She cannot receive visitors, except a brother. She is not allowed to talk on the phone, receive newspapers, magazines or watch television. No one can inquire about her health or know why she is in a center for criminals with mental problems when she is not insane. Nor is she allowed to interact with other people in that prison, where she has spent two decades in absolute solitude.
Ana Belén Montes celebrated her 64th birthday last Sunday in one of the wards of hell, a place where “the worst thing is to be locked up with oneself”, as Nelson Mandela wrote in his biography, knowing what he was saying after 27 years of confinement. A U.S. citizen and daughter of Puerto Ricans, she has been incarcerated since 2001 in the Federal Medical Center (FMC) prison in Fort Worth, Texas, reserved for very dangerous and mentally ill criminals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons list, she is numbered 25037-016, is due to be released on July 1, 2023, and when she does so, she will surely maintain the same discretion with which she entered prison and maintained during her life at liberty. She was a high-ranking officer in the Pentagon’s Military Intelligence Agency (DIA) and was in charge of Cuba. She was charged with espionage, but her great crime has been to put conscience above personal safety, a successful career, and a gifted life in a Washington suburb.
According to her defense attorney, Plato Cacheris, Montes committed acts of espionage for moral reasons, because “she felt that Cubans were treated unfairly by the U.S.”. In a controversial article published in newspapers of wide circulation and with privileged sources, access to classified documents and to her scarce correspondence from jail, they try to present her as a shadowy informant, the last one in the deadly game of the Cold War. But they make the mistake of quoting a letter to a relative in which Ana Belén says “I don’t like being in prison at all, but there are certain things in life that are worth going to jail for”, thus leaving clues to the reader as to the true nature of this woman’s punishment.
In her plea before the judge who sentenced her, barely a page and a half that managed to reach the catacombs of the Internet, she states: “Your honor, I engaged in the activity that has brought me before you because I obeyed my conscience rather than obeyed the law. I consider our government’s policy toward Cuba to be cruel and unjust, deeply unfriendly, I considered myself morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose on it our values and our political system… Cuba’s right to exist, free from political and economic coercion, may not justify my having given the island classified information so that it could defend itself. I can only say that I did what I considered most appropriate to counter a great injustice.”
The trial, therefore, was not simply a case against an officer who had the temerity to alert abuses against a country that never did harm to the United States, while from that territory terrorism, assassination and extermination by “hunger and desperation” has been encouraged, as openly expressed 60 years ago by the architects of the blockade against Cuba. It is the coordinated effort by the surveillance and security state to extinguish the constitutional right to expose crimes committed by those in power. It is the crucifixion of lone individuals who take personal risks to let victims know the truth – the Daniel Ellsbergs, the Ron Ridenhours, the Deep Throats and the Chelsea Mannings. It is the lesson of all those from within the system who make public facts that challenge the official narrative, such as John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst, who revealed how the U.S. government used “waterboarding” techniques to torture prisoners. We would not have known that mass surveillance is possible and that it is done secretly and on a daily basis, had it not been for Edward Snowden.
In Steven Spielberg’s film, The Post: The Dark Secrets of the Pentagon, the characters struggle with personal dilemmas that are also ethical: “Wouldn’t you go to jail for preventing a war?” Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked thousands of documents about the US invasion of Viet Nam at the end of the 1960s, asks a journalist. Like Ana Belén, he has been considered in equal parts a traitor and a hero, depending on the lenses of whoever is judging.
There is no decent way to ignore these things anymore, despite the terrifying lies of power. In Cuba, Vicente Feliú put music to the verses of the poet Miguel Sotomayor, and the song dedicated to Ana Belén Montes is heard in the concerts of the troubadour:
to know you mired in silence
in the midst of dementia and loneliness.
It hurts so much
that there are mouths that are muted
when they should shout.
It hurts so much, so much
to know of your suffering when there is no crime
if the struggle is for justice, for life, and for peace.
It hurts so much
that my arms are handcuffed doves
that flap their wings without being able to free you.