Visiting Gerardo in
Danny Glover and Saul
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 4,000 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
We pass fast food joints with chain names, nail
and hair salons, tattoo parlors, gas stations and
mini-marts (a drive-by of American culture) going
west and then north on 395 to the six-year-old U.S.
Federal Penitentiary Complex, a 630,000 square foot
high-security prison (it cost $101.4 million to
build); 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 and sit in the gray waiting
room with other visitors – all black and Latino.
We wait for twenty minutes. A guard calls our
number. We empty our pockets except for money. We
pass through a sensitive airport-type screening
machine, pick up our belts and eyeglasses that have
gone through X-ray, 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
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
Chavela spots him 20 minutes later, waving and
bouncing across the room smiling. Chavela, almost
crying, says, "He’s lost weight." He seems the same
weight as when (Saul 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.
Gerardo informs us that two FBI agents
investigating an incident unrelated to this case had
questioned him in prison. Right after, prison
authorities tossed Gerardo into the hole, although
there existed no evidence, logic or common sense
that could possibly have implicated him into the
alleged unrelated incident. 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 sweatbox for almost two weeks. "No air
circulated in there," he laughed, as if to say "no
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 the questions and answers 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 and abetting charge
presumed evidence, not shown, that Gerardo sent
flight details to Cuba of the Brothers to the Rescue
planes shot down by Cuban MIGs in February 1996 --
which he did not. The charge also assumed that he
knew of secret Cuban government orders to shoot them
down, also not true.
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 had 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 cellblock 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."