Scores of American living on the lam in Cuba pose major political hurdle for U.S., Cuban diplomats negotiating normalization of diplomatic ties
Fugitives include political revolutionaries, cop killers, plane hijackers, and high-profile financial fraudsters
July 1, 2015
The United States and Cuba have agreed to normalize diplomatic relations after a 54-year hostile standoff, U.S. and Cuban officials confirmed Tuesday.
The delicate rapprochement is sure to cause angst and anger between rival constituents within the U.S.. Among those likely most concerned are at least 70 American–among them plane hijackers, cop killers, bank robbers, illegal bird smugglers, insurance fraudsters, financial swindlers, and political revolutionaries–who are fugitives from U.S. justice and long granted asylum in Cuba.
The issue was at the top of the agenda during more than 6 months of secret negotiations between the two countries for normalizing relations.
While a number of high-profile American fugitives live openly in Cuba, the most contentious hot button case is likely that of Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, who is on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorist list and has a $2 million reward for information leading to her capture.
But Chesimard, the aunt and Godmother of slain iconic U.S. rapper Tupac Shakur, is not hard to find. She is listed in the Havana phone book, has worked for state-run Radio Havana, published books, and has given numerous press interviews.
But Chesimard’s impending fate was almost certainly decided during the 2015 negotiations between Cuban and U.S. diplomats, which have been quietly under way since last December, and the details of her fate will be made public Wednesday.
In April, President Barack Obama said Cuba had agreed to resolve the cases of several specific US fugitives living in Cuba, Chesimard being the most prominent among them. Cuba has previously refused to extradite her. She has worked and lived openly for more than 30 years in Cuba, published a biography under her new name, Assata Shakur, during her not very secret life on the run with a $2 million bounty for her capture from U.S. law enforcement.
Whatever the two sides decided is likely to leave competing and very vocal constituent groups very unhappy.
JOANNE CHESIMARD AKA ASSATA SHAKUR: CRIMINAL OR POLITICAL FREEDOM FIGHTER?
Some people consider Chesimard a political prisoner. Others are adamant she is a murderer, a cop killer, and a criminal.
On May 2, 1973, Chesimard and a pair of accomplices were stopped by two troopers for a motor vehicle violation on the New Jersey Turnpike. At the time, she was wanted for several felonies, including bank robbery. Chesimard and two other occupants of the car are accused of opening fire on the troopers. One officer was wounded, and his partner—Trooper Werner Foerster—was shot and killed at point-blank range. One of Chesimard’s accomplices was killed in the shootout and the other was arrested and remains in jail.
Chesimard fled but was apprehended. In 1977, she was found guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and sentenced to life in New Jersey State prison.
Less than two years later, she escaped. Chesimard’s 1979 escape from prison was well planned after “armed domestic terrorists gained entry into the facility, neutralized the guards, broke her free, and turned her over to a nearby getaway team,” said FBI agent Rinaldi early this year.
She lived underground before surfacing in Cuba in 1984, where she has lived ever since.
Chesimard was granted asylum in Cuba. Like many of the estimated 70 U.S. fugitives, Chesimard has been provided housing, food rations, medical care, and jobs by the Cuban government.
“On the 40th anniversary of the cold-blooded murder of a New Jersey state trooper, the fugitive convicted of the killing, Joanne Chesimard, has been named a Most Wanted Terrorist by the FBI—the first woman ever to make the list,” said the FBI in May, 2013.
But to many others , the real issue remains that Chesimard was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, radical armed political groups that evolved from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
FBI MOST WANTED TERRORIST LIST
She is the first woman ever placed–in 2013–on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorist list. In addition to being the first woman named as a Most Wanted Terrorist, Chesimard is only the second accused domestic terrorist to be added to the list. When she was placed on the list, the FBI said Chesimard “is believed to be living in Cuba under political asylum.”
All nine others on the list are foreign nationals accused of acting on behalf of Islamic extremist groups.
“Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style,” said Aaron Ford, special agent in charge of the FBI Newark Division. “Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Werner Foerster’s death, we want the public to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice.”
JoAnne Chesimard contends she was unfairly convicted by an all-white jury.
“Cuba not only is refusing to hand her over. It is refusing, at least publicly, to make the topic of extradition part of these negotiations. Cuba considers her a folk hero who was persecuted by the U.S. government,” Teishan Latner with the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California-Santa Barbara told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Cuba says eveidence of her being a target of politically motivated persecution includes the absence of her fingerprints on the murder weapon, no gunpowder residue on her hands proving she fired the gun, and her trial by an all-white jury.
In January of this year, Chesimard’s cousin Bill Freeman told a Wilmington, North Carolina TV station that her family believed she was innocent and targeted for her political views. “We’re family and we’ll always be family and we support her because we know she didn’t do it. We know she didn’t do what they say she did,” Freeman said. “We’re trying to hold everything together here. We would like very much to see you and we hope you are in good health and happiness,” Freeman said. “We hope you will be able to come home soon because to us you are a hero and we want you to know that.”
Numerous U.S. political groups have long considered her as a poster woman for official U.S. government racism and called for her pardon.
But, in addition to a $1 million reward for her capture offered by the FBI, the New Jersey state prosecutors office has added an additional $1 million dollar reward for her apprehension.
In January of this year the FBI released a strong statement on Chesimard when news of negotiations to normalize relations with Cuba became public.
“The Newark FBI is in close contact with our law enforcement and intelligence community partners on matters pertaining to Joanne Chesimard. As long as there is an active warrant for Joanne Chesimard, the FBI will continue to pursue justice, regardless of how long it takes, and are hopeful any changes in relations between the United States and Cuba, will assist us with her apprehension and return. The FBI will continue to utilize all available resources in our attempt to apprehend Joanne Chesimard, no matter where in the world she is located,” read a FBI public statement.
U.S. FUGITIVES A COLOURFUL HARD-CORE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Chesimard is just one of a fascinating cast of characters who have sought refuge in Cuba, an assortment of high-profile common criminals, ultra wealthy financial scammers, drug kingpins, U.S. revolutionaries from bygone days; several airplane hijackers; and a smattering of cop killers.
Other U.S. citizens wanted by U.S law enforcement believed to be living in Cuba include:
Robert Vesco, international finance con man, illegal donor to the Nixon for President campaign, and cocaine smuggler died in Cuba a few years back. Robert Vesco was charged in the United States for bilking mutual funds investors of $224 million. Vesco fled to Costa Rica and later to Cuba, where he started several joint ventures with the Castro regime, but was later sent to jail by Castro when he tried to become more independent and cut the Cuban regime out of the deals. He was later released and died in Cuba.
Victor Gerena, one of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted, is wanted for the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo armored truck depot in West Hartford, Connecticut. The FBI says on September 12, 1983, Gerena took hostage two of his fellow Wells Fargo employees escaped with $7 million dollars.
Guillermo Morales was a member of a now defunct Puerto Rico separatist group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation.
In 1978 he was building a bomb when it blew up, resulting in him losing several fingers and suffering serious facial injuries.
The bomb was intended for a military base in New York when it blew up. He was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison. Then state prosecutors brought more charges that might have kept him in jail for nearly 100 years–a prosecution Morales said was political, so he escaped.
Morales tied a rope and descended three stories from a New York hospital. He went to Mexico, where he was arrested for killing a Mexican policeman and spent five years in prison there. In 1988, Mexico allowed Morales to seek refuge in Cuba, a decision that angered Washington enough to recall their ambassador.
“Everyone else is afraid of the American empire,” Morales told the Washington Post in a 2002 interview in Havana. “Anywhere else I would go they would turn me over.”
He works as a correspondent for a small, pro-Puerto Rico independence newspaper published in Havana.
Morales said he occasionally ran into U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana who recognize him but do not speak to him.
