Irma Gonzalez, daughter of Miami 5 anti-terrorist fighter, Rene Gonzalez, found time during her recent tour to speak to CubaSí editor Natasha Hickman about growing up in Miami, the campaign to free her father and her reception in Britain.
Until six, Irma Gonzalez led the life of an ordinary Cuban child. She lived with her parents and spent weekends with grandparents in Havana.
Suddenly, in December 1990, everything changed: “I woke up one morning and my dad wasn’t there. I was used to him being away for one or two nights, but this time he just didn’t come back.”
Growing up, Irma never questioned the explanation from her mother, Olga Salanueva, that he was ‘studying abroad’. Letters and phone calls every few months were enough to keep the inquisitive six year-old satisfied.
Despite, Olga’s best efforts to keep up her daughter’s spirits Irma sensed something was wrong: “I saw my mum growing sad. She was trying to stay happy for me, but she was not well or happy in herself.”
Six years passed, until December 1996 when Olga told her now 12 year old daughter they were leaving to join Rene in Miami.
“Me and dad had been very close when I was younger, and seeing him again was like the years had never passed. He was exactly the same smart, talkative and loving father who had left.”
What Irma didn’t know was that Rene had spent their six years apart infiltrating Miami terrorist groups carrying out attacks against the Cuban people. Nor was she aware that he had hijacked a plane to leave Cuba in 1990 in order to convince them he was genuinely against the Cuban revolution.
“There would be meetings at our house with men I didn’t like. They would get together to talk lies and plot against Cuba. Their words caused me a great deal of confusion as they went against everything I knew to be true.”
“After each meeting my parents told me not to worry, not to take it too seriously, to hold on to my own memories and the truth I knew for myself about my country.”
“At 12 I realised there was something beyond what I knew about my father. He was not full of lies and hatred like the men he mixed with, but I didn’t know what he was doing, and I sensed it best not to ask.”
At school, Irma also faced conflict. “I got really mad when kids repeated lies about Cuba they’d seen on TV, especially those kids who had just arrived from the island and knew they weren’t true but repeated them to fit in.”
“Although I was angry I didn’t say what I was really thinking. My father was part of the group telling lies, but deep down I knew he didn’t believe it and if I spoke out at school I might cause him trouble, so I chose to keep quiet.”
Less than two years after moving to Miami, Irma’s father was suddenly and violently snatched from her again. This time by FBI agents who stormed their home and arrested him early morning, 12 September 1998. While Rene was being held in the hole, Irma and her mother were being hounded by the press for being communists. A hammer and sickle was graffitied across their door and school friends instructed by their parents not to speak to her. Since Rene refused to inform on his four comrades, Olga was deported, and so in 2000 Irma found herself living back in Cuba.
“After the trial, the case became public at home and almost immediately I started campaigning for their freedom and doing things like this UK tour. I am the oldest of all the children of the five (there are seven in total aged 12 to 26) so was speaking on their behalf from sixteen.”
Irma has spoken in many countries but was particularly touched by a visit to Angola, where Rene fought against apartheid forces for three years. She has met world leaders including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
She balances campaigning with a career as a clinical psychologist which she also teaches at Havana University. “The campaign is like hope for us. It is important to keep doing something for someone you love, not just sit at home waiting for something to happen. I feel that I’m useful standing up for my father and my four uncles. It’s something I believe in, not just the Five, but what they represent too.”
Although Irma has never met Antonio, Gerardo, Ramon or Fernando she feels that they are part of her family and refers to them affectionately as her uncles. “We speak by phone and they are always present in our lives, sending cards and letters on birthdays and special occasions.”
Rene, who is serving the shortest sentence is due for release in October 2011, although it is likely he will have to serve three years probation in the US. “This would be really hard because he would still not be able to see my mum.” (Olga Salanueva has been refused a visa by the US authorities ten times and been told never to apply again).
“When he is released it will still be very sad. No justice will have been done. He will have served the full sentence and it will not feel like real freedom to be home if his four brothers are still in jail.”
“The situation is hard. One more year goes by, then another. When I started university I was sure my father would be back when I graduated but he wasn’t. The children of the five are growing up, and the children that Fernando and Gerardo might have had will never be born. But we are still here, still strong, still fighting. And when we see so may people like you, getting together to help, it really does give us hope and make us smile.”
Irma has attended the last two vigil’s outside the US embassy, last year with her mother Olga Salanueva and Adraina Perez: “It is great to so many people who turn up to support us and speak on our behalf with so much spirit and courage. And the five know about the support in the UK and it helps to keep them strong. I really hope that next time I am in the UK the five will be with me, thanking you in person for everything you have done.”