fb-pixel Skip to main content

Graying Cold War fugitives spawn potential Cuba-US tension

In April 1977, Joanne Chesimard left court in New Jersey. Now known as Assata Shakur, she is considered a fugitive and has been living in Cuba since the 1980s.
In April 1977, Joanne Chesimard left court in New Jersey. Now known as Assata Shakur, she is considered a fugitive and has been living in Cuba since the 1980s.Associated Press/File 1977

HAVANA — For decades some of America's most-wanted fugitives made new lives for themselves in Cuba, marrying, having children, and becoming fixtures of their modest Havana neighborhoods as their cases went mostly forgotten at home.

Granted political asylum by then-President Fidel Castro, they became players in his government's outreach to American minorities and leftists, giving talks about Cuba's merits to sympathetic visitors, medical students, and reporters from the United States.

Last week's stunning reconciliation between the United States and Cuba has returned these relics of the Cold War to the headlines, transforming them into a potential source of tension in the new era of detente between the two nations.


The dozens of men and woman wanted by the United States range from quotidian Medicaid fraud suspects to black militants and Puerto Rican nationalists with major bounties on their heads.

They include Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. Now known as Assata Shakur, she was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper and was sentenced to life in prison. She escaped, and wound up in Cuba in the 1980s. Like other fugitives with political asylum here, she was living so openly in Havana that her number was listed in the phone book.

''I came and it was like a whole new world,'' she told the director of a 1997 documentary. ''This is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in my life. Everything is so lush, so green, so ripe.''

Life for Shakur changed as US authorities raised the price on her head. The reward offered by the FBI and the New Jersey State Police for information leading to her capture now stands at $2 million, and members of the once close-knit community of black militants living in Cuba say their only contact with Shakur these days is an occasional unexpected but friendly phone call.


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is urging President Obama to demand Shakur's return before restoring full relations with Cuba, saying, ''These thugs in Cuba have given her political asylum for 30 years. It's unacceptable.''

The Obama administration says it will push for return of the fugitives, but Cuba made clear Monday that extraditing Shakur and others with political asylum was off the table.

''Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted,'' the Cuban Foreign Ministry's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, said.

She noted that the United States has repeatedly refused to return suspects wanted in Cuba for crimes including murder, kidnapping, and terrorism. The most infuriating for Cubans is the case of Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted by Venezuela and Cuba for alleged involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, one of the worst terror attacks in the Western Hemisphere before Sept. 11, 2001.

Posada Carriles has been living in the United States since 2005, and US officials have steadfastly refused to turn him over.

Another FBI most-wanted fugitive, Victor Manuel Gerena, has been on the top 10 list since 1984 and long been suspected of living in Cuba. Gerena is accused of playing the key role in a 1983 Connecticut armored car depot robbery that netted about $7 million, at the time the largest cash heist in US history.


It was committed by militants advocating Puerto Rican independence from the United States, a goal long been pushed by Fidel Castro.

Other fugitives included culprits in a wave of air hijackings in the 1970s and '80s. Many were jailed but allowed to remain in Cuba after serving their time.

Cuba has recently returned more people accused of committing crimes in the United States without political overtones. Last year, the Cubans refused asylum to a Florida couple accused of kidnapping their children from their grandparents and sailing to Havana.

In 2008, Cuba deported Leonard Auerbach to face charges in California that he had sexually abused a Costa Rican girl.

David S. Weinstein, a former Miami federal prosecutor, said that without a fully functioning extradition treaty, US authorities must depend on Cuba to simply refuse entry to fugitives or kick them out.

''Right now it's more of an expulsion,'' Weinstein said. ''The Cubans say, 'You're persona non grata. Get out of our country.' ''