By Eugene Robinson
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page W23
Once they considered themselves black freedom fighters. The FBI considered them armed and dangerous. After more than a generation as fugitives in Castro's Cuba, they are living pieces of unfinished business.
I was on a mission recently to explore the influence of American hip-hop on the streets, alleys and, in this case, cellars of Fidel Castro's Havana. But now I was stalled at the top of a stairway that led to a basement club. Filling the steps all the way down the well were a few dozen kids pleading to be let in. Their way was blocked at the foot of the stairs by two fed-up security guards who kept repeating one word, like a mantra: "Capacidad, capacidad, capacidad."
"Capacity," they were saying, meaning the club was full and no one else was getting in. They were not smiling; their patience with pushy hip-hop fans had long since worn thin.
The only option I could see was to politely pull rank. I took out my U.S. passport, my Cuban press card and my Washington Post business card, and made courteous but deep-voiced excuses as I threaded my way through the crowd and down the steps to hand my credentials to the head guard.
Just then, a woman's voice rang out from behind me on the steps.
"Gene Robinson!" the voice called, and it wasn't a Cuban voice. "If you get inside using that Washington Post press card [expletive], and I'm left sitting out here on these steps, then I'm going to be pissed!"
I turned, but I already knew who it was: Nehanda.
Nehanda Abiodun, nee Cheri Dalton, is an intellectual, a compulsive former of human networks, a talented student of political organization, a chestnut-skinned black woman, a fan of old-school rhythm and blues, a 12-year resident of Havana, an earth mother to the Cuban hip-hop movement, and -- almost incidentally in this context, sitting on the steps of the Cafe Cantante -- a fugitive from U.S. justice whom the FBI considers armed and extremely dangerous.
Abiodun is an honored figure in hip-hop circles, so this was an extremely bad sign -- if she couldn't get in, I probably couldn't either. Sure enough, the guard came back and told me that I wasn't going to see that afternoon's show. I ended up returning to the hotel.
Abiodun gave up, too, and went home, back to her bittersweet life of exile.
THE THOMAS WOLFE LINE about not being able to go home again has never been more literally true than it is for the American fugitives who fled to exile in Cuba. For all of them, more than 70 at last count, going home to America would mean years in prison. For some, it might even mean death by lethal injection. There have been notorious figures such as Robert Vesco, the crooked financier whose millions won him a cosseted tropical holiday in the Havana suburbs, beyond the grasp of his pursuers, until he managed to get on the wrong side of Fidel Castro; he was last seen somewhere in Cuban custody. At the other end of the scale, there are anonymous criminals on the lam, people few have ever heard of and nobody really missed. And then there are the political exiles, most of them the black Americans, like Abiodun.
Once they considered themselves soldiers in the black revolutionary underground; some still do, but not all. The Cuban government considers them political refugees and guests of the state, though it has declined to give them full rights of citizenship. The U.S. government considers them hijackers and armed robbers and murderers, and the shelter they receive in Cuba is a constant irritant in relations between the two countries. The FBI keeps them on its wanted lists; U.S. diplomats issue regular demands for their return; senators and members of Congress take the time to read extensive accounts of their alleged or proven crimes into the Congressional Record. Most Americans have long since forgotten them.
On my nine trips to Cuba over the past four years, I've gotten to know several of these black-power-era fugitives. Initial wariness -- theirs of my occupational nosiness, mine of their criminal histories -- gradually subsided until we were able to deal with one another on a strictly human level. I've come to see them as individuals who have regrets -- "I don't make mistakes like other people; I make full-blown blunders," one told me -- but who still generally describe their actions as political rather than criminal. They are middle-aged Americans trying to make a life in what is still, after many years, a foreign land.
The most notorious, or least forgotten, exile is a woman named Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard. A member of the Black Liberation Army, she was tried and convicted for the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper and sentenced to life in prison. Six years later, comrades disguised as visitors pulled out weapons, took hostages and busted her out of prison -- an unforgivably audacious act, the kind that law enforcement officers take as a personal insult -- and she made her way to Cuba. In interviews she has claimed that she didn't kill the trooper, leaving the implication that it was a fellow Black Liberation Army soldier who pulled the trigger. Partly because of this claim of innocence, and partly because she was a woman with considerable skill at public relations, her case became a minor cause celebre for the African American radical left. By virtue of this attention, she vaulted past other exiles in Cuba, guilty of equal or greater crimes, to become the fugitive whose return to the United States has been demanded most frequently and most angrily. Shakur's profile got so high that she became concerned about Castro's reaction, worried that he might disapprove, and so she shut up and went to ground. Once listed in the Havana phone book, visited regularly by fight-the-power pilgrims from Brooklyn and Stockholm and Caracas, she was suddenly nowhere to be found. Castro's disapproval is one of two things the exiles desperately fear, with good reason, because only he can send them home.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Fugitive's haven. Charles Hill, in his Havana apartment in 1999, says he hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1971.
(Photograph by Dudley M. Brooks)