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Cuba Turned Down an FBI Offer in 1998 to Swap Fugitive Assata Shakur

The arrest and extradition of black nationalist Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, is still "off the table," a top Cuban diplomat has said.

by Jason McGahan
Mar 10 2015, 5:50pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Cuba rejected an offer from the United States in 1998 to swap jailed Cuban spies for Assata Shakur, the black nationalist militant convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper twenty five years earlier.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh revealed the declined deal in an interview with The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey.

Freeh said the US Federal Bureau of Investigation reached out to Cuba through intermediaries in an effort to negotiate a possible swap: the men accused of spying on Cuban exiles in southern Florida, known as the "Cuban Five," for Shakur, the Black Liberation Army militant convicted in 1977 of killing New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster.

Shakur escaped from a New Jersey state prison in 1979. She resurfaced five years later in Cuba, where the government of Fidel Castro granted her political asylum in 1984.

The "Cuban Five" were all released and returned to Cuba by last December, when the US and Cuban governments announced a breakthrough decision to normalize diplomatic ties after decades spent as Cold War enemies.

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

The 2013 FBI video announcing Shakur's placement on the list of Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists.

A second round of diplomatic talks between Washington and Havana concluded on February 27, although the negotiators were mute on the subject of Shakur.

Shakur, now 67, is also a step-aunt of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur.

To the FBI and New Jersey state law enforcement, Assata Shakur is a violent, anti-American radical and terrorist, as well as the first woman to make it onto the FBI's list of Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists.

Authorities are still offering a combined reward of up to $2 million for her capture and return to the US, where officials refer to her as Joanne Deborah Chesimard, her married name.

"[Her capture] is personal to us," Col. Rick Fuentes, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told The Washington Post in 2013.

To officials in the Cuban government, Shakur is a civil rights activist and a victim of the COINTELPRO-era of FBI counter-intelligence programs, devised to "neutralize" black social movements in the 1960s and 70s.

Along with Foerster's death, Shakur was convicted of wounding of trooper James Harper in the gunfight that erupted on May 2, 1973 during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Shakur supporters dispute the official version of the fatal confrontation.

Shakur was shot twice — with her hands raised and while not holding a weapon, supporters say — although the FBI says Shakur opened killed Foerster "execution-style." Fellow passenger Zayd Malik Shakur, born James Costen, was also killed in the shootout, and another passenger was wounded.

Freeh told the Berger County Record in statements published on Feb. 28 about the secret offer he put together in the fall of 1998 to release the members of the Cuban spy ring, arrested that year in Miami, in exchange for Shakur.

The Cuban government balked, he said, refusing to even discuss the offer. "The response was no response," Freeh told The Record.

Related: Cubans on the Streets of Havana 'Overjoyed' by Announcement on US Relations Shift.

Col. Rick Fuentes, right, the New Jersey State Police superintendent, stands next to New Jersey Attorney Gen. Jeffrey Chiesa during a news conference giving updates on the search for Joanne Deborah Chesimard, in May 2013. (Photo by Julio Cortez/AP)

It was not until December 17 of last year — 16 years later — that President Barack Obama released the final three of the five Cuban spies who were then in federal prison, in exchange for a 65 year-old USAID contractor named Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba since 2011, and an unnamed CIA agent held there for 20 years.

The three members of the "Cuban Five" were flown to Cuba and welcomed as heroes, while law enforcement advocates in New Jersey used the occasion to renew their call for the capture and extradition of Shakur so that she can finish serving her sentence for Foerster's killing.

Cuba does not appear to be budging. A top Cuban official told Yahoo News last Monday that his government has no intention of turning Shakur over to the US.

"I can say it is off the table," said Gustavo Machin, the deputy director for American affairs at the Cuban foreign affairs ministry, when asked about the demands from conservative lawmakers in the US to return Shakur.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic talks continue, and relations are still warming, despite Cuba's strong rejection of Monday's White House designation of Venezuela as a "national security threat."

A New Jersey-based US telecom company last week announced it would be the first to connect direct calls to Cuba since the renewed relations announcement. President Obama in recent statements predicted the United States will have an embassy open in Havana before the mid-April start of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City.

Josefina Vidal, the chief negotiator for Cuba's foreign ministry, told reporters a key remaining issue for the Cuban side is that the country be removed from the US list of states that sponsor terror.

Related: Researchers Discover New Strain of HIV in Cuba That Rapidly Becomes Full-Blown Aids.

Follow Jason McGahan on Twitter @JasonMcGahan.