THE AMERICAN FUGITIVES OF HAVANA
By Jon Lee Anderson , AUGUST 31, 2016
When a cold war winds down, what happens to its spies and traitors? The
British double agents Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean were
able to see out their days in Moscow while it was still ruled by
Communists, without fears that their hosts might betray them and send
them back to an unforgiving Great Britain.
Other scenarios, such as that of the United States and Cuba, are more
complicated. On December 17, 2014, the same day that the United States
and Cuba announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, an exchange
of long-imprisoned spies and double agents also took place. Three Cuban
sleeper agents who had been imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998 were
released from U.S. federal prisons and flown home. Simultaneously,
Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a C.I.A. double agent who had been held in a
Cuban prison since 1995, was flown to the U.S., as was Alan Gross, a
State Department contractor who was arrested in 2009 for smuggling
Internet equipment onto the island for dissident groups.
But the fates of many fugitive citizens who were given refuge in the
United States or Cuba remain in limbo. Among them are people sought back
home for crimes including murder, kidnapping, bank robbery, and
terrorism. Curious about such people, I recently asked an American
official what prevented the U.S. government from arresting, and possibly
extraditing, Luis Posada Carriles, an eighty-eight-year-old Cuban exile
living in Florida, on terrorism charges.
Posada, a former C.I.A. operative who spent most of the past half
century involved in efforts to violently destabilize the Castro
government, has been on the top of Cuba’s most-wanted list for decades.
I ticked off the long list of his alleged crimes—most notably, the
bombing of Cubana de Aviación Flight 455, in 1976, which killed all
seventy-three passengers onboard, and a number of bombings and
assassination attempts across the Western Hemisphere. As recently as
1997, Posada admitted to planning the bombing of a Havana hotel, which
killed an Italian tourist.
The official listened calmly, nodding his head as I spoke. Eventually,
he told me, “The complication is that Cuba is also harboring people that
the United States would like to see face justice back home.” He
mentioned Joanne Chesimard, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, the aunt
of the late rapper Tupac Shakur and a former member of the Black
Liberation Army, a short-lived offshoot of the Black Panther Party that
was devoted to armed struggle.
Shakur, a native New Yorker, has been living in Cuba since 1984. She
arrived there after several years on the lam, following her escape from
a prison in New Jersey, where she was serving a life sentence for the
1973 murder of a U.S. state trooper. (She was also tried for but not
convicted of crimes including bank robbery, kidnapping, and other
murders.) Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba, where she was
given a job and a home. She is now sixty-nine, remains on the F.B.I.’s
Most Wanted list, and is the undisputed doyenne of the estimated
seventy-odd American fugitives living in Cuba. Her 1987 memoir, “Assata:
An Autobiography,” whose cover features a photograph of her looking over
her shoulder at the camera, can be found in many of Havana’s state-run
bookstores, alongside books about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Most of the American fugitives in Cuba are radicals of Shakur’s era.
Charlie Hill, who is in his mid-sixties, was a member of a militant
group called the Republic of New Afrika, which sought to create an
independent black nation in the American South. Hill was accused, with
two comrades, of killing a policeman in New Mexico in 1971. Several
weeks later, the three men hijacked a passenger plane to Cuba, where
they were granted asylum. Both of Hill’s comrades have died, but he
remains in Havana. And there is the Columbia University graduate Cheri
Dalton, who goes by Nehanda Abiodun, also a veteran of the Republic of
New Afrika. Abiodun is sought for her involvement in the armed robbery
of a Brink’s armored truck in New York in 1981, in which two policemen
and a security guard were killed. She is also thought to have helped
Shakur break out of prison. Abiodun, who either fled to Cuba with Shakur
or followed shortly after, has reinvented herself there as a mentor to
Through the years, I’ve met several of the American fugitives in Cuba.
One of them, the quiet and unassuming William Lee Brent, was the
bodyguard of the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. After a 1968
shootout with police in San Francisco, Brent hijacked a jet to Havana,
where he went on to teach English in elementary and secondary schools.
