Castro Defends Assata Shakur Sought by U.S.
"They wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie," Castro said in a television address Tuesday night....While Castro did not identify the woman by name, he was clearly alluding to Assata Shakur - the former Joanne Chesimard - who was put on a U.S. government terrorist watch list May 2. On the same day, New Jersey officials announced a $1 million reward for her capture.
Castro Defends Fugitive Sought by U.S.
May 11, 11:29 PM (ET)
By JOHN RICE
HAVANA (AP) - President Fidel Castro has rejected calls to hand over a
black militant convicted in 1973 of killing a New Jersey state trooper,
saying she's a victim of racial persecution and not a terrorist, as U.S.
officials declared recently.
"They wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an
injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie," Castro said in a television
address Tuesday night.
While Castro did not identify the woman by name, he was clearly alluding
to Assata Shakur - the former Joanne Chesimard - who was put on a U.S.
government terrorist watch list May 2. On the same day, New Jersey
officials announced a $1 million reward for her capture.
Castro's remarks were his first comment on the new U.S. actions.
A member of the Black Liberation Army, Shakur, 57, was convicted of
killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster as he lay on the
ground. She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba.
Castro referred to her as a victim of "the fierce repression against the
black movement in the United States" and said she had been "a true
"They have always been hunting her, searching for her because of the
fact that there was an accident in which a policeman died," Castro said,
reflecting Shakur's assertion that she did not shoot the officer.
Castro said an appeal for her expulsion had been raised with him several
years ago by a woman who was both "a friend of Cuba" and a friend of
former President Clinton.
"I transmitted my opinion to the president of the United States," he
said, though he did not specify who raised the issue nor when she
visited. He made clear the case involved New Jersey.
Castro suggested that the action was meant to divert attention from
Cuba's demand that U.S. officials arrest Luis Posada Carriles, who is
wanted in Venezuela on charges of involvement in blowing up a civilian
Cuban jetliner in 1976, killing 73 people.
His attorney has said that Posada, a former CIA employee, slipped into
the United States and is seeking asylum. Posada denies any role in the
Castro, in a televised appearence Wednesday that lasted four hours,
stepped up his denunciations of the U.S. government for failure to
Castro read summaries of newly released U.S. intelligence documents
linking Posada and other anti-Castro militants to terrorist attacks
beyond the 1976 bombing of a jetliner that killed 73 people.
The Cuban leader previously has called for a massive rally on May 17 in
front of the U.S. Interests Section, or diplomatic mission, to demand
the arrest of Posada.
He dedicated most of Tuesday's remarks to descriptions to numerous
terrorist actions that Cuba alleges Posada and his anti-Castro
associates have committed over the past 35 years.
Castro referred to earlier published suggestions that Posada and
Florida-based exile Orlando Bosch could have been involved in the 1963
assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"There are strange things, very strange, mixed up here," Castro said.
Prisoner in paradise -
former Black Panther Assata Shakur;
includes a related article on the positive aspects of the
Cuban people and their country, and tips on how to travel there -
Evelyn C. White
As Assata Shakur writes in her poetic 1987 memoir, Assata: An
Autobiography, her name means "she who struggles" and "the thankful."
Although she has been exiled in Cuba for nearly two decades, the former
JoAnne Chesimard continues to fight by speaking out against inequality
Our conversation took place in a sundrenched afternoon in Havana. With
her glistening dreadlocks hanging to midspine, Assata came wearing
mauve-colored cotton shorts and beige T-shirt with a black design.
Around her long, elegant neck was a golden ankh, the ancient Egyptian
symbol of life. On her feet, she wore a pair of Asics sneakers--the
shoes that cushion her strides as she jogs through the streets of the
palm-lined island that has become her home.
"Yes, we see her running," Cuban children respond gleefully when asked
about Assata, who will turn 50 this year. "Ella es muy hermosa (She is
Beautiful. That's not what the feds thought in 1977 when Assata was
convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a White New Jersey
state trooper. On the contrary, she was painted as a vicious, predatory
monster and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years ("for refusing
to stand when the judge read the sentence," Assata explains).
The conviction was the culmination of years of FBI-orchestrated
harassment Assata had suffered as a result of her work with Black
Nationalist groups, a very common problem among members of the movement
at the time. Indeed, apparently lost on the all-White jury who put her
behind bars was the fact that during the 1973 shoot-out in which the
officer and Black activist Zayd Shakur (no relation) were slain, Assata
herself took two bullets.
