September 2016        

Ana Belén Montes: prisoner of conscience

Miriam Montes Mock
Translated by Seán Joseph Clancy

Ana Belén Montes made a decision to obey her conscience rather than obey the law. And acting according to her conscience resulted in a 25-year sentence to a high-security American prison.
     From outside, the buildings look like a concrete tomb-coloured compound. Their perimeter is surrounded by a strip of vibrant green grass, seemingly intent on highlighting sensations stimulated by the desolate spaces behind.
     From within, there is no way to interact with the world without. There are almost no windows to look out from and momentarily escape the stench of urine and excrement within.
     The dull, white, monotonous walls of the Carswell Federal Medical Center hold a prisoner unique among those of the general population. Women here scream, scratch, bite, kick, destroy and go increasingly insane until they surrender to crave a release that can only ever be realised in death. By contrast, this prisoner has found refuge in a protective cocoon, within which she does not need to die and from which everything can be seen, heard, and felt . . .
     Ana Belén Montes has somehow managed to preserve the soul that always defined her—or at least that essential part of it that shuddered in the face of injustice and opted to show solidarity with its victims. She still has her vibrant eyes and her open heart.
     For more than fourteen years Ana has had to survive this hell called Carswell. She awakens to face a new day replicating exactly every one that went before, bereft of any contact with nature, any loving family or friendly embrace, any meaningful dialogue, or the slightest trace of anything that might make life seem worth while.
     Thankfully, her conscience breathes serenity, assured that it could not be still had she decided not to defend the people of Cuba, a nation she knew was being grossly abused by another, a nation all-powerful and dominant, provoked by Cuba—the other—for having decided to construct its own system of government.
     Back in 1985, Ana Belén Montes had a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Having completed a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, she herself had applied for the job there.
     Ana had been an outstanding scholar. A few short years previously she had been awarded her bachelor’s degree in foreign relations by the University of Virginia.
     Her intelligence, capacity for analytical thought and strong sense of responsibility ensured promotions to ever more important posts. She was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, where she worked as an intelligence research specialist. By 1992 Ana was working at the Pentagon as an analyst, and at the time of her arrest in 2001 she was a high-ranking expert Cuba analyst.
     Ana Belén Montes understood what drives the ideological motor of the most powerful state on earth. She knew the lengths it goes to to impose its interests on foreign shores. US interventions in Latin American countries go back as far as the state itself does. Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and others have suffered the illicit interference of North American governments.
     Ana kept all this history filed in the archives of her mind as she worked deep within what José Martí described as the entrails of a monster, at a time when the United States had been inflicting punishments on the Cuban people for more than thirty years. Today, Cuba has endured more than fifty years of that same aggression and hostility.
     Ana could have decided to take a longer view of things. After all, she was not even Cuban. She could have remained as indifferent as others had; she might have stayed silent and kept to just doing her job. She might have decided not to involve herself with something seemingly impossible to change. But her gut tightened every time she became aware of the crimes her state was perpetrating against Cuba. One criminal act on top of another.
     Ana valiantly chose to take the road less travelled. She knowingly took a terrible risk and gambled with her liberty and with her life. She was moved by that same craving for righteous justice that had moved Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Simón Bolívar, Nelson Mandela, and countless other heroic men and women throughout history.
     Ana Belén Montes knowingly chose the unique path she took and gave of herself with the same unbreakable moral commitment in the face of wrong that they had done. Deep within, they were motivated by the same humanitarian desires that obliged them to raise their voice and clench their fists. Principles that define us as human and neighbourly resonated in their hearts.
     These also evoked a profound sense of dignity in defence of the right to self-determination, in resistance to overwhelming political odds, and in undoing injustices committed by the hand of an oppressor.
     Ana was perhaps unaware then that she had become part of a tradition of regional liberation struggle, dating back more than a century from the times of Ramón Emeterio Betances. The Antillian Confederation was then endeavouring to bring European colonialism in the region to an end by uniting the Greater Antilles in a body that would preserve the sovereignty of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
     Among the ranks of patriots who had embraced the same ideals of solidarity as Betances were Eugenio María de Hostos, José Martí, Gregorio Luperón, Juan Rius Rivera, Pedro Albizu Campos, Juan Antonio Corretjer Montes, Juan Mari Brás, and Rubén Berríos. Their struggle continues.
