OR Tambo International Airport arrivals’ hall erupted into cheers of “aluta continua” on Sunday, as the Cuban Five emerged to the jubilation of the massive crowds assembled to welcome the heroes of the Cuban struggle.
“Thank God for their release, now I can rest in peace,” cried Blessing Mahlaba, a former Umkhonto weSizwe commander who donned his military fatigues and waved the Cuban flag alongside dancing members of the Tripartite Alliance.
Mahlaba had trained alongside Cubans in Angola in the 1980s. “They gave us solidarity and support, we will never forget them.”
Three of the Cuban Five spent years alongside MK comrades in Angola in the late 1970s and 1980s.
After a hard fought battle that rallied international solidarity in support of their release, the Cuban Five – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and René Gonzalez – emerged victorious when the US released them from prison in December, after most endured 16 years of incarceration.
The five Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in Miami in the US in 1998 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. The Cuban government later admitted they were spying on Miami’s Cuban exile community in the wake of terrorist bombings in Havana, organised by a former CIA operative. The five were released as part of a prisoner swop with the US last December.
“The first 17 months of our incarceration were spent in solitary confinement,” Hernandez told crowds at the grave site of ANC stalwart Oliver Reginald Tambo.
“As prisoners, we had great admiration for South African freedom fighters, and wanted to come here and thank you for your support,” he said.
Just as Nelson Mandela had made his first visit after being released from prison to Cuba, the Cuban Five chose to make their first foreign visit following their release, to South Africa.
They will be touring the country for the next two weeks.
Their release was sanctioned by US President Barack Obama in what was seen as a first step in the easing of political relations between the US and Cuba.
“They may be released, but the struggle continues,” Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general said at the ceremony in their honour. “The blockade is still in place, and Guantanamo Bay is still there. The US must have no claim on any piece of land in Cuba. We must continue to mobilise international solidarity towards that end.”
Under the 1903 US-Cuba Treaty of Relations, a relationship of US dominance over Cuba was established where Cuba was to lease land for naval bases to the US.
It was one of the conditions the US set in return for the US withdrawing its troops from the island following its war with Spain.