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Five of the most (in)famous U.S. fugitives in Cuba

As relations with Cuba normalize, here's a look at the most well-known fugitives in the island nation -- past and present.

Guillermo Morales, a fugitive from U.S. law enforcement, was convicted of firearms possession and other charges in New York City in 1978 after a bomb he was assembling blew up in his hands. Morales lost all his fingers in that bomb blast. While under guard in a New York hospital, he escaped in 1979 and has been on the run since. He now lives in Havana. (Mary Jordan/The Washington Post)

Assata Shakur may be the most-high profile American fugitive living in Cuba, as well as the most controversial. Extradite her, U.S. authorities demand of Cuba. Pardon her, demand her supporters in the United States.

But what of the other 70 or so American fugitives believed to be living on the island nation? They’re not easy to track, says Teishan Latner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the United States and the Cold War.  “And among those who are known, they are hard to generalize. Some are seen as criminals. Some are mentally ill. Some fled from genuine political persecution.” The lines between the groups blur.

Take, for example, the hijackers. To live in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Latner says, was to have lived in the heyday of airline hijacking to Cuba. It was so common that one publication carried a photo of a flight attendant with the caption, “Coffee, tea or — Castro?”

Between 1968 and 1973, there were 90 attempts to reach Cuba from the United States by commercial plane or, in a few cases, private aircraft, he writes in a forthcoming article for the journal Diplomatic History. Most of the hijackers were from the United States, “making American citizens or residents the world’s most frequent hijackers.”

Latner traveled to Cuba several times to interview those wanted by U.S. authorities. The life they live depends on whether the Cuban government saw them primarily as victims of political persecution in the United States – or as common criminals.

Those viewed as criminals received a welcome party that led straight to prison and eventually into a kind of halfway house, where they could be watched while they transitioned in or out of Cuban life. For many, the reality of a communist society could not survive the idealized version.

But, Latner says, those whom Cuba welcomed as political refugees were put in apartments, given stipends and ration books and supported as they found work.

I asked Latner whom he would place on the list alongside Shakur as the most-high profile American fugitives – past and present. He said it would be hard to narrow down, but these five are among the most well-known.

Nehanda Abiodun. She’s been living in Cuba since 1990. U.S. law enforcement believes she helped Shakur, who was convicted in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper, to escape from prison in 1979. Abiodun is often called the “godmother” of Cuban hip-hop, Latner says, She became an adviser for Cuban youth who were becoming hip-hop artists. She has served as a bridge between Afro-Cuban and American hip-hop artists.

William Lee Brent. Brent, a Black Panther Party member who had been excommunicated, hijacked TWA flight 154 from Oakland to Havana in 1969. He was imprisoned in Cuba for 22 months as a suspected spy, but upon his release he went on to work at a pig farm and a soap factory before getting a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Havana. He died in Cuba in 2006.

Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver, author of “Soul on Ice,” was a Black Panther Party leader. He fled to Cuba in 1968 while out on bail on charges of attempted murder of two police officers. He was welcomed as a political refugee but stayed only five months before leaving for Algeria and the Soviet Union. He would later speak of his time in Cuba as one of disillusionment. He died in the United States in 1998.

Guillermo Morales. A member of a militant Puerto Rican separatist movement, Morales escaped from a hospital in New York while under police custody. He has admitted he was planting a bomb at a New York military installation when the bomb blew up, taking nearly all his fingers. He was facing 89 years in prison when he escaped. He is still believed to be living in Cuba.

William Potts. One of the last hijackers and another Black Panther Party militant, Potts became known somewhat mockingly as “the homesick hijacker.” Potts diverted a commercial flight from New York City to Cuba in 1984, hoping to go on to South Africa to join the anti-apartheid movement. He was imprisoned for 13 years and then lived as a political exile.  In 2013, he returned to the United States and earlier this year pleaded guilty to kidnapping. He is now in prison and eligible for parole in 2021.

And whom does Cuba most want from the United States?

“Probably Luis Posada Carriles,” Latner says. Cuba and Venezuela hold Carriles responsible for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He is living openly in Florida and has never faced charges in the United States, Latner says.

Cuban officials in recent days have said they will not return Shakur to the United States, stating the country’s prerogative as a sovereign nation to offer political asylum. Cuba, Latner says, will continue to protect Americans it believes would not receive a fair trial in the United States. As far as the larger relationship goes, Latner says: “Cuba wants what Cuba has always wanted with the U.S.: diplomatic equality and reciprocity.”