Cuban Five prisoner’s friendship with priest kept him strong
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Prison walls were enough to keep Cuban Five activist Gérardo Hernandez locked up, but it could not keep out compassionate supporters like Father Michael Lapsley from Cape Town.
Over the last 12 years, the two men had met only once a year for a few hours in different US prisons where Hernandez was jailed.
Hernandez was one of five Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami, US, in 1998 for alleged conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, and acting as an agent of a foreign government.
After their arrest and imprisonment, the officers became know as the Cuban Five, which included Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González.
During the apartheid years, Lapsley was an ANC activist exiled in Zimbabwe. He had built ties with Cuban officials while there.
South Africa’s apartheid era operatives sent him two religious magazines that contained explosives, leaving him without hands, an eye and shattered ears.
Lapsley later returned to democratic South Africa and launched the Friends of Cuba Society to lobby for the release of the Cuban Five and also for an end to US sanctions against their country.
Lapsley said he was traveling to the US when he decided he would meet one of the Cuban Five jailed where he was going and it turned out to be Hernandez.
“I was going to California and Gérardo was at a high security prison at that stage. I called up that prison and asked for the prison chaplain. I said I want to visit him. That was the beginning of the journey,” said Lapsley.
When the Cuban Five visited Cape Town this week, it was the first time Lapsley would see Hernandez not wearing a prison uniform. The two had taken a photo together after each annual prison visit.
“Every visit to Gerardo was bittersweet,” recalled Lapsley this week.
“He was becoming a close friend but I was meeting him incarcerated among people who had committed the worst crimes.
“Every time I went to see him, there was always a desire that we should not meet again in prison. But the day would come when we would walk in Havana or in Cape Town. It was always next time, next time, next time.”
Hernandez said their first visit more than a decade ago left him inspired.
“When I first heard his (Lapsley) story, I left the visitor’s room very proud and eager to tell the prisoners who visited me. I still do that today. I feel very honoured and proud to be able to say he’s my friend,” said Hernandez.
“In prison, you need to get your strength from somewhere to resist every day.
“Other prisoners told me, ‘You have a life sentence and I have a life sentence. But I see that you are never depressed. You never feel bad.’ Outside support made a big difference.”
Apart from the annual visits, the two also wrote letters to each other, reconnecting Hernandez with Africa once more.
He had previously been to Angola where he participated in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987, fighting against opponents that included the apartheid military.
Lapsley continued mobilising a local grassroots lobby group calling for the release of the Cuban Five. US-Cuba relations remained tense, following various confrontations between the superpower and the socialist regime.
It was only late last year that President Barack Obama from the US agreed to a prisoner swop, seeing the release of four remaining Cuban Five prisoners – one of them had completed his jail term by then.
Lapsley said this was an “incredible joy” and he was “trying to stop myself from crying” when he met Hernandez earlier this week in Cape Town.
“You struggle for words… Gerardo was always immensely hopeful but there were times when I was thinking if it’s really going to happen,” said Lapsley.
“It was a victory for all of us, humanity, justice, compassion and human decency.
Often in struggles for justice it takes generations before victory. This was reminiscent of the day when we heard Mandela came out of prison.”
The Cuban Five held a number of public meetings this week and also met with Parliament’s international relations portfolio committee.
South African parliamentarians agreed to lobby the US government to lift its economic sanctions on Cuba.