In 1999, then President Clinton pardoned 16 members of Morales’s former political group, accused of a number of violent attacks, including the bombing of a Wall Street tavern that killed four and left many injured. Morales’s then girlfriend was pardoned, but Morales was not.
When hijacking commercial jetliners reached epidemic proportions, Fidel Castro began giving hijackers stiff sentences under a 1973 agreement with Washington, but a number were given asylum prior to then.
New Mexico cop Bob Rosenbloom was murdered by Charlie Hill in 1971 during a traffic stop. Hill and two other accomplices were members of the radical Republic of New Afrika, which called for a separate black nation to be carved out of parts of the U.S. After killing the police officer, the trio escaped, later emerging from a desert ditch and hijacked a TWA 727 at gunpoint from Albuquerque to Havana.
Hill is one of a half-dozen American hijackers from the 1970’s still in Cuba, part of a total of about 70 U.S. citizens wanted by the FBI who have sought refuge in the last 40 years.
In a 1999 interview, Hill expressed no remorse. “He had a real John Wayne attitude,” Hill told the Washington Post of the police officer he acknowledges shooting. “He was also a racist. He was real stupid and that’s what got him killed, man. I have never felt guilty about that cop. I never think about that dude. I wish the whole thing never happened, but I don’t feel ashamed.”
Here is what the widow of police officer Bob Rosenbloom said when she found out her husband’s killer was living free in Cuba.
In a diary titled “Bob Rosenbloom April 23, 1943 — November 8, 1971”, she wrote:
“On November 8, 1971, late at night, I woke up to the sounds of loud knocking at my front door. I looked over at Bob’s side of the bed and he wasn’t there, and I was immediately alarmed. I remember getting out of bed and walking down the hallway and as I came around the corner to the entry way, I saw Becky Trippeer standing at the window, and I froze. Then what sounded like a million miles away, I heard her yelling at me to open the door. It was like I already knew why she and her Bob (my Bob’s partner) were there. In the slowest of slow motion I got to the door and opened it. It seemed like they rushed in and were holding on to me, and I had never felt such fear. I remember asking what was wrong. All I heard was Bob Trippeer saying… “Bob has been killed.”
“Bob was killed on Interstate 40, West of Albuquerque, New Mexico, by three black men, members of the militant group called The Republic of New Africa. They are Michael Finney, Charles Hill, and Ralph Goodwin. They murdered Bob in cold blood and fled the scene, leaving him to die. I was told Bob died instantly and did not suffer and I choose to believe this, because I could not bear it if I thought he had suffered at all. As they fled, they passed a motorist, Dennis Arnold of Greeley, Colorado, who immediately drove to Bob’s police car and used his radio to call for help. I have never talked to Dennis Arnold, but I am forever grateful to him that Bob was not left out there alone.
“The three murderers hid out in Albuquerque for 18 days and then hijacked an airplane and fled to Cuba. I read in a newspaper article that Michael Finney bragged on the airplane that he had killed “the pig.”
“I can call them murderers and don’t have to say “the suspected killers” because I do not have to be politically correct. It does not have to be proven to me in a court of law that they are murderers. I know they are and they know they are.
“Michael Finney and Charles Hill are still hiding like cowards in Cuba. Ralph Goodwin supposedly drowned while swimming in the ocean off of Cuba.”
In the last few years, political attention has been given to Bob’s case to bring his murderers to justice and have them extradited from Cuba. Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico has written two letters to President Clinton imploring him to pursue extradition due to the new policies toward Cuba. At one point, then Congressman Bill Richardson traveled to Cuba to negotiate with Castro for the extradition of the fugitives. Congressman Richardson called me the evening before he left for Cuba and his hopes were high that he would return with the fugitives, but that was not to be. Senator Pete Domenici has also written a letter to President Clinton.