When I met him, back in the nineteen-nineties, he expressed a
bittersweet nostalgia for life in the United States. Not long afterward,
he wrote a memoir, “Long Time Gone,” about his life on the run. Brent
died, of pneumonia, in 2006.
I also ran into Robert Vesco, a flamboyantly wealthy American financier
who became an outlaw, in 1973, after the S.E.C. accused him of robbing a
mutual fund of over two hundred million dollars. Vesco moved between the
Bahamas, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica before fleeing to Cuba, in 1983.
Before long, he was rumored to be assisting the Castro government with
its international financial dealings. When I saw him, one day in 1994,
we were the only two people waiting at a baggage carousel in a tiny room
in the Havana airport terminal for Caribbean flights. I’d been advised
by Cuban officials not to show any interest in him, and so I tried my
best not to make eye contact. He seemed to have similar concerns, and
discreetly moved behind a nearby pillar.
Another day, I met Vesco’s wife and two sons after giving a talk at an
international school in Havana. She and her boys came up to thank me for
my talk, and we chatted for a while. They went by the last name Quinn,
and had Costa Rican passports, but the faculty at the school knew who
they really were. Shortly after that, Robert Vesco fell afoul of the
Cuban authorities. In 1995, he was arrested, on suspicion of being a
spy; he was eventually convicted of “fraud and illicit economic
activity” and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. (In a curious
twist, Richard Nixon’s nephew, Donald Nixon, Jr., who was visiting Vesco
at the time of his arrest and apparently doing business with him, was
also arrested and questioned by Cuban authorities, but was later
released and allowed to leave Cuba.) Vesco never made it out of prison;
he died, of an illness, in 2007, two years short of his release date.
A pair of rogue former C.I.A. agents also saw out their days in Havana.
After eleven years of covert service, from 1957 to 1968, Philip Agee was
apparently conscience-stricken by what he had seen and done, and became
a whistle-blower, publishing a tell-all book, “Inside the Company: CIA
Diary,” in 1975. Agee was expelled, under U.S. pressure, from a handful
of Western European countries and finally ended up in Cuba. In the years
before his death, in 2008, Agee ran a Web site called cubalinda.com,
which helped Americans who wished to circumvent the travel ban.
Frank Terpil, the other former C.I.A. agent in Havana, died in March.
Not one to suffer from a guilty conscience, Terpil was a more colorful
personality than Agee, and happily told his story to various television
documentarians over the years. Terpil, who left the C.I.A. in 1971, was
reportedly fired for unspecified inappropriate activities, which may
have included making money on the side during a posting in India. Terpil
later sold his services to Muammar Qaddafi and the Ugandan despot Idi
Amin. In 1981, an American judge sentenced Terpil, in absentia, to
fifty-three years in prison for charges that included conspiring to
smuggle guns to South America. Terpil made it to Cuba, so the story
went, via the Cuban embassy in Beirut, where he asked for asylum in
1982, as the Israelis invaded Lebanon. Once in Cuba, he lived under the
pseudonym Robert Hunter and, if anyone asked, claimed to be Australian.
William Morales, a former leader of a radical Puerto Rican guerrilla
group that was known as the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or
F.A.L.N., is another longtime fugitive and Havana resident whom I have
met a couple of times through the years. Beginning in the
nineteen-seventies, the F.A.L.N. waged an armed campaign for Puerto
Rican independence. It carried out a number of bombing attacks in and
around New York, including the 1975 Fraunces Tavern bombing, which
killed four people and injured more than forty. Morales was the
F.A.L.N.’s bomb maker, and a bomb-making explosion in 1978, which blew
off most of his fingers and left his face badly scarred, led to his
arrest and made him easy to identify. Still, Morales somehow managed to
escape from the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital, where he was
undergoing treatment, and made his way to Mexico.