One nearly ripped off her right arm. The other shattered her clavicle
and remains lodged near her heart to this day. The jury gave short
shrift to forensics experts who testified that Assata's massive injuries
could have only been sustained with her hands in position of surrender.
They ignored the absence--there was no evidence she had fired a weapon.
Two years after her conviction, Assata masterminded one of the most
daring prison escapes in U.S. history. Noting that details about her
escape could be detrimental to people who are currently incarcerated,
Assata declines to elaborate on exactly how she slipped out of the
maximum-security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in
New Jersey in 1979. she is similarly reticent about the years she spent
underground before being granted political asylum in Cuba in the early
eighties. On the topic of her escape, she simply offers these words with
determination and pride: "I was like Houdini. I plotted day and night.
There was no way I was going to spend the rest of life in prison for
something I didn't do."
Because of ongoing concerns about government harassment, Assata is
understandably protective of her daughter, Kakuya, a twentysomething
graduate student who lives in the Midwest. Even though they live worlds
apart, their mother-daughter bond remains strong, as does Assata's
commitment to the struggles of African-Americans: "I have to keep
struggling," she says, "to keep my commitment to my people, whether I'm
on American soil or not."
Essence: What do you want people to know about your life now?
Shakur: I'm still very active in political work. I'm putting finishing
touches on another book. I talk about gender relations, rap music, crime
and so forth, in a question-and-answer format. I ask my own questions
and then answer myself [laughs], so the book is a bit schizy. But it's
the form that I thought would best get across the points I want to make.
Essence: What impact would you like your political work to have on
people in the United States?
Shakur: I would hope that they can relate to and be motivated by my
thoughts on how important it is for us to develop a plan of action in
terms of liberating ourselves as a people, especially Black folk. We
need a more holistic view of the world and our place in it. We have to
start by making contacts with more people throughout the Diaspora.
Essence: How do you deal with the U.S. government considering you such a
threat to society?
Shakur: It doesn't make any sense. But then, it never did. I don't think
that at this time they are very much interested in wiping out any symbol
of resistance to the status quo. And I represent someone who has
dedicated her life to the liberation of my people. Black people are
still oppressed and exploited. So I still struggle against the system in
whatever way that I can, and that's why the government is fixated on
trying to capture and kill me. It has to do with the simple fact that I
will not just blindly accept the conditions that are designed to destroy
Black people. And after all these years, they've figured out that they
can't co-opt, coerce or corrupt me.
Essence: What has life been like for you in Cuba?
Shakur: It's been good. It was hard at the beginning, because I had to
adjust to another culture and learn another language. I had to adjust to
living in a Third World country, which means that things people in the
U.S. take for granted--like hot running water whenever you turn on the
tap--are not always available here. But it's been a growing and happy
experience for me in many ways.
Living in Cuba has given me an opportunity to bond with my daughter. She
was born while I was in prison, so Cuba was the first place we could be
together, free. She came here when she was 10, and it was like a
miracle. It was hard work for both of us to become reconnected, but we
got through it. As a result, both of us are very clear on how important
it is for Black people to build and reconstruct families.
My family went through a lot during my movement years--the years I was
in prison, the time when I was underground and nobody knew my
whereabouts. Because I was a political person, my entire family
suffered. The racism and oppression scarred everybody. So my living in
Cuba enabled me and my family to examine the pain and begin the healing.
I believe that Black families have to work actively to counter the
disruption that comes from the racism, poverty and hostility we
experience in the United States.
Another thing, I've been able to do in Cuba is to rest. You live such an
intense life in the States. And my life has been more intense than most
[;laughs]. Being in Cuba has allowed me to live in a society that is not
at war with itself. It is a given in Cuba that if you fall down, the
person next to you is going to help you get up.
Essence: How do you relax?
Shakur: I run. I live here on an island surrounded by all this waters,
and I'm lousy swimmer [laughs]. It's pitiful. I've started to crochet
again, which is something I learned in prison. I'm going to be a
grandmother soon, so with the crochet, I can make gifts for my daughter
and the baby. I'm totally into this grandmother thing. I'm starting to
paint and write fiction. I'm in a more creative stage of my life.
There's something about approaching 50 that's very liberating. Political
struggle has always been a 24-hour-a-day job for me. I felt I could
never take time out for myself. Now I feel I owe it to myself to develop
in ways I've been putting off all my life. I'm crafting a vision of my
life that involves creativity. And Cuban society allows me to do this. I
know it's harder in the U.S., where so many people are just grateful to
have a job.
