By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 1999; Page A07
HAVANA—Strolling through a farmers' market in his Havana
neighborhood on a recent morning, Charlie Hill abruptly made a beeline
toward one of the stalls, where a mound of large carrots sat on a wooden
"Man! I got to buy some of these. They don't have them year-round. Look
at these carrots, man. I am going to go crazy on these," the Illinois native
exclaimed before purchasing several and setting his eyes on another rarity
at the market: beets. "I've got carrots, and now I'll get some beets to take
home, man. This is great."
Given the scarcities here, getting carrots and beets can seem important
Cuba. And Hill has come to know the island well. He is living here in a
self-imposed exile that began on a November night 27 years ago when he
and two other members of the Republic of New Afrika separatist
movement emerged from a desert ditch and hijacked a TWA 727 at
gunpoint from an airport in Albuquerque to Havana.
Hill, 49, is one of a half-dozen American hijackers and other fugitives
the 1970s still in Cuba, part of a total of 84 U.S. citizens wanted by the
FBI who have sought refuge on the Caribbean island over the years. He
lives a life in Havana that he says is free of compunction but not loneliness
and homesickness. He owns a ramshackle, one-bedroom apartment with
no telephone that the government allowed him to buy 14 years ago, he
purchases much of his food and other staples using state-issued ration
tickets and he is a morning regular at the local bakery.
Like all Cubans, he has access to free health care and carries a Cuban
identification card. He has a Cuban girlfriend and a 13-year-old daughter
from a previous relationship.
Hill, who sometimes uses the name Fela Olatunji from his activist days,
speaks Spanish with Cuban flair, using colloquialisms unique to this
Caribbean island, and he has gone from being an atheist to a believer in the
Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria. He chain-smokes Cuban
cigarettes and relies on infrequent, dilapidated and overcrowded buses to
get around the city.
"I often think, 'Yeah, my life could have been a whole lot better,' " he
"but it could have been a whole lot worse, too."
Hill and his two partners in the hijacking were being sought for the slaying
of a New Mexico state trooper who had stopped their car on a remote
highway. Authorities called the act coldblooded murder. Hill, while refusing
to divulge who pulled the trigger, claims it was self-defense and says that to
this day he has no remorse about the fact that the officer, Robert
Rosenbloom, lost his life at age 28.
"He had a real John Wayne attitude," Hill said during a series of interviews.
"He was also a racist. He was real stupid and that's what got him killed,
man." He added: "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
Large numbers of hijackers from the period when commandeering
commercial jetliners reached epidemic proportions have returned to the
United States to serve prison terms. The number of hijackings decreased
after the Castro government began giving hijackers stiff sentences under a
1973 agreement with Washington.
But Cuba, which has criticized the United States for racial discrimination,
has long welcomed black radicals such as Huey P. Newton, one of the
founders of the Black Panther Party who lived in Havana for several years
as a fugitive. Assata Shakur--a Black Liberation Army leader also known
as Joanne Chesimard who escaped from a New Jersey prison while
serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper--has lived in Cuba
with her daughter for the past 15 years.
Law enforcement authorities and some lawmakers in the United States
have sought to have Hill returned to face charges that are punishable by
death. Their efforts, however, have been unsuccessful, since he is in effect
shielded from extradition by the hostility between Cuba and its capitalist
neighbor to the north.
"He is no different from a common, cowardly thug attempting to avoid
prosecution for the murder of a police officer and the hijacking he
committed. . . . It repulses me that he would disparage the memory of a
fine husband, father and police officer," said Darren White, secretary of the
New Mexico Department of Public Safety.
One of Hill's two accomplices, Michael Finney, formerly of San Francisco,
still lives in Havana and works in a state media job. The third suspect,
Ralph Lawrence Goodwin of Berkeley, Calif., reportedly drowned in
1973 while swimming at a beach outside Havana.
Hill said that Cuba was supposed to be a "pit stop" to Africa, but the
fugitives stayed. First, they worked cutting sugar cane. "We definitely had a
connection with the Cuban revolution, and we heavily related to Fidel and
Che," he said, referring to Cuban President Fidel Castro and revolutionary
leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. "The revolution was real, man, and we felt
like we were part of the struggle."
Notwithstanding book titles like "Fidel and Malcolm X" that line his living
room shelves or a favorite T-shirt emblazoned with the words "The Black
Holocaust," much of the revolutionary fervor he had as a member of the
Republic of New Afrika is gone as he lives a mundane life doing translation
and hanging out with friends.
"I have lost the revolutionary zeal, but not the principles," he said.
For all the familiarity that Hill has developed with Cuban life over the
he is clearly a man who at times struggles with his outsider status and
exudes a wistful sense of nostalgia for the things he likes most about the
United States. He spends much of his free time by a radio next to his bed
listening to news shows or professional sports games broadcast on stations
he can tune in from Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York and Illinois.
"There are still things I miss spiritually about the United States. I also
things like just going to a party, man, and American sense of humor and my
spare ribs," he said. "I would love to have the opportunity to go back
because I was born there. It is my country. But I would also like to be able
to come back to Cuba because it is in my blood, too."
Hill has battled with alcohol problems over the years, drinking more than
large bottle of rum a day during a period when he felt "out of contact and in
"Privately, I think, he suffers from the isolation," said Hill's girlfriend,
Marques, 30. "Sometimes, he suffers from pain in his heart and mind."
Hill, who says he is a Vietnam veteran who was discharged for leaving his
unit, also has had his share of problems with the law here. He was arrested
in 1979 for falsifying currency receipts and served 14 months of a
four-year sentence. In 1986, he was jailed for eight months for possession
of a marijuana cigarette.
Nevertheless, Hill said he holds no grudges against the Cuban government,
to which he feels indebted for allowing him to build a new life. As for his
daughter, Hill hopes to get her a U.S. passport so she can live in the
United States if she chooses.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company