Glenn Garvin

Glenn Garvin: Cuba still shelters U.S. fugitives

FUGITIVE IN CUBA: The reward for the capture and return of convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard, living in Cuba as Assata Shakur, was doubled to $2 million in 2013.
FUGITIVE IN CUBA: The reward for the capture and return of convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard, living in Cuba as Assata Shakur, was doubled to $2 million in 2013. AP

Having already announced that the United States will reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba and eased American travel restrictions to the island, President Obama is now at work on removing the Castro brothers’ family farm from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

He’s ordered a “review” of Cuba’s status on the list, to be completed no later than May. Given the president’s flexible morality when it comes to Cuba — he’s already released a Cuban spy who was also serving two life sentences for conspiracy to commit murder — there’s little doubt how the review will turn out.

And it’s true that most of the guerrilla groups that Cuba used to support around Latin America have either turned to legitimate politics or gone out of business altogether. These days, the Castros support terrorists who’ve struck at just one country: the United States.

Cuba began providing safe haven for accused American criminals early on. In 1961, a black militant leader from North Carolina accused of kidnapping a white couple during a racial disturbance evaded the FBI and arrived in Havana.

By 1968, U.S. fugitives were arriving with regularity, often aboard hijacked airplanes. Many were members of self-proclaimed revolutionary groups who carried out their political agenda with bombings, bank robberies and murder of police officers drawn by Cuba’s open embrace of anyone who claimed to be carrying out “armed struggle” against non-communist governments.

“We understood that if anything ever happened in the U.S. and we had to leave, the best thing was to come to Cuba,” explained Charlie Hill, a member of a militant group called the Republic of New Africa that wanted to form an independent black nation in the American South.

Hill and two other members hijacked a plane to Cuba after shooting and killing a New Mexico police officer who wanted to search their car, which was loaded with guns and dynamite. His comments were made to Teishan Latner, a research fellow at NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War, whose forthcoming book, Irresistible Revolution: Cuba and American Radicalism, 1968-1992, offers a revealing look at the Cuban government’s treatment of the fugitives deemed genuine revolutionaries.

The Castro regime gave them ration cards and free housing. One large Havana home was known as Hijack House because so many of its occupants arrived on pirated aircraft. Neighbors referred to another as Casa de las Panteras for the all the fugitive Black Panthers living there.

These revolutionary pilgrims got many privileges not available to ordinary Cubans, including the loan of AK-47 rifles for hunting expeditions. To be fair, Castro came to regret that one when his relations with exiled Black Panther chief Eldridge Cleaver — who fled to Cuba after a shootout with Oakland police — went south.

Cleaver chillingly reminded the government he had guns. After a tense standoff of several weeks, there was mutual agreement that Cleaver would move on to Algeria.

For more pliable fugitives, the rewards were bounteous: college educations and cushy jobs. Some worked at propaganda stations beaming revolutionary rhetoric at the United States. Others taught English at elite Havana schools.

William Lee Brent, a Black Panther who hijacked a plane after shooting three San Francisco cops, was a Cuban emissary to the left-wing government of Grenada during the 1980s before his death from pneumonia. Assata Shakur (who originally went by the name Joanne Chesimard), a member of the cop-killing Black Liberation Army convicted of murder in the death of a policeman during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, became a hostess for delegations of international leftists. Presumably they’re impressed by such diplomatic credentials as her place on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists and the $2 million reward posted for her capture by U.S. law enforcement.

As recently as the 1990s, the FBI had a list of 91 fugitives from terrorist-type charges living in Cuba. But age and disillusionment have taken a toll, and researcher Latner believes there are no more than two dozen left, perhaps only half that.

Still, they include some big names: Ishmael LaBeet, one of five men convicted of the infamous Fountain Valley Massacre, a racially tinged 1972 armed robbery in the Virgin Islands that turned into mass murder, with eight dead. William Morales, the master bomb-maker of the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, which set off 140 or so blasts around the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, killing at least six people. Victor Gerena, an armed robber working for another Puerto Rican separatist group, who is believed to have taken the proceeds of a $7 million heist to Cuba with him.

The biggest of all remains Shakur.

She used to be a star attraction on the Cuban government’s cultural reception circuit, but has virtually disappeared in recent times. “I think they are definitely worried about bounty hunters trying to grab her,” says Latner. Maybe Obama’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba will have a silver lining after all, at least for the FBI.