By Eugene Robinson
Once they considered themselves black freedom fighters. The FBI considered them armed and dangerous. After more than a generation as fugitives in Castro's Cuba, they are living pieces of unfinished business.
I was on a mission recently to explore the influence of American hip-hop on the streets, alleys and, in this case, cellars of Fidel Castro's Havana. But now I was stalled at the top of a stairway that led to a basement club. Filling the steps all the way down the well were a few dozen kids pleading to be let in. Their way was blocked at the foot of the stairs by two fed-up security guards who kept repeating one word, like a mantra: "Capacidad, capacidad, capacidad."
"Capacity," they were saying, meaning the club was full and no one else was getting in. They were not smiling; their patience with pushy hip-hop fans had long since worn thin.
The only option I could see was to politely pull rank. I took out my U.S. passport, my Cuban press card and my Washington Post business card, and made courteous but deep-voiced excuses as I threaded my way through the crowd and down the steps to hand my credentials to the head guard.
Just then, a woman's voice rang out from behind me on the steps.
"Gene Robinson!" the voice called, and it wasn't a Cuban voice. "If you get inside using that Washington Post press card [expletive], and I'm left sitting out here on these steps, then I'm going to be pissed!"
I turned, but I already knew who it was: Nehanda.
Nehanda Abiodun, nee Cheri Dalton, is an intellectual, a compulsive former of human networks, a talented student of political organization, a chestnut-skinned black woman, a fan of old-school rhythm and blues, a 12-year resident of Havana, an earth mother to the Cuban hip-hop movement, and -- almost incidentally in this context, sitting on the steps of the Cafe Cantante -- a fugitive from U.S. justice whom the FBI considers armed and extremely dangerous.
Abiodun is an honored figure in hip-hop circles, so this was an extremely bad sign -- if she couldn't get in, I probably couldn't either. Sure enough, the guard came back and told me that I wasn't going to see that afternoon's show. I ended up returning to the hotel.
Abiodun gave up, too, and went home, back to her bittersweet life of exile.
THE THOMAS WOLFE LINE about not being able to go home again has never been more literally true than it is for the American fugitives who fled to exile in Cuba. For all of them, more than 70 at last count, going home to America would mean years in prison. For some, it might even mean death by lethal injection. There have been notorious figures such as Robert Vesco, the crooked financier whose millions won him a cosseted tropical holiday in the Havana suburbs, beyond the grasp of his pursuers, until he managed to get on the wrong side of Fidel Castro; he was last seen somewhere in Cuban custody. At the other end of the scale, there are anonymous criminals on the lam, people few have ever heard of and nobody really missed. And then there are the political exiles, most of them the black Americans, like Abiodun.
Once they considered themselves soldiers in the black revolutionary underground; some still do, but not all. The Cuban government considers them political refugees and guests of the state, though it has declined to give them full rights of citizenship. The U.S. government considers them hijackers and armed robbers and murderers, and the shelter they receive in Cuba is a constant irritant in relations between the two countries. The FBI keeps them on its wanted lists; U.S. diplomats issue regular demands for their return; senators and members of Congress take the time to read extensive accounts of their alleged or proven crimes into the Congressional Record. Most Americans have long since forgotten them.
On my nine trips to Cuba over the past four years, I've gotten to know several of these black-power-era fugitives. Initial wariness -- theirs of my occupational nosiness, mine of their criminal histories -- gradually subsided until we were able to deal with one another on a strictly human level. I've come to see them as individuals who have regrets -- "I don't make mistakes like other people; I make full-blown blunders," one told me -- but who still generally describe their actions as political rather than criminal. They are middle-aged Americans trying to make a life in what is still, after many years, a foreign land.
