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New Ties Raise Old Questions About the Fate of Assata Shakur and Other US Fugitives in Cuba

Black Panther activist JoAnne Chesimard received asylum in Cuba after being convicted for the murder of a New Jersey trooper. Now that US-Cuba relations are taking a turn, her fate in the country is in limbo.
Photo via AP

As Cubans and Americans started grappling with the reality of their new relationship following Wednesday's announcement that the two countries would resume diplomatic ties after half a century of hostility, questions begun to emerge about what that relationship would mean in practice.

What would it mean, for instance, for black activist Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, who is wanted in the US for the 1973 murder of a police officer and has been at large living in Cuba for the past 30 years?


Shakur, also known as JoAnne Chesimard, is the best known US fugitive in Cuba — where she received asylum following a 1979 prison break and five years spent on the run in the US. But there are dozens of others, some who fled to the island after high profile robberies, and others, like Shakur, whose political activism had landed them life sentences back home.

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The FBI has no official tally, but there are around 80 fugitives in Cuba, the Daily Beast reported — including two of three black militants who hijacked an airplane from Albuquerque while wanted for the 1972 murder of a New Mexico state trooper. Another wanted individual residing in the island nation is William Morales, a member of the Puerto Rican independence group FALN, who escaped to Mexico, and later Cuba, after being sentenced to 99 years in prison in the US on weapons charges.

Since 1984, Shakur, now 67, has quietly lived in Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and recently published an autobiography.

But she was hardly forgotten — and certainly not by the FBI, which just last year added her name to its "most wanted" list of terrorists, making her the first woman to ever make it into the agency's top 10.

"JoAnne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style," Aaron Ford, an FBI special agent in Newark, said in a 2013 statement to mark 40 years since the murder of New Jersey trooper Werner Foerster, for which Shakur is wanted. "Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Werner Foerster's death, we want the public to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice."


On that occasion the FBI put a $1 million reward on any information leading to Shakur's capture, with the state of New Jersey matched with another million. On Wednesday, as President Barack Obama announced plans to open a US embassy in Havana and the beginning of a "new chapter" in US-Cuba relations — some started calling for Shakur's extradition back to the States, where she is still wanted on a life sentence.

"We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973," New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes, said in a statement. "We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of two million dollars will prompt fresh information in the light of this altered international relationship."

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"Chesimard isn't the only fugitive down there wanted for a violent crime, and she's already been convicted, so it's a matter of bringing her back and sending her back to jail," he also told the Los Angeles Times. "There's other people that surround her that Castro has taken a liking to and it's been very, very difficult in their particular cases to have discussions to get them out."

The FBI did not immediately respond to VICE News' request for comment but told other reporters that for the time being, it had no comment on what the news would mean for the status of US fugitives in Cuba. But the call to bring Shakur back was echoed by others, particularly in New Jersey, where Foerster was killed in a shootout with Shakur and two other activists, and where Shakur served six years in prison before escaping.


"To me, the New Jersey law enforcement community and many other Americans, one of the biggest impediments to improved relations between the United States and Cuba is the continued safe haven provided to the fugitive, JoAnne Chesimard," New Jersey congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen said. "I would demand that the White House and the State Department work much harder to bring this murderer 'home' to New Jersey where she can face justice and serve out her sentence."

"We cannot forget that New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster will never return to his family and Cuba is harboring his killer," he added.

Convicted murdered or black struggle heroine?
If Shakur's case was controversial in the 1970s, news of resumed ties with Cuba revealed just how divisive it remains today.

According to the FBI, the Black Liberation Army was "one of the most violent militant organizations" of the 1970s, responsible for the murder of several police officers across the country. In 1973, Shakur — who had a history of activism-related arrests — was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, a traffic stop that turned into a shootout in which both Foerster and Zayd Shakur, one of the activists traveling with Shakur, were killed. The FBI claims she fired the first shot, that a severely injured Foerster was "executed" with his own gun, and that Shakur's jammed handgun was found at his side.

Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, the third activist, were arrested, convicted with the murder, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1979, a group of activists helped arrange her escape from a maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. Acoli remains in jail.


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But the FBI's version of the facts remains disputed, with some of Shakur's defenders, including the National Lawyers Guild, say she was shot with her hands in the air and physically unable to fire a weapon, and that she was convicted despite the sole witness in the case recanting the testimony that identified her as a shooter.

Shakur's defenders also maintain that she was targeted as part of the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO program, which aimed to disrupt and neutralize social justice movements.

Contacted by VICE News through her personal website, Shakur did not respond to requests for comment. Lennox Hinds, her longtime lawyer and a guild member, was not immediately available for comment.

But on the occasion of her inscription into the FBI's most wanted list, Hinds said that "clearly, the federal government is continuing the unrestrained abuse of power by which it attempted to destroy Assata Shakur and other Black individuals and groups by surveillance, rumor, innuendo, eavesdropping, arrest and prosecution, incarceration, and murder throughout the sixties and seventies."

Others came to Shakur's defense over the years — from hip hop artist Common, who wrote a song after meeting her in Cuba, to Angela Davis, whom the FBI also labeled a "terrorist" at one point.

"Assata was falsely charged on numerous occasions in the United States during the early 1970s and vilified by the media," Davis wrote in a recent op-ed linking Shakur's activism to the movement growing in Ferguson. "Although she faced 10 separate legal proceedings, and had already been pronounced guilty by the media, all except one of these trials — the case resulting from her capture — concluded in acquittal, hung jury, or dismissal. Under highly questionable circumstances, she was finally convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a New Jersey state trooper."


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"The global response to the police killing of a black teenager in a small midwestern town suggests a growing consciousness regarding the persistence of US racism at a time when it is supposed to be on the decline," she added. "Assata's legacy represents a mandate to broaden and deepen anti-racist struggles."

Now that diplomatic ties are restored, US officials — who negotiated a prisoner swap that saw the release of contractor Alan Gross and an intelligence agent for the three members of the "Cuban Five" who remained in US custody — could probably ask for Shakur to be extradited, and will likely be pressured to do so by some. Some have already called for a "boycott" to follow the embargo, should Cuba refuse.

Most notably, the deal with Cuba, and the questions about Shakur's future, come at a time for US race relations that we haven't seen since the years of Shakur's activism. And some, are taking the opportunity to call on Obama to pardon Shakur.

"If you listen to the FBI, you'd think the ten most dangerous people on Earth are essentially nine Al Qaeda operatives and — Assata Shakur," black political commentator David Love wrote in a column on The Grio. "As the US removes Cuba from the terrorist list, it needs to remove Shakur from the list as well."

"At a time of heightened political consciousness, when black people are railing against racially-motivated police killings and the targeting of African-Americans by the system, the extradition of a black activist who was framed and railroaded would cause an uproar among the black community," he continued. "As President Obama rights old wrongs and casts off anachronistic and failed Cold War policies, the last thing the federal government should want to do is perpetuate the sordid legacy of COINTELPRO, kangaroo trials, and Hoover's quest to neutralize black activist leadership."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi