/ 24 June 2015

Cuban Five’s trip to Robben Island an honour reciprocated

The Cuban Five accompanied by some of South Africa’s former political prisoners.
The Cuban Five accompanied by some of South Africa’s former political prisoners.

“It’s been such a great honour to visit this place with some of [former president Nelson] Mandela’s brave comrades,” wrote Gerardo Hernandez in the Robben Island visitor’s book.

Dubbed the Cuban Five, Hernandez, Antonio Guerreo, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, and Rene Gonzalez, were on tour of South Africa’s historic Robben Island, guided by Rivonia trialist and anti-apartheid struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada.

In 1998, the five were arrested and imprisoned in the United States (US) for allegedly spying and plotting against the then Clinton administration.

During their imprisonment, South Africa continuously lobbied for their release and to have their jailing declared unlawful. Then, in December 2014, the Obama administration began releasing the five former Cuban intelligence agents.

They were on Robben Island as part of an almost two-week-long visit to the country, both in celebration of their release and to strengthen ties between South Africa and Cuba.

Along with members of the ANC, its alliance partners, and former political prisoners, the five were taken around the famous prison to hear Kathrada’s first-hand account of life on the island.

“As a black prisoner, Mandela only received his first piece of bread ten years into his sentence,” said Kathrada, to which the Cubans responded with gasps.

After Kathrada and fellow former political prisoner Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim recounted stories from within the prison walls, the Cubans reflected on their experience, all noting it had been an “honour”.

“It’s been a very moving experience,” Hernandez later said.

“I remember when I first read ‘Long Walk to Freedom’… it was moving and encouraging. Their [South Africa’s imprisoned liberation icons] experience and example was a source of inspiration and hope to the Cuban Five,” he said.

Hernandez added that to have Kathrada guide them on the Island tour was an honour “too great to put into words”.

Kathrada reciprocated, comparing Tuesday’s experience to when he had led former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on a tour in the early nineties.

“The Cubans have a very special place in our liberation struggle,” he said.

“Cuba has a special place in our country’s heart because they trained our soldiers and they fought and died alongside us.”

“It was an honour accompanying Fidel Castro and it is an honour doing the same for the Cuban Five,” said Kathrada. – ANA