The most notorious, or least forgotten, exile is a woman named Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard. A member of the Black Liberation Army, she was tried and convicted for the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper and sentenced to life in prison. Six years later, comrades disguised as visitors pulled out weapons, took hostages and busted her out of prison -- an unforgivably audacious act, the kind that law enforcement officers take as a personal insult -- and she made her way to Cuba. In interviews she has claimed that she didn't kill the trooper, leaving the implication that it was a fellow Black Liberation Army soldier who pulled the trigger. Partly because of this claim of innocence, and partly because she was a woman with considerable skill at public relations, her case became a minor cause celebre for the African American radical left. By virtue of this attention, she vaulted past other exiles in Cuba, guilty of equal or greater crimes, to become the fugitive whose return to the United States has been demanded most frequently and most angrily. Shakur's profile got so high that she became concerned about Castro's reaction, worried that he might disapprove, and so she shut up and went to ground. Once listed in the Havana phone book, visited regularly by fight-the-power pilgrims from Brooklyn and Stockholm and Caracas, she was suddenly nowhere to be found. Castro's disapproval is one of two things the exiles desperately fear, with good reason, because only he can send them home.
The other thing the exiles fear, with even better reason, is Castro's death. When that happens, anyone could send them home.
Abiodun has been an important source for my book on Havana's music scene, my first point of contact with the notable figures in Cuban hip-hop. They trust her because she has been one of the few adults to embrace their cause and help them fight for it. "These are my children," she told me once, and that's the way they treat her, like an unnaturally hip parent -- a 50-ish mom who wears dreadlocks, helps them pick out new African names to replace the slave ones, listens to their problems with genuine interest and likes to dance all night. Oh yes, and is on the lam.
When I met her in 2002, she'd been in Cuba for 12 years. She hardly seemed the desperada described by the mutual friend who introduced us -- "She's nice, I love her, man, but back in the real world, she was dangerous," he'd said -- but it was immediately apparent that she was a formidable woman. She was nearly 6 feet tall, with the confident stride and authoritative voice of a business executive, though she clearly didn't see herself that way. Both the dreadlocks and the jewelry she wore spoke of Africa. She had command presence; she was not a woman to be underestimated, and certainly not one to be ignored.
And, like anyone who'd led the life she'd led, she was wary. We sat around a table in a little restaurant in Havana's faded Chinatown, enjoying a remarkably good hot-and-sour soup, and she grilled me for an hour before opening up. In the end, she agreed to help me get inside the hip-hop scene, and to be quoted for publication about her involvement with the music -- but not specifically about her status and life as an exile. At the time, the United States and Cuba were considering a new round of talks about immigration and related issues; the exiles were worried that if such talks were to be held, they might get around to the subject of making an extradition treaty, which from their point of view would be about the worst thing that could ever happen. Over time the wariness faded, but the terms of our on-the-record conversations never did.
According to the FBI, Abiodun was indeed dangerous. The feds say she was part of a small, shadowy group of veterans from the revolutionary left -- black liberation fighters, Weather Underground alumni, no more than a couple dozen in all -- who called themselves the Family. They came together in the late 1970s, after most of their former comrades had retired to their organic communes, and went on a rampage through the bleak outskirts of the New York megalopolis, robbing armored cars at gunpoint to finance the violent social upheaval they had dedicated their lives to foment. I've been told, not by her, that she was a getaway driver in the robberies, not a shooter, but that distinction would be lost on the law and on the families of the security guard and the two police officers whom the Family shot dead. I know that she lived underground in the States for eight years with the FBI and the police on her tail, a period about which she will say nothing except that whenever she needed a place to spend the night, she was never turned away, not once. She finally fled to Cuba through a third country, and in Havana she has been channeling all her fervor and activism into the hip-hop movement.
Anyone who pictures Abiodun reclining in luxury amid swaying palms and sun-kissed breezes is wrong. She has been living something very close to an ordinary, rice-and-beans Cuban life, supporting herself mostly by leading educational seminars for visitors. She has a small apartment in a distant, undesirable part of Havana. She has a computer, thanks to connections back home, and, because she isn't a Cuban citizen, she can buy Internet access -- but only when she has the cash, which isn't as often as she'd like. She has to scramble for money, scramble for food where her ration card leaves off, scramble for every thing until the next windfall or the next remittance comes through, same as every Cuban. She makes it tougher on herself by spending far more for transportation than she can afford. She doesn't have a car, and she dislikes riding the crowded buses because when she is on them she has no control of her immediate space -- a holdover from her years on the run. So she spends precious dollars on taxis, dollars that could go to buy food.