“In July of 1998, a crew from CBS Eye on America came to my home and interviewed the kids and I. The CBS Producer, Tom Flynn was very good with us and did his best to have us prepared for the interview. NOTHING… absolutely nothing could have prepared the kids and I for seeing a video of Michael Finney, free in Cuba, riding his bike. Up until that moment, we had seen only one picture of him on a wanted poster. When I saw him on that video, my heart fell and all the pain and intense grief came rushing back. It was very hard to do that interview.”
In all honesty, I struggle with what I want to happen to Michael Finney and Charles Hill. When I am asked about it, I feel panic inside and I want to run from the pain it brings, but then, for nothing to be done for Bob’s death… that is so painful too.”
“August 2006: update about my feelings: Throughout these many 35 years since Bob was killed, I have grown older and hopefully wiser. The hurt is still there, it always will be. I do not desire Michael Finney or Charles Hill to ever be brought back to the United States. I honestly hope they never make it back here. They have ruled so much of my life and the lives of my children already; I just can’t see giving them any more through a trial and all the media frenzy that would accompany it. I just don’t want to deal with them anymore! It is my true and strong belief that they will be dealt with justly by God when they die. I can’t ask for more than that.”
November 10, 1999 “… I have just finished watching “The Untouchables” story that KOAT TV News in Albuquerque aired tonight. Larry Barker and his crew were able to go to Cuba and get an interview with Charles Hill. Michael Finney refused to be interviewed. I think Larry and KOAT TV did an excellent job with this story. I am amazed that they were even able to get into Cuba to do this story.
“As far as what Charles Hill had to say… that Bob had to be killed because he had a “John Wayne” attitude… that they killed Bob in self-defense… that they had to kill him because he was a White Cop and the enemy… Charles Hill and Michael Finney, you are both cowardly cold-blooded cop killing murderers and you are the scum of the earth!
“The death of my husband has been the single most devastating event in my life. Bob was 28 when he was killed, I was 25, we had been married just five short years, and we had two babies, our daughter, Tamara Lea Rosenbloom, who had just turned three years old eight days before her daddy was killed, and our son, Robert Wade Rosenbloom, who had just turned two years old three days before his daddy was killed. On September 13, 2001, the New Mexico State Police Association dedicated the District 5 New Mexico State Police Office Building in Albuquerque to Bob.”
Numerous other fugitives from U.S. justice are mere common criminals, with no political cache.
Gilberto Martinez is a credit-card fraudster and U.S. fugitive, a music video artist who flaunted his extravagant lifestyle on Facebook and YouTube before fleeing to Cuba, where he lives in a sprawling, custom-built home outside Havana.
Florida court records show he is a fugitive and faces up to 16 years in prison after he was indicted in a Secret Service credit card fraud probe involving $150,000 of purchases at stores including Toys’R’Us and Babies’R’Us.
In 2008, the U.S. indicted ten people for a human smuggling ring between Cuba and the U.S. Junior Arce de la Cruz was the ringleader and fled to Cuba. Last year, the U.S. Marshal Service simply looked him up in the Havana phone book and gave him a ring on the telephone. “He confirmed, absolutely, I know I’m wanted in the U.S., and I’m not coming back to the U.S. because I know I’m going to prison,” Barry Golden, U.S. Marshals Service spokesman, said of the call.
HARBORING VIOLENT POLITICAL EXTREMISTS IS A TWO WAY STREET
But the charges of giving refuge to fugitive political terrorists is a two-way street. Cuba has long accused Washington of harboring violent anti-Cuban terrorists.
Orlando Bosch, who lives in Miami, is one of the most prominent. Bosch blew up a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, killing 73 en route from Venezuela to Cuba. Bosch, a martyr to anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, has been accused of several other organized violent attacks on Cuban interests.
After ten years in a Venezuelan prison, Bosch returned to Florida and has been quoted as saying the plane was “a warplane, because Cuban airlines are not tourist lines. . . . In that plane, there were 27 members of the Cuban DGI [intelligence service] and seven North Korean diplomats.” Two dozen Cuban athletes and numerous women and children also died.
Washington has refused repeated requests from Havana to turn over Bosch.