     On 16 July 1867 the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico issued the following proclamation: “Cubans and Puerto Ricans, let us unite our forces and work together, we are brothers joined by a common misfortune. We are also one in Revolution for the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico! From this the Confederation of the Antilles will be formed tomorrow.”
     Ana Belén Montes was born in Germany to Puerto Rican parents and was brought up in the United States. It may have been the revolutionary DNA of her forebears that inspired her to risk her life in defence of Cuba’s inalienable right to self-determination, in the face of threats imposed by North American imperialism.
     Ana found that she encountered an opportunity in her very own hands. The US establishment was planning further outrages against Cuba, and Ana had to decide between taking action and holding her tongue. She could be part of this planned aggression, or she could act to impede such criminal acts.
     She was frightened, and was fully aware of the consequences of what she was going to do. If discovered, she knew she faced a life sentence—and quite possibly a death sentence. And Ana would not get any material reward in return for taking such a risk. No money, no privileges, no favours, and no recognition, only the loneliness that is an essential element of clandestine duties, which demand the utmost discretion and the fear of being caught.
     In the end it was the voice of Ana’s own conscience that was the most compelling, and she found the courage to act accordingly. She did whatever she could to protect Cuba from state terrorism organised and financed by the United States. This was her crime.
     Ana Belén Montes was arrested at her place of work on 21 September 2001. Security agents had brought a wheelchair with them in case it would be needed. Stoic and silent, Ana walked erect and held her head high.
     She was brought before an American court one year later, on 16 October 2002. Having entered a guilty plea on charges of spying for Cuba’s Intelligence Directorate, she was sentenced to twenty-five years in a maximum-security prison.
     In her own dignified manner she read into the court record the principles and values that had obliged her to protect the Cuban people from hostile US policy. “Your honour, I engaged in the activities for which I have been brought before you today because I obeyed my conscience before I obeyed the law. I consider our government’s policy on Cuba to be unjust, cruel, and profoundly unfriendly. I felt morally obliged to help the Island defend itself against efforts to impose our values and political system on it.”
     Ana Belén is a cousin of mine; and even though we lived in different countries—she in the United States and I in Puerto Rico—we have always kept in touch and often spent summertimes together.
     I have admired Ana ever since I was a little girl. I remember her as studious, as having a reflective attitude, and for being discreet. She was affectionate to her parents, her siblings, her grandmother, and her aunts. Her kindness and sensitivity always touched me, as did her thoughtfulness and her consideration for her family.
     My respect for my cousin grew with time. I could perceive her sense of ethics, her ability to show solidarity with those less fortunate, and an innate favourable disposition towards others.
     One summer, when Ana must only have been sixteen or seventeen, she was inspired while staying at our home to give some of her own money to a young engaged couple who were not well off. She didn’t know them, and she hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but she was nonetheless moved by kind-heartedness to anonymously ease their financial burden as best she could.
     I could see that such acts reflected an attitude to life very different from those promoted by consumerist societies, which concentrate on the ephemeral, on the importance of self and on hedonism.
     During another summer that Ana had come to stay I noticed one day that she was dressed all in black. When I asked why, Ana answered that her best friend’s father had died and that she “wanted to be with her.”
     Through anonymous gestures like these, Ana showed solidarity with those who suffered.
     When Ana came to Puerto Rico, the beach was a compulsory destination. She loved swimming, sunbathing, eating fresh pineapple, and drinking coconut water. She loved the company of her cousins, especially the most light-hearted and funny of them. She made sure to call on her aunts, her grandmother, and her grandaunts. She brought them presents, and she was always affectionate.
     Since her imprisonment, more than fourteen years ago, we write to each other as often as we can. We have, I confess, become even closer to each other than we previously were. Our letters are embraces from afar, written words that become a luxurious way to share the ups and downs of life with each other, Ana from the confines of an oppressive physical underworld and I from a vast and unlocked openness.