One evening shortly after I met her, I went to an outdoor hip-hop show. "This is probably the first time you'll see a five-months-pregnant rapper," Abiodun told me when I arrived, but sadly the sight remained unseen: The performer had miscarried earlier that day. Abiodun, the hardened fugitive, was crushed when she learned what had happened. She cried, she consoled, she cried some more. She spread the terrible news and then hugged everyone she told; she wept with them, and when no one was around, she wept alone. Someone handed her a bottle of rum, and she took long swigs and then poured a bit on the bare ground. "For the baby," she said softly.
Abiodun has spent many evenings among these kids half her age, young Cubans brought together by their passion for a music that Abiodun understands and appreciates, that she admires for its power and its fierce engagement with the world, but that isn't her music, isn't the Philadelphia soul that she knew and loved and felt in her bones. She had a longtime Cuban boyfriend, a charmer known as a stylish and elegant dancer -- he'd won a dance contest on a kitschy Cuban TV show -- but they were on the outs; the rumor was that he had gone macho on her, maybe even tried to hit her, and she'd thrown him out. She has family in the States, and friends; she has neighbors in Cuba with whom she is close; she has held onto her convictions on race and politics. That is her life.
The first time I met Abiodun, she told me that, unlikely as it might seem, she was sure that someday she'd go home again.
"She's right at the edge," another exile told me, a veteran. "She's right at the point where you realize you're not going anywhere. You realize that this is it. This is just it."
WILLIAM LEE BRENT passed that point years ago. He has the distinction of being among the earliest of Cuba's black revolutionary exiles, a resident since 1969. He also has the distinction of having been a Black Panther -- for a brief time he was even Eldridge Cleaver's bodyguard -- and that makes him revolutionary royalty. He acts like a king, haughty and superior, and courtiers come to visit him from afar. The other exiles consider him a pompous blowhard.
Brent was an ex-con when he joined the Panthers and almost immediately became a discipline problem, with his fondness for drink and drugs. By his own account, he robbed a Bay Area gas station, then shot and wounded two police officers who were pursuing him. The Panthers disowned him, and, vowing to never return to prison, he jumped bail, grabbed a .38-caliber handgun and single-handedly hijacked a TWA flight from San Francisco to New York in 1969, giving the 76 passengers an unexpected layover in Havana. Cuban authorities promptly put him in jail and kept him there for 22 months, but when he got out, he received treatment more in keeping with his Panther status. For a time he was installed in the Hotel Nacional, which even in steep decline still beat San Quentin any day. An autodidact and self-proclaimed intellectual, Brent published an autobiography in 1996 titled Long Time Gone, in which he described his brief career as a revolutionary and his long one as a fugitive in little danger of capture. If any of the exiles can be called a success story, it is Brent.
When he opened the door to his apartment to me in 2002, I saw an old man past 70, thin to the point of skin and bones, missing most of his teeth. He was dressed with an old man's formality in light-wool trousers and a cotton shirt buttoned all the way to the neck. The clothes were faded and worn, and they were several sizes too big, hanging off his Erector Set frame. Either they were secondhand, or he had bought them years ago, when he had the flesh and muscle to fill them out. He lived in one of the city's better neighborhoods, much nicer than the homes of any of the other exiles I met. The apartment was in a small complex that had an almost California feel, with outdoor staircases that followed the contour of a lush green hillside. This was Cuba, though -- the vegetation was more weeds than plantings, and walls that should have gleamed white in the sun were dull with grime. The apartment was small, crowded with furniture, papers and books. He had no car, but he did have a bicycle, about which he had a story:
Brent is a very dark-skinned man. One morning a couple of years ago, he said, he brought his bicycle downstairs and was about to ride away on an errand when a young boy playing on the sidewalk -- a young white boy -- had yelled: "Stop! Thief! Everybody, the old man's stealing the bicycle!"
