Brito.

What did you do for a living?

“I delivered newspapers to homes, sold leather shoes from a catalog. Work at home allowed me to have a lot of autonomy and not to leave many documentary traces. In 1996, I was instructed to move to Miami. There I drove a van distributing goods, medicines … to different pharmacies. This was the most stable job I had.”

When did you first meet with Gerardo, the network leader in the United States?

“A point of clarification: in fact, Gerardo was not the head of the whole network; he led a group and I led another. I think that the prosecution, in an effort to bring down Gerardo, presented him as the head of the network. A huge hate campaign was launched against Gerardo. They wanted to find a scapegoat for the issue of the planes (on February 24, 1996 Cuba shot down two aircraft from the terrorist group Brothers to the Rescue that had violated Cuban airspace).”


Ramón y Elizabeth se casaron el 2 de junio de 1990. Foto: Vicente Brito.
Ramón
and Elizabeth were married on June 2, 1990. Photo: Vicente Brito.

“After I got settled in Miami, I was instructed to see him. The first meeting was a very formal one between two officers. We met behind a bookstore. I had to wear specific clothes and he did likewise; I told him a password and he answered with another. It was a brief exchange. It is later on that I got to know Gerardo and his good-humored ways.”

Among your missions, you tracked the terrorist Orlando Bosch, one of the masterminds of the Barbados crime.

“It’s hard to follow terrorists. These are persons who have enormous debts with my people. It was hard to be so close to Orlando Bosch knowing that he had caused so much damage. One of the missions was to follow him when he went to Tampa, especially to Ybor City. I also tracked some figures from the Cuban American National Foundation.”

“My job was to make a survey of all that part and to try to put an agent of ours beside them to look for information about their plans to attack Cuba. We went to the US to prevent them from putting bombs here and even over there. We were not looking for the secret to the atomic bomb. Cuba has the right to defend itself.”

Can you give us examples of terrorist actions that you prevented?

“Our job is done by many men and women. We, the Five, represent many people. Through the compañeros I handled, we detected the preparations for firing a rocket against Fidel’s plane that was going to fly across a certain place. We also learned of a pen with explosives that was going to be detonated on the Comandante at a given location. On another occasion, they tried to pass explosives through the airport in a bottle of shampoo with the aim of bombing power stations in Cuba.”

“For us, it is most rewarding to know that what we did had a final purpose: avoiding dead or injured people, an attack on the Comandante. That’s the top. None of the Five sought publicity; our greatest success would have been to remain anonymous for life.”

By the way, since nobody knew about your true mission and you were constantly absent from home, your family came to question you. What happened that day at your mother’s grave?

“My mom died without knowing about my mission three months before I was discovered.  I didn’t give her the pain of seeing me in jail. She also told me, ‘Ramon, you have to settle down, son.’ That day before her grave, my dad asked me, ‘How long will this be? You have three daughters and a wife!’ Look, Dad, I’ll be honest, this is going to be like this until I’m no longer fit for my work, until I die, or until I’m caught and thrown in jail.”

On September 12, 1998, Ramon Labañino had to return to his morning ritual: jumping out of bed in his small apartment in Hollywood Beach and then picking up his van at the base; if necessary, he would fill it up with oil and gas, collect the medicines and supplies and set off to beat, traffic light after traffic light, the city of Miami and distribute his load to an endless list of pharmacies.

That should have been the routine that Saturday, which was cut at about 5:30 AM. The Cuban agent barely heard the blows against the door, which gave in like a lemon under an ax. When he was about to react, the uniforms were already on top of him; he tried to fight one off, but his black belt in karate was of little use against such odds.

“FBI, FBI. Get down on the floor, get down on the floor.”

Outside, the helicopter blades woke up the neighborhood and the flashing lights of police cars announced the dramatic events that were about to happen. In the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Miami, he underwent an interview aimed at “convincing” him to turn; from there he was taken to the Federal Detention Center. Nine other Cuban agents were given similar treatment and were also taken to the Federal Court building on September 14. On the way, another detainee, knowing they were Cubans, shouted at them: “Resist, co …! Resist because Fidel will never abandon you!

