The announcement that three of the remaining Cuban Five would be released from a United States prison and allowed to return to Cuba as part of a prison exchange was greeted with jubilation around the world, including here in Canada.
“I knew it was going to happen sooner than later, but I wasn’t expecting it now,” said Jamaican-born University of Toronto professor emeritus, Dr. Keith Ellis, who has been at the forefront with Canadians lobbying for the release of the Cuban Five.
The five intelligence officers were arrested in 1998 and convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder and acting as an agent of a foreign government.
Rene Gonzalez was released in October 2011 and Fernando Gonzalez was set free three years later. The remaining three were freed on December 17.
“The return of these five heroes to Cuba is the biggest news since the Revolution,” said Dr. Ellis, who has visited Cuba nearly 100 times in the last 42 years. “They were people who were trying to put an end to terrorist attacks against Cuba that was happening for far too long. These attacks started in the 1960s and Cuba kept appealing to the United States to do something against these acts that were conceived in Miami – which is U.S. soil – for the most part. The main reason for the five going to the United States was to monitor the activities of the terrorists.”
Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, terrorist attacks against Cuba – masterminded by extremist groups in south Florida – have resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths.
In 1976, a bomb exploded on a Cubana flight just off the Barbadian coast, killing all 73 persons on board, including the successful Cuban youth fencing team which had participated in a regional championship in Venezuela and 11 Guyanese, five of whom were going to study medicine in Cuba.
Ellis fell in love with Cuba and its people the first time he visited that country in 1972.
“I went there to do research on Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen who was a tremendous poet and person and we became good friends,” said Ellis, a visiting professor at Stanford University who also lectured at Yale, Cambridge, Bordeaux and the University of the West Indies.
“As a national poet, he dealt with all aspects of Cuban life and I became very interested in the country. It’s a fascinating place where the emphasis is on education, culture, participation in sport and public health which is a priority.”
The Cuban government assumes fiscal and administrative responsibility for its citizens’ health care.
“While visiting a friend one night, his wife – who is a doctor in that particular area – left the home for about two hours to take care of a patient. When she came back and I asked what was ailing him, she told me he had a family problem which had made him depressed and suicidal and he needed some professional help which she provided.
“There is a very close relationship between the medical professionals and the people they serve,” said Ellis, who graduated from Calabar High School where he taught Spanish and History for three years before migrating to Canada to pursue undergraduate studies.
Ellis last visited Cuba in September to attend the 10th International Colloquium on Solidarity with the Cuban Five and receive a Friendship Award presented by Cuba’s state council.
Two years ago, he was one of the few outsiders specially invited to the launch of former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s book, Our Duty is to Struggle. In 1998, he was also the first Jamaican-born scholar to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Havana, which was founded in 1728.
In addition to teaching Latin American Literature and Culture at U of T for 37 years, Ellis is an accomplished translator and writer. He has authored or edited 18 books and over 100 articles have been published in the top journals in Spanish American literature and culture.