He told me the story to illustrate his latest literary effort, a history of black Cuba that would elucidate the racism that had been on the island since the arrival of the first slave ships. As we sat drinking coffee in his cramped living room, he held forth on this subject, occasionally rising with some effort to rummage through stacks of papers or browse his bookshelves for evidence to buttress whatever historical point he was making. He showed me some of his notes, and they were a mess of scribbles, cross-outs and underlining. It was clear that the book gave an old man a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but unclear whether it would ever actually be written.
His wife paid polite attention to the conversation but seemed distracted -- she might have been thinking about her book, which was real enough to have a deadline. Brent is married to Jane McManus, a well-regarded writer of travel books about Cuba (which pay the rent), encomiums and apologias for the Cuban revolution (which don't) and Cuban histories (which the Cuban state has honored with literary prizes). Thirty years ago, America's campuses were full of smart, idealistic, beautiful young women ablaze with radical ideas and brimming with solidarity for Fidel Castro and his beautiful revolution. But few of them had the gumption to move to Cuba, and even fewer had the conviction and the tenacity to stay. McManus is a good deal younger than Brent, then not yet out of her fifties, and there she was scratching out a living in a land of privation, her Black Panther now a shrunken old man dependent on her for sustenance and care. She was obviously both resilient and resourceful -- at the moment, she was writing text for a coffee-table book by a European publisher. She wasn't a fugitive. She could go home anytime she wanted, but she stayed.
I hadn't been there more than 20 minutes before a couple of documentary filmmakers arrived, bringing pastries as a gift for the royal couple in exile. For some reason, I thought of social climbers coming to Paris to visit the aging duke and duchess of Windsor. The film people were more important to Brent than I was, so he dismissed me with a vague promise of a longer interview "when the time is more propitious."
The problem, he said, was those immigration talks. At that moment, even exile royalty wanted to keep a low profile.
THE EXILE I KNOW BEST is a man named Charlie Hill. It is only fair to begin by telling what he did to end up in Cuba:
In 1971, after a mind-warping tour of duty in Vietnam (he was discharged for leaving his unit), Hill was a soldier in the mostly imaginary army of a would-be country called the Republic of New Afrika, with a "k." The group wanted to establish a separatist black nation in the American Southeast and was willing to fight a war to do so. Along with two comrades, Michael Finney and Ralph Goodwin, Hill was ordered to ferry a load of guns and explosives from San Francisco to Jackson, Miss. The first amazing thing about the story is that these three black men, with big Afros and bigger attitudes, got as far east as the outskirts of Albuquerque before they attracted the notice of a New Mexico state trooper. This is Hill's account: "We were going the speed limit. He came past us, and he looked over, and then he slowed down, fell back, and just pulled in behind us. I said, 'Oh [expletive], here it comes.' So then he puts on the siren and pulls us over. Man." The trooper, a family man named Robert Rosenbloom, ordered them out of the car and demanded to search the trunk, where the weapons were hidden. "And then he got shot."
Hill will not say who pulled the trigger; his mother once told a reporter that he and Finney blamed the shooting on Goodwin, but that is impossible to evaluate because Goodwin is dead. A few years ago, Rosenbloom's widow put up a Web site devoted to her murdered husband, in which she called Hill and the others "cold blooded cop killing murderers" and "the scum of the earth." She also said that after three decades of torment, she underwent a Christian rebirth, and that with the newfound understanding that the fate of her husband's killers was in God's hands, not Castro's, she had finally found some peace.
But on that New Mexico highway in 1971, there was no peace for anyone present, and the fates of Hill, Finney and Goodwin were in their own hands. They decided to run for it. Hill's mother was living in Albuquerque at the time, and Hill knew the area well, which was a great advantage. They managed to hide out for 19 days, mostly at the house of a friend who worked at the airport, while police frantically scoured the city. When the city became too hot, the fugitives went out into the desert, camping in a culvert with an old mattress on top of them for camouflage. Hill knew that eventually they would be found, so they came up with a plan. They used a pay phone to call for a tow truck. When the truck arrived, they hijacked it, putting a pistol to the driver's head and directing him to the far side of the Albuquerque airport, away from the terminal. This was in the days before skyways, when passengers had to walk across the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane. They waited until a flight was boarding and then ordered the truck driver to crash through the fence. The three fugitives scrambled up the stairs after the last passenger and took control of TWA Flight 106. "We knew we could go to either North Korea or Cuba," Hill says; all in all, they made the better choice. In 1971, hijackings were common enough that there was a more-or-less standard protocol: If the hijackers agreed to free the passengers, the crew would fly them where they wanted to go. The hijacked jet went first to Tampa, where it took on fuel, and then on to Havana. Hill has been in Cuba ever since.
He is now my friend.
The man I met nearly 30 years later is a survivor, a realist, a loving father, an aggrieved ex-spouse, a schemer with dreams and a dreamer with schemes, a student of history, a pauper, a true believer in the Afro-Cuban faith, a binge drinker, a man about Havana and a living witness to three decades of socialist decline in the workers' paradise. The Charlie Hill who showed me the hidden corners of Havana -- the friend I made in the process -- is both gentle and generous in the way he treats people. He is aware of his own flaws, at times ruefully so. He is so dependable that if he says he'll show up somewhere at 9 o'clock in the morning you can count on his arriving at 8:15, except maybe once a year when he'll go on a bender and not surface until the following afternoon. He is loyal, he is resourceful, but for all his gentleness you somehow know that if you ever get into a knife fight, you'll want Hill on your side.
For any English-speaking foreigner in Havana, especially any American, it is hard not to run into Hill. For me, meeting him was an especially lucky break. He seems to know everybody in town, seems to know how everything works, and the people and places he has introduced me to over the years have been invaluable.
Hill has made his living as a boulevardier, using his fluency in Spanish to guide visitors through Havana's obscure folkways and byways. His "office" is the Parque Central, with branch locations at the watering holes of Old Havana. He has been able to scrape out a living because his native fluency in English and the American idiom has given him a leg up on the Cuban "Hello, my friend" hustlers working the same streets. He has sold his clients contraband cigars, shown them the Havana nightlife, arranged their official or unofficial rental cars, taken them to babalawos (priests in the Santeria faith) to have their futures divined, walked them through transactions with the ubiquitous Cuban bureaucracy, served them as simultaneous interpreter -- like a full-service tourist agency. The clients have bought him drinks and meals and given him cash, and that plus the profits from his cigar deals has given him almost enough to get by.
Almost, but not quite: He has never made enough to keep his telephone reliably turned on, and his dream of amassing enough capital to set up a real infrastructure with which he could earn some real money -- buy himself a car, for example, or a downtown apartment that he could rent out to tourists -- has remained out of reach.
Part of his problem is that if he earned $50, $45 would be gone by the next morning. Instead of going straight home, he'd stop in Centro Habana at the home of his former wife -- his "wife" in the modern Cuban sense, meaning that actual paperwork and an actual ceremony may or may not have been involved -- and she'd demand money to help take care of their teenage daughter. He'd splurge on a $2 collective taxicab, and along the way he'd run into an old friend with a hard-luck story, or another old friend he owed money, and there would go another few dollars. He might stop at the market to buy some food, and then he might give some money to his current live-in girlfriend for household needs, and then he might go out for one quick beer that ended up being six or seven, and by the time he rolled home he'd be back at square one. The overdue phone bill would have to wait.
Once he put together a substantial stake of a few hundred dollars, thanks to some carousing Shriners from the States, and I thought he'd at least be able to solve the telephone problem, but he ended up spending it on faith. He had progressed through the religion to the point where he was ready to become a babalawo himself, but that required an elaborate ceremony that cost a Cuban fortune. The presence of seven other senior babalawos was required, and they all had to be housed and fed for four days. Then there was the banquet he was expected to provide for the officiates and guests, and the cost of the sacrificial animals, and the few dollars that had to be slipped to each of the babalawos at the end as a token of thanks and esteem. Hill ended the week a wealthy man, in the spiritual sense; but in the real world, he was back in debt.