Con sus hijas y Elizabeth, a su arribo a Cuba el 17 de diciembre del 2014. Foto: Estudio Revolución.
With his daughters and Elizabeth, on his arrival in Cuba on December 17, 2014.
Photo: Estudio Revolución.

But five of the group betrayed. How did you hear the news? 

“Before entering the Court, we were put in a waiting cell. There we realized we had people who were going soft. We said that this was our History Will Absolve Me; but you could already see one of them leaning against the wall in a corner; another one who didn’t look you in the eye.”

“I talked to René –I did not know him due to our compartmentalization– and he told me: ‘Nobody can break here’. He spoke to another and I realized that the other’s response was not so vigorous. ‘Yes, but we must think of our families’. Ahhh! This is complicated, I thought. Subsequently, the same lawyers warned us that some in the group were collaborating. The impact of betrayal was awful, honestly.”

“Under those circumstances, the Five made theirs a vivid phrase from Simon Bolivar: “La pi …”, readers should not now take it as disrespect.”

“We knew the story of Bolivar; it was the slogan he used in complex missions, to initiate combat. When things got tough, we said here, ‘la pi …’ There comes a time in life when you have to take a stand, and if you have to die, well it’s your turn.”

How much uncertainty came over you knowing that you would be defended by an American lawyer? 

“My first lawyer, whose name I will not mention, did not satisfy me. I did not like how he defended me during the opening statements to set bail. I found him a little ambiguous. I had a conversation with him: ‘With all due respect, I need you to tell me if you are willing to defend me with courage, because if you don’t have the courage … I need someone to show the truth. We’re going to denounce terrorists, the people who control this city. He gradually withdrew from the case.”

Then came lawyer William Norris, and right from the start when I saw him –it was during the 17 months in ‘the hole’– he made a good impression and I told him: ‘I’m very glad that you understand our secret work. I promise that I’ll tell you what I can really say; I will never tell you a lie.’ I asked him to ignore the press. Can you imagine that five men with no money in their pockets could destroy democracy and the national security of the United States, as was coming out in the press? Indeed, the lawyers fought fiercely for us.

On December 6, 2000, the oral hearing at the trial with the presentation of arguments by the prosecution and the defense really began. In that context, the real names of Manuel Viramontes (Gerardo Hernandez), Ruben Campa (Fernando González) and Luis Medina (Ramón Labañino), were revealed. Not even the FBI had found out.

Minutes before Norris’ opening statement, Ramon made it clear: “I am indeed an unregistered foreign agent; yes, I have false documents, but I’m not a spy. I did not come here looking for military secrets.”

With a life sentence plus 18 years, Ramón stared into the abyss of his itinerant life as an inmate, which led him to prisons in Beaumont, Texas, and McCreary, Kentucky. Re-sentenced to 30 years in 2009, he was transferred to Jessup, Georgia, and then to Ashland, Kentucky.


Raúl recibe a Gerardo, Ramón y Antonio a su llegada a Cuba el 17 de diciembre del 2014. Foto: Estudio Revolución.
Raúl greets Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio upon their arrival in Cuba
on December 17, 2014. Photo: Estudio Revolución.

 How many times in jail were you compelled to warn other prisoners: do not cross that line?

“They mostly respected us in prison but, yes, there were times when they tried to disrespect us. We coexisted with criminals and if we did not respond to the level of events they could then abuse us.”

“I would warn people: we are polite, but don´t come looking for trouble with us, because we immediately get Maceo´s machete; and I said it graphically. I once pushed an inmate into the cell: I don’t know why you disrespect me, if I treat you super well. ‘I am a prisoner with a long sentence. Well, I do not care about that long sentence. You have to respect me. Do not cross the line with me, and if you do, I’m here.”

“Many of the problems in prison are because people don’t know how to communicate. Problems are for minimal things. For example, to watch TV you have to mark the floor where your chair goes; if you move it a little to the side, it may be cause for even a stabbing. They always wanted to make me leader of the Cubans, not only because I am big and strong, but also because of the way I could talk and behave in front of others. They realized that I was a decent person, straight; but would say to anyone: you’re an ass.”

“I’m writing a journal about everyday life in prison. I did not want my wife and daughters to read it. It has scenes of murder, drugs, prostitution; everything goes in a US jail.”

