Love in the service of the revolution
by Saskia van Reenen
May 18, 2007
Reprinted from Radio Netherlands
Olga Salanueva: "You don't marry someone to be separated from them for years"
Cuba and the United States have been sworn enemies for 48 years. Each country blames the other for meddling in its affairs. The US says that Cuba infiltrates the Cuban-American exile community in Miami. Cuba accuses the US of supporting dissident groups on the island.
Rene Gonzalez, the spy, and Oscar Chepe, the dissident, are pawns in this political game. Ideologically they are poles apart, but both have worked for their political cause, and both have been jailed for it. How has this affected their wives? Olga Salanueva and Miriam Leyva tell their story to Radio Netherlands Worldwide Saskia van Reenen.
Olga Salanueva is married to Rene Gonzalez. Her husband is in jail in Miami, while she lives in Havana. During the interview she sits slumped in an armchair, and appears sad but stoic. An official from the Ministry of Information busily takes notes.
Rene Gonzalez worked as a secret agent in the United States at the end of the 1990s. Fidel Castro strongly suspected that Cuban exiles from the organisation Brothers to the Rescue in Miami were planning acts of terrorism against Cuba. Rene Gonzalez infiltrated the group as a spy. He didn't operate alone, but with four other Cuban secret agents.
At the time, Brothers to the Rescue planes were repeatedly violating Cuban airspace. Requests to the US authorities to take action against the group were ignored. In 1996 Cuba shot down two of the planes, and in response the US began a hunt for Cuban informants.
Two years later the FBI arrested the five Cubans, including Rene Gonzalez. The case is all the more sensitive because of the embargo the US has enforced against Cuba for decades, and which Fidel Castro's government resists in an ongoing campaign.
Rene Gonzalez (second from the right) is one of the 'five heroes of Cuba'
A jury in Miami found Rene Gonzalez guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and crimes against the United States. "Rene has been in jail for more than eight years, just because he was combating terrorism," says his wife, Mrs Salanueva. "Ever since the victory of the revolution, exiles have been trying to overthrow the communist regime by carrying out attacks. This has claimed the lives of three thousand Cubans."
The US also accused Mr Gonzalez of concealing his true identity. Mrs Salanueva says in his defence, "Rene's mission had nothing to do with America's national security, only Cuba's. And as there are no formal diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, he couldn't have informed the US authorities of what he was doing."
She continues, "I was there when he was arrested. We were at home, we were living with our two daughters in Miami. The US prosecuting attorney pressurised Rene to testify against the other four, but he wouldn't cooperate. Then they arrested me. They brought Rene to my cell. When he refused again, I was deported to Cuba. I haven't seen him since November 2000. The US authorities have turned down a visa to visit him seven times. I think America is out for revenge. They say I'm a subversive, that I'm a danger to the American people. It's nonsense."
Rene Gonzalez is allowed visits from his eldest daughter. Mrs Salanueva explains why: "Our 22-year-old daughter now lives in the States. She's a US citizen so it's easy for her to visit her father. Our youngest, Yvete, was two when I was deported. She hasn't seen her father since we left Miami."
During the conversation, Mrs Salanueva's mobile phone rings. It's her husband, calling from prison. She leaves the room and returns a few minutes later. Her expression is softer and her eyes brighter. "In prison Rene gets so many minutes a month to call to Cuba. He can't talk for long because he also has to use the time to talk to his lawyer," she says.
How does she keep going? "You don't marry someone to be separated from them for years. Our marriage is based on love and the task Rene took on was so honourable. We put our love in the service of the revolution."
In the cigar factory the workers campaign for the release of the five
Mrs Salanueva says her husband's life in a US jail is hard. "Rene is in a semi-open prison, but the others are in high-security jails. For the first six months after his arrest he was in solitary confinement, and then again for a long period in 2003.
He's in prison with serious criminals, murderers. If there's a disturbance, Rene gets punished too, even though he keeps out of it. When he went to prison he wanted to come out a better person. He plays sport, reads a lot, and answers letters he receives from supporters. He keeps his mind clear."
In Cuba, Mr Gonzalez and the other four informants are popularly known as the 'five heroes'. Their portraits are displayed on huge billboards in Havana, and every Cuban schoolchild knows their story. At a meeting in a cigar factory, the workers bang their tools on the table and cheer when a speaker calls for their release. Mrs Salanueva receives a lot of support.
The Cuban government lobbies for the five secret agents' release. Government representatives are calling for a new trial outside Miami, saying the city is dominated by an anti-Castro mood, but Mrs Salanueva believes there is little chance of this happening. In Havana and at Cuban embassies there are regular demonstrations in support of the five.
Hope, belief and love
Mrs Salanueva is conducting her own campaign for Rene's release. "I talk to the media, Nobel prize winners, Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches. I've also been with the other women to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has said our husband's rights are not being respected. And they're subject to psychological torture, because they aren't allowed to see their families. Mrs Salanueva believes her husband is innocent. Battle-weary, she says, "Hope keeps me going, it's the only thing they can't take from me. I keep on believing in a happy ending."