March 3, 1989, p. 2.
Report From Cuba
By Phillip Bennett
HAVANA – Charles Hill had not bee home that night, and a pale and lovely Sunday morning reached him through the worn red curtains restlessly making an account of his life.
“Lenin said it. The next thing to death is exile, brother,” he said.
This was one of the times when Hill found himself considering Nov. 20, 1971, the day he left home, landing in Cuba aboard a Trans World Airlines Boeing 727 that he had hijacked at gunpoint from a gate at the airport in Albuquerque, N.M.
He was 21 years old then, a militant in the radicalNew Republic of Africa movement and the Black Panther Party. He was being hunted for the murder of a New Mexico state trooper, shot a few weeks earlier on a desert highway.
Hill is a familiar figure in the crowded and friendly passageways of the Colon section of Old Havana. He speaks Spanish in the racing and lyrical Cuban way. He lives with a Cuban companion. They have a young daughter.
Even after 17 years, he is still known as el americano. While protected from extradition by hostility between the United States and Cuba, he said he keeps a U.S. passport. It is a link to a place that remains frozen for him, an artifact from a time when things went bad, a slim promise of homecoming.
“I’m looking for a deal. I’d accept a deal. I’d talk to these people,” he said. “If I could do maybe five or 10 years, I’d go back, you dig. But the State Department says no deal. They want me 100 years in prison, man.”
Hill is one of the few airline hijackers from the 1970s who remain in Cuba. Scores have elected to return to the United States to serve prison terms, especially after Cuba began giving them stiff sentences under a 1973 agreement with Washington.
Among hundreds of U.S. citizens living in Cuba, most of them dual nationals, a few are celebrated fugitives. Robert Vesco, the financier wanted for embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars and for donating some of the illegally to the re-election campaign of Richard Nixon, has a suburban mansion west of Havana. His children are said to live at the exclusive Hemingway Marino, named for the writer.
Assata Shakur, a leader of the Black Liberation Army, has lived quietly with her daughter in a small Havana apartment since 1984. Shakur, who was born Joanne Chesimard, escaped from a New Jersey state prison in 1979 while serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper.
Black radicals from the United States have long been welcomed in Cuba. Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panthers who lived in Havana for several years as a fugitive, was treated as a political refugee from a capitalist society that Cuban leaders often claim is pervaded by racial injustice.
Hill, the son of a black mother and Cherokee father, enrolled at age 16 at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., a stronghold of the Black Panthers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dropping out, he fought in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division. Arrested there for leaving his unit, he said he was discharged and returned home angry and confused.
After joining the clandestine Republic of New Africa movement, he and other members were involved in a shooting with police near Albuquerque. Hill insisted that he did not kill the state trooper, Robert Rosenbloom.
Weeks later, he and two companions, after burying themselves in the desert to escape capture, stormed the TWA jet with a rifle and knives and ordered it to Cuba.
No passengers or crew members were harmed in the hijacking, which was the 24th that year in the United States. After two days, the assault had disappeared from the news.
“I don’t regret what I believed in. But the way we went about it was wrong,” Hill says now. “I was young. I wasn’t clear in my thinking. We misjudged armed struggle in the United States, and we didn’t understand clearly the historical process of black liberation.”
Arriving at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, Hill and his two companions, Michael Finney and Ralph Goodwin, were detained for two days and then sent by authorities to the countryside to cut sugar cane. Several years later, Goodwin drowned at the beach. Finney remains in Cuba.
Hill has not escaped trouble in Cuba. He was arrested in 1979 for falsifying currency receipts, and according to records at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, served two months of a four-year sentence. In 1986, he was jailed for eight months for possession of a marijuana cigarette.
“What am I going to do with my life? Where the hell am I going to go?” he asked.
“I’ve thought about the Soviet Union. I’d like to go Russia. Maybe when Mr. Gorbachev comes here he’ll send me an invitation.”