Bosch ran the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, which the FBI described as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization”. Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh called Bosch an “unrepentant terrorist”, who stood accused of several terrorist attacks, including the 6 October 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in which all 73 people died. The bombing was plotted at a 1976 meeting in Washington, D.C. where, also, the assassination of Chilean former minister Orlando Letelier was planned. Bosch was given effective asylum in the US in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, who in 1976 as head of the CIA had also declined an offer by Costa Rica to extradite Bosch.
Bosch died in Miami in 2011.
“Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted. … That’s a legitimate right.” Cuba’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press. “We’ve reminded the U.S. government that in its country they’ve given shelter to dozens and dozens of Cuban citizens,” Vidal said. “Some of them accused of horrible crimes, some accused of terrorism, murder and kidnapping, and in every case the U.S. government has decided to welcome them.”
THE ROCKY ROAD TO NORMALIZATION
“It is a national disgrace that this president would even consider normalizing relations while they are harbouring a terrorist murderer who belongs in prison in New Jersey,” said New Jersey governor Chris Christie earlier in 2015.
In April, President Obama informed Congress that he intended to remove Cuba from the list of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism, a list they were placed on under Ronald Reagan in 1982 for its support of guerrilla groups in Central and Latin America. Cuba’s allies were labelled “terrorists” and the guerrilla groups Washington armed and funded were named “freedom fighters.” Washington never listed as terrorists armed rebels it backed in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Central America. Only Iran, Sudan and Syria are on the now very short list. North Korea was removed in 2006.
But the real reasons for keeping Cuba on the terrorist list have long been political, fueled by the powerful Cuban exile community in Florida.
By 1987, the annual State Department report required to be sent to Congress on those countries placed on the dreaded terrorist list said Washington was “unable to trace direct sponsorship of an international terrorist attack … to Cuba.”
U.S. fugitives living in Cuba were first mentioned in the State Department’s 1988 report, naming William Morales and Joanne Chesimard.
Morales is a Puerto Rican nationalist accused of a series of bombings in the United States, who escaped from a New York prison and fled to Cuba in 1988.
By 1999, the State Department report had narrowed down, using considerable linguistic acrobatics, its reasoning even further, stating that while Cuba was not supporting terrorism it was “harboring past terrorists.”
By 2014, the State Department argued that Cuba was harboring “U.S. fugitives.”
Then, in December, 2014 both Havana and Washington announced they had entered negotiations to normalize relations.
“Cuba has agreed to enter into a law enforcement dialogue with the United States that will include discussions with the aim of resolving outstanding fugitive cases,” Mr Obama wrote to Congress. “We believe that the strong US interest in the return of these fugitives will be best served by entering into this dialogue with Cuba.”
“Before Cuba is removed … American fugitives must be brought back to face justice in the U.S.,” Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in April, 2015.
As of today, June 30, 2015, those negotiations have been resolved to the satisfaction of both Havana and Washington. The fate of Joanne Chesimard and her fellow U.S. fugitives will be announced today, U.S. officials said.
But any decision to normalize diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana will not end the U.S. domestic debate on Cuba.
Wednesday’s more detailed chart of the terms of the agreement promises that many will redouble their criticism of Obama’s Cuba policy.
When the details are announced Wednesday, some very vocal constituent groups in the U.S., from New Jersey to Florida, will consider the agreement an unpardonable betrayal.
In the Chesimard case, the New Jersey State Police remain resolute in demanding her return. “We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States,” said Col. Rick Fuentes, the New Jersey state police superintendent this year.
But Chesimard’s lawyer, Ron Kuby countered “New Jersey is an important state in our nation, but they don’t have an independent foreign policy.”
For Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, she may or may not have been relegated to an unspoken status of unpleasant collateral damage by both Havana and Washington, sacrificed for the larger national interests of both countries. For U.S. interests, the fate of a former black revolutionary convicted of murdering a cop takes a decided back seat to the larger U.S. strategic interests of political liberalisation of one of the last remaining anachronisms of a one party communist state in the world.