ESSENCE: What types of jobs have you had in Cuba?
Shakur: I've worked in different study centers as a translator. But I've
tried as much as possible to avoid the standard nine-to-five thing. I've
tried to organize my life so that I can move around, change the rhythm
and the tempo. I'm invited to give lots of presentations to people who
come here. I talk about human-rights violations and political prisoners
in the United States.
Recently I've told everyone who will listen about the case of Mumia
Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia Black journalist on death row. He didn't
have even the semblance of a fair trial. I want people to understand how
important it is to mobilize to save his life, because if we don't, I
sincerely believe that the state of Pennsylvania will kill him.
ESSENCE: Do the Cuban people know your life story?
Shakur: No, the average Cuban does not. And I really prefer to be kind
of anonymous. Because when people know your whole history, they have a
tendency to relate to you differently and maybe put you up on a
pedestal. I want people to just be normal with me. I just want to live
my life. ESSENCE: When Cubans ask about your background, how do you
Shakur: I tell the truth. I say I'm a political prisoner from the United
States who is living here in exile. That's not uncommon. There are many
people here from Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other
places who have been granted political asylum. Cubans understand that
theirs is a country that provides sanctuary for people fleeing
oppression. As a nation, they are very proud of their stance. They don't
care how much the U.S. government badgers or attacks them. Cuba has its
own moral system and priorities. That's what keeps it going, the belief
that the country can control its own destiny.
ESSENCE: Your mother died last year, and you were unable to attend her
funeral because of your political status. How have you dealt with the
Shakur: The hardest part about exile is not being able to be there for
people when you feel you are needed. On the day my mother died, a film
crew headed by a Cuban friend of mine was here working on a documentary
about my life. So on that day when I found out my mother had died, and I
was so filled with grief and there was nothing I could do about it, I
decided to go ahead with the filming. But I insisted on talking about my
mother and her life.
I talked about all the ways she struggled for dignity and her little
acts of resistance. I talked about how she refused to be insulted,
violated or deceived by the sickness of American society. I talked about
her vulnerability and loneliness as they reflect my own, and that of all
the sisters who refuse to be dominated.
ESSENCE: Is there anything you've discovered about yourself that has
surprised you since coming to Cuba?
Shakur: Becoming aware of my own vulnerability and sensitivity and being
able to express those feelings has been a surprise. In the States, I
always had to be tough and ready to take care of business. Here, I can
look at sides of me that are more delicate and fragile. That was kind of
a shock to me. I think that like many other sisters, I was raised to be
a Superwoman. I am a serious woman, and I want to be taken seriously,
but here I don't have to live up to that Superwoman myth. I can cry and
be human and lean on people who take care of me. That can be very
ESSENCE: What do you think will happen to you if Fidel Castro is
Shakur: If the U.S. succeeds in destroying the revolution, my status
will be like that of most Cubans: I'll be up a creek without a paddle.
It will be devastating for people worldwide who believe in justice. It's
a threat I live with every day, because the U.S. doesn't recognize the
laws of Cuba. They can kidnap anybody and bring them back to the States
to face the so-called justice system. There's no telling what the U.S.
government will do to me. I'm in constant danger; I guess I've gotten
used to it.
ESSENCE: How do you manage to stay connected with the United States?
Shakur: I stay connected in my head. I'm spiritually and psychologically
connected to African-Americans. They are my people, and that will never
change. And I'm truly blessed, because many of my friends come to Cuba.
They like it here--they can relax and not worry about drive-by shootings
or getting raped. I meet all kinds of people. I'm a news freak: I read
books, magazines, listen to tapes, anything I get my hands on. And a lot
of contemporary American culture makes its way to this country. Cuba is
not some gray, isolated backwater. This is a happening place.
ESSENCE: Do you think you'll ever return home?
Shakur: I don't know. I think it will be hard. It's funny. People ask me
if I miss the States. I miss African-Americans. But not the U.S.
government or all the things they put me through. I miss
African-American culture, our speech, dance and cooking. I miss friends
and family. If it weren't for visits from friends and other
African-Americans I meet who come to Cuba, I'd probably be in some kind
of time warp. I learn so much from my sisters and brothers who come
here. I get recharged and energized and reminded of how beautiful we are
as a people. African people just shine.
And people come telling the truth. When I ask how things are in the
States, they don't give me the okeydoke. They say, "Honey, things are
hard." It reminds me I have to keep struggling.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Essence Communications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group
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