When I met him, Hill was living with a woman named Jacquelin and her adolescent son in a little, three-room apartment in a dusty, forgotten, unattractive neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The rooms were all in a row, like in a shotgun house in the rural South. The front door led directly into a little sitting room, which held a few chairs, an old television set and a shrine to the deity Eleggua in the corner. You walked through the living room into the bedroom, which was almost entirely filled by a queen-size bed; past the bedroom was the kitchen. By Cuban standards, the place was adequate. Jacquelin was a country girl from the provinces making her way in the big city; she was younger than Hill by close to 20 years, and she was sweet and pretty. Her mother lived around the corner, along with Jacquelin's brother and his family; their home was much humbler, more of a shack surrounded by a livestock yard, as if they had brought a little Dogpatch with them to the metropolis. Everyone knew the brother as Jabao, which wasn't a name but a slang description of his mahogany skin color; he was a salt-of-the-earth type without much to say. Hill was definitely the high achiever of this extended family.
Another time when I came to town, however, Hill told me that Jacquelin was gone. They had drifted apart, he explained; they really hadn't ever been on the same wavelength. His only regret was that the television set, which he had owned long before he met her, was gone as well.
"She found another place to live, and I knew she was going to move out, and sure enough I came home this one evening and her things were gone, and she took the TV," Hill told me, shaking his head. "The thing was, I would have given it to her. I knew her son liked to watch TV after school. It's one of the few luxuries the kid had, the only one, really. If she'd have asked, man, I would have given her the damn TV. I told her later, I said, 'Jackie, you didn't have to take it.' I was just disappointed, more than anything else." The bottom line, though, was that now he didn't have a television.
Hill always speaks to me in American English that is surprisingly current, given the length of time he has been away. He has kept it up by talking to visiting Americans and listening to shortwave radio broadcasts from the States, and he never has to hear a new expression more than once or twice before he's captured it. He has a talent for languages -- his Spanish is fluent and colloquial, filled with the latest Havana slang.
He will not speak, unless pressed, of the two comrades who came to Cuba with him. Goodwin drowned years earlier when he tried to rescue a swimmer in trouble at the beach. Finney had a job with a radio station. He and Hill don't speak. They had a falling out years ago, and Hill would never tell me why. Finney has declined to talk to me.
Hill's time in Cuba has not been easy. He hasn't had the Brent royal treatment, hasn't spent a comfortable sojourn at the Hotel Nacional or been given a cozy apartment in the fancy part of town. He hasn't been given anything. He has spent seasons cutting sugar cane. He has lived through the hunger and desperation of the worst of the Special Period, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main economic patron. When he was younger, he got himself into trouble with marijuana and spent time in a Cuban prison, which instilled a powerful desire never to repeat that experience. He has learned Spanish and has gone to school to study Cuban history. He has immersed himself in a faith that gives him a measure of tranquility. He has become a father and a grandfather -- when his daughter got pregnant and gave birth, he took the baby into his own home for a time so the girl could finish her studies at a vocational high school, where she was preparing for a career in the tourist hotel and restaurant industry. He was proud of his daughter; she was after the most promising credential you could have in the new Cuba, the equivalent of a Harvard MBA.
None of that erases what he did that night in New Mexico, and nothing he has endured in Cuba compares with the years of hard prison time he would have faced if he hadn't run away. But he knows those things better than anyone could known them. Of all the exiles I know, he seems most keenly aware of how precious the second chance is that life has given him, whether he deserves it or not. He knows how foolish it would be to waste it. Under the circumstances, day by day, he says he is trying his very best to lead a good life.
Someday, when Castro goes, the security that the exiles enjoy might go with him. A new leader might decide to leave things as they are, extending Cuba's hospitality to them. A new government might just ship them all home or tell them to leave and find other havens. Decisions might be made case by case; distinctions might be drawn. Or the exiles might spend an extended period in excruciating limbo while governments talk of treaties and seconds tick away on the clock.
For the time being, though, nobody is bothering them. They are doing what everyone else in Cuba is doing: trying to make it from one day to the next.
Eugene Robinson is an assistant managing editor at The Post. This article is an excerpt from his book 'Last Dance in Havana', published this month by Free Press. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.