Nevertheless, you said you left another family there.

“In prison you meet good human beings too; people who made mistakes. We wouldn’t do some of those crimes because, for example, we would never steal. Life in America is very difficult; if you don’t have money, you starve. There was one inmate who robbed banks … These are people who have feelings for Cuba and are able to defend the Revolution. One lives with them and makes friends. So, today they call me, and write to me by mail. I have tried to see their families and do it for my brothers in prison.”

Why did you resort to poetry?

“Poetry was a way to combat loneliness, it helped us survive. I write from my soul, as the poems I dedicated to my mom. I had debts with her that I could never meet and I tried to do it through poems. In Carta a una madre ausente [Letter to an absent mother] and Deuda [Debt] I expressed things I could never tell her.”

Another poet, Silvio Rodríguez, gave us El dulce abismo [The Sweet Abyss] a song that symbolizes the love story of the Cuban Five. It goes: ‘Amada (…) yo parto, tú guardarás el huerto [Beloved, (…) I must leave, you must keep the garden], he wrote. And how did Ramón find his? The adjective of heroine for your wife: mere courtesy?

“My garden? Very beautiful. I found a loving family. I never tire of saying that Eli is the heroine. Imagine: alone with two girls in the midst of the special period, when there was no food or medicine. Laurita is in the final year of International Relations, and Lisbeth began Psychology. Ailí (a daughter from his first marriage) is another example. There cannot be better girls. Eli knew how to teach in my children that I had not abandoned them.”

On top of that, there was the international campaign. Like the rest of the wives she was not only faithful as Penelope; they were not simply waiting, they were the first to go around Cuba; later, they met with presidents and parliamentarians. I read the news. That’s my wife! Look, how she has grown. That spiritual, human stature is only found in heroines like her. We are not the heroes, they are.


El Presidente cubano lo condecoró con el título de Héroe de la República de Cuba y la Orden Playa Girón. Foto: Ladyrene Pérez/Cubadebate.
The Cuban president awarded him the title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba
and the Order of Playa Girón. Photo: Ladyrene Perez / Cubadebate.

You say you are the most optimistic of the Five.

“I am an optimist by nature. Optimism helps one to live and overcome obstacles. It has to do with one’s inner richness, with one’s memories. For example, I always had nice dreams. While imprisoned I dreamed I was free; I dreamed vividly, and when I woke I would say to myself: ‘how can I be in prison, if I was in Cuba’. When you’re optimistic, you say, ‘Today I am not free, but I will be free tomorrow.’ When morning comes, you’ve lived another day.”

“If you are dragged into the negativity of prison, you destroy yourself. In there, you are surrounded by crime, by fences … Optimism seems anachronistic in these circumstances. But, if you drown in self-pity … I saw depressed people who hanged themselves. I met a man who had killed 12 family members. ‘I’m a monster; I know I’m going to die in that bed,’ he told me once. When you hear a person talk like that in jail … So I created a way: I survived in prison, but I lived outside of it. I lived the everyday life of my family.”

“90 percent of my mind was for that; 10 percent for the internal problems of the prison. I tried to prevent the prison from getting into my head, although to survive sometimes you had to let yourself be in prison.”

“To survive, I also found refuge in sports. I exercised, did weight-lifting, played chess and handball. It was handball that affected my knee. I had a trauma there; it got inflamed. I went to the doctor, but health-care in prison is terrible. They said, ‘Take two aspirin. Put your feet up, put on ice and you’ll be fine tomorrow.’ In prison they take care of you when you’re almost dead.”

Are you OK now?

“I have no pain. I feel better. After climbing the Turquino, I feel more agile. The doctor made the diagnosis: if it hurts too much, I have to have surgery. If I stand for a long time, I get tired because the muscles have too heavy a load. Apart from that, I’m OK.”

When we say white seagulls, what comes to mind?

“In autumn, the prison in Beaumont, Texas, becomes full of white seagulls; something poetic. Imagine a violent prison where all there is are fences, high walls, and people hating each other, killing each other in there; and suddenly you see that image of tremendous symbolism. Then you think that, despite all the horrors, there can be peace and love. For me, seagulls meant hope.”

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