I first met Morales in 1983, in a Mexico City prison called Reformatorio
del Norte. He had been tracked down by Mexican federal police and
arrested, following a shootout in which one of the cops and Morales’s
two companions had been killed. Because of his mangled hands, Morales
had not fired any weapons himself, but he was charged with aiding and
abetting the murder of the federale because he was heard to shout to his
sidekicks, “Mata el hijueputa” (“Kill the son of a bitch”). I spent most
of a day talking with Morales, in the hopes of being able to publish an
interview with him, and recall him as having a madcap sense of humor. He
spoke freely with me on the condition that I would not publish anything
until he had consulted on the matter with his comrades. (Later, through
an intermediary, I was sent word that the F.A.L.N.’s politburo
disapproved of the idea, so the interview had to remain off the record.)
In 1988, the Mexican government, which apparently wanted to thumb its
nose at the U.S. request for Morales’s extradition, released him from
prison and allowed him to travel to Cuba.
I saw Morales again in 1999, at the University of Havana, where a throng
of journalists had gathered to listen to the recently installed
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez give a speech to an audience that included
Fidel Castro, Castro’s brother Raúl, and most of Cuba’s politburo. It
was an extraordinary occasion, at which Chávez spoke for ninety minutes
and Fidel sat attentively, smiling and listening to him as if to a
prodigal son. At some point, I spotted Morales standing next to me; he
was instantly recognizable, of course, because of his mutilated face and
hands. When I introduced myself and reminded him of our previous
encounter, he lit up and shook my hand warmly, and we whispered to each
other as Chávez’s speech dragged on.
At one point, Morales leaned over to me and quipped that, except for
Pope John Paul II, who had come to Cuba the year before, he had never
seen “el viejo,” as he called Fidel, sit and listen to somebody else
talk for so long. What we were witnessing, it turned out, was the
beginning of a close friendship between the Cuban leader and the younger
Venezuelan man, a bond that ended only with Chávez’s death, from cancer,
three years ago. That same day, the two men signed their first “oil for
doctors” deal, in which Cuba received much-needed shipments of
Venezuelan oil in exchange for tens of thousands of Cuban doctors going
to work in Venezuela’s slums and countryside.
According to his F.B.I. rap sheet, which offers a hundred thousand
dollars for information leading to his arrest, Morales is now sixty-six
and “should be considered armed and dangerous and an escape risk.”
The status of Morales, Shakur, and the other American fugitives has been
repeatedly raised by American diplomats in the negotiations that the
U.S. and Cuba have conducted since December, 2014. In June, there was
talk that Shakur and the others might be extradited, but both Hill and
Abiodun told journalists that their Cuban handlers had reassured them
that they were “safe.” There was no word from Shakur, who has kept a low
profile for some time. Indeed, as long as Cuba’s government continues to
claim to be a “revolutionary” one, it seems highly unlikely that its
officials would turn over the aging American radicals to the U.S.
criminal-justice system. To do so would be to betray the promise of safe
refuge it made them back in the days of the Cold War, when their acts of
violence had a political context.
In the U.S., meanwhile, Posada also seems to be on safe ground. In his
last known violent conspiracy, he and three accomplices were apprehended
in Panama, in 2000. They were in possession of two hundred pounds of
explosives and were plotting to kill Castro, who had arrived to attend a
regional heads-of-state summit. Posada and the others were duly tried,
convicted, and imprisoned, but, in 2004, in the final hours of her
administration, Panama’s outgoing conservative President, Mireya
Moscoso, pardoned them and allowed them to slip away.
Soon enough, Posada reappeared in the United States, where he was
arrested, on charges of immigration fraud: he was accused, bizarrely
enough, of lying to U.S. immigration authorities about his involvement
with the bombings in Cuba. He was soon released on bond. In 2011, after
a trial in which his lawyer indicated that Posada was prepared to go
public with the details of his C.I.A. past as part of his defense, he
was found not guilty on all charges.
So Posada remains a free man, in Miami, where, by all accounts, he lives
peaceably. He is still regarded as a hero by some Cuban exiles for his
role in the anti-Castro cause. He may well be the mastermind of the
first terrorist bombing of a civilian passenger jet to have ever taken
place in the Western Hemisphere, but, as the American official told me,
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer, began contributing to The New Yorker
Source: The American Fugitives of Havana – The New Yorker –