     But the human spirit cannot be confined by walls, and the words that we exchange are understood. My dreams and hers find each other and connect, as do Ana’s thoughts and loves—loves that have been truly tested under fire.
     Her ability to listen attentively, to give life and feeling to words, to respond to the pain of others and to become part of the solution have enriched my life.
     But Ana has given me something even greater still. Her conduct has been an example of courage and humility. She has bestowed upon me the true privilege of being her companion, of also “dressing in black to be with her,” behind the bars of her cell.
     Ana Belén will overcome.
     She lives by those same principles that have defined her life. So when, on 17 December 2014, President Barack Obama said that “these past fifty years have shown us that isolation does not work and that now it is time for a new strategy,” Ana’s heart leapt.
     She is by no means naïve and knows that the United States will try to realise its same old objectives but for now with sprinkles of honey rather than of vinegar.
     She nonetheless considers Obama’s moves to be the first towards a possible reconciliation between two neighbouring states. This for Ana is nothing more than a sign that her vision of friendship between two the countries may have recently begun to come true.
     It is loyalty to her own ideals that helps Ana resist. This is something that cannot be denied. I believe that Ana’s conscience offers her solace in her isolation. I am certain that, despite the infernal world surrounding her, it fills her with an infinite sense of serenity.
     The words that Ana read help her to resist. She is an avid reader of what others write. She learns, analyses, and forms and expresses opinions. She reads history, politics, spirituality and universal truths in words written for children. She has recently been charmed by both the former Uruguayan president José Mujica and Pope Francis, whose depth, simplicity and identification with the most unfortunate have moved her.
     Ana resists through contemplation and an appreciation of the natural beauty in the documentaries she can see in prison. Such things remind her that a harmonious world exists beyond the walls of her prison, and she finds space in her soul for this wonderful world. She knows that, despite the injustices she has borne witness to, human kindness is also a reality.
     And she has suddenly become aware that she is loved by a growing community of brothers and sisters in Cuba, Puerto Rico, France, Brazil, Italy, Ireland, the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Argentina and other countries who support and identify with the principles she defended. It is with certainty I can say that this has lifted her spirits.
     Ana can be emotional, and she sheds tears when she feels the forces behind such emotional embraces. She is moved by the knowledge that her cause is that of a much broader and transcendental ideal than that of her own liberation.
     Ana’s cause is that of a reconciliation process between two nations, two peoples, and all citizens of the world, even in the face of their diverse ways of life. As she, inspired by an old Italian proverb, said, “The world is just one country.”
     Ana loves Cuba but loves just causes above all else. She protected Cuba because it happened to be the country being harassed by the more powerful and hostile one. If things had been the other way around, if Cuba or Puerto Rico had been the powerful and abusive countries, Ana would have then defended the United States.
     Ana does not want fame or notoriety. She is uncomfortable being hailed as a heroine or being branded as exceptional. In her own mind she acted as she was personally obliged to do, and could not have done otherwise. She did as Cuban doctors did when, in spite of the risks, they felt obliged to offer their services to Ebola sufferers in west Africa. They did not seek to be remembered by history as heroes. In assuming such risks they simply obeyed their conscience. The nature of their commitment, like that which inspired Ana, is not and never can become negotiable.
     This is how Ana still feels and why she does not wish nor wait for praise. It is what gets her through her unending nightmare. It is what inspired her to struggle and what sustains her in her prison hell.
     In her eyes, support for her cause is support for the cause of Cuban sovereignty in the face of US hostility—or, better said, the right that every nation on earth should enjoy to decide its own destiny.
     Ana still supports this universal principle and, I feel sure, would offer her life again so that Cuba would not have to abandon this ideal of liberation.
     This is who Ana Belén Montes is: an internationalist with an unbreakable sense of solidarity and respect for all humanity, having an affinity with the noble principles of peace and justice, as defended by heroes and heroines throughout the ages, and with the same modesty that is typical of those who have historically upheld such high ideals.
     Free Ana Belén Montes!

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