He hijacked a plane to come to Cuba in 1984 and has stayed 30 years.

By Yusimi Rodríguez

William Potts (Abdul Majeed)
William Potts (Abdul Majeed).  Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

HAVANA TIMES — United States citizen William Graham Potts, 56, named Abdul Majeed as a Muslim, has spent half his life in Cuba. In 1984, he hijacked a plane and came here seeking military training. Contrary to what he expected, he was sent to prison for fifteen years. However, he has remained a supporter of the Revolution.

After three marriages, one daughter, and being “bien cubanizado”, according to his own words, to the point his mother tongue mixes with Cuban words, he has strong reasons to want to go back home to the USA.

HT: Was plane-hijacking the only way to come to Cuba in 1984?

William Potts: I didn’t want to come as a tourist. I was a revolutionary and my job was to do the revolution. The closest place that had done a successful revolution was Cuba; I had to come here to learn how to do it. Cuba responded to internationalism then. People came from Africa and Latin America to receive military training and return to their countries. I thought there had to be a black American here. If there is a place that needs a revolution it’s the United States. Everyone knows black Americans suffered slavery, segregation and discrimination; we had every reason to aspire to change the country. I didn’t believe in the political system, so the political cause wasn’t an option for me.

HT: I know other US citizens hijacked planes, like you, to come to Cuba, in the seventies. Unlike you, they didn’t go to prison. What changed?

WP: The Cuban policy. The objective conditions that produce people like me existed before I came, existed when I came and still exist. It was the Cuban political decision what changed.  They got trapped in the political rhetoric and did the easiest thing to do; they look at the world as a state entity. I have the perspective of the revolutionary. What if I had never done anything, what would my children say to me? “Hey, look at everything that happened to us and you did nothing”. Imagine if the South Africans had done nothing against Apartheid, what would their children say now? Nobody will say that to me.

Havana residents in line for their rationed bread rolls.
Havana residents at the bakery.  Photo: Juan Suarez

HT: Did your actions make any difference?

WP: Winning or losing comes secondary. I’m not just some adventurer; I am the result of a historic process. And we are a few. Everybody else succumbs to drugs, violence and prison; or assimilates the system. I didn’t. They treated me as if I had no right to do what I did, and they knew I had the right.

HT: You said most Americans who were here in Cuba as political refugees, decided to return to the States and face prison, which they didn’t have to face here.  Why?

WP: I can only speculate. The States is a crazy place, but its home. We won’t be comfortable anywhere else. I am not talking about material comfort. That has nothing to do with ideology, but, maybe, with a natural sociological phenomenon. They wanted to go home. I want to go home now. I don’t mean they were not legitimate for wanting to go back then, but I am more legitimate now because I passed through it. I have suffered with the Cubans for years. That’s what produces this modified mindset in me.

HT: You said you came to Cuba because you admired the Revolution. What do you think of it now, after living here for twenty nine years, fifteen in prison and fourteen as a free man?

WP: My feelings towards the Revolution have undergone modifications. I’m not the same idealistic revolutionary I was then. I’m bien cubanizado (very Cubanized). They ask the people to sacrifice and do more with less, but as a Cuban you ask: ¿hasta cuándo? (Until when?) Especially, when they never had to worry about their frijoles.

HT: Who do you mean by “they”?

WP: Not Fidel. Fidel is, for me, the most honourable of Cubans. But there is a privileged class that has consolidated its position.

HT: You say you live like Cubans. But as far as I know, you had the right to Internet before us, and you had it at home, unlike us. How do you feel about having privileges we Cubans, the ones who sacrifice, as you say, lack?

Havana bus stop.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Havana bus stop. Photo: Juan Suarez

WP: I wouldn’t define them as privileges that the government didn’t give you and gave to me for being an American. I don’t believe the government discriminates against its own people in favour of foreigners. I think it was more about a technical aspect. Even now, the Internet is something new for Cubans, in general, apart from the young geniuses.

HT: Are you saying my government gave you Internet and didn’t give it to us, because we didn’t know how to use it?

WP: No. I am saying they gave it to the foreigners, because they already had it, and they wanted to keep up to their standards, and with the people here they wanted to go slow. Besides, this is not a technological country, how could they give everybody Internet access 24 hours a day?

It is also natural, being so close to an enemy, which controls Internet, that the government had serious misgivings about this new great technology. I think it was this and the technological inferiority which gave rise to this imbalance in accessibility. I don’t see anything sinister in it.

HT: What have you done for a living after being released from prison?

WP: I have worked in agriculture, construction, and in security at the Malaysian embassy and also with an Indonesian diplomat, but when the Americans found out, I was fired.

Tourists in Havana.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Tourists in Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HT: I guess you had nice salaries then.

WP: Like 150 dollars a month. Much more than an average Cuban salary.

HT: So that is how you could afford a computer and Internet. How much did you pay for Internet?

WP: It depends on the plan and the hours you use.

HT: Is it as expensive as the 4.50 CUCs (5 USD) for an hour that we Cubans pay now that we can use Internet?

WP: Those prices are terrible. I paid cheaper.

HT: Minutes ago, you said, very strongly: “I support the Revolution 100%. What do you think about our lack of freedom of speech, of press, and the existence of only one political party in our country?

WP: I think the Cuban one-political-party system is legitimate. In the United States we have a two-party system, which is in fact a one-party system too. Both parties do the same thing. About the lack of freedoms, that is relative. If you put that in a context, there is logic about how the Cuban government operates. You have the most powerful country that has ever existed in history, right there, dedicated to destroying your system, as if they had a divine right to do that. They have tried assassination attempts, destabilization tactics, everything. It’s all part of public records. You should take that into consideration to understand the government.

HT: So we the citizens should renounce freedom of press and speech, and the right to organize in other political parties.

WP: No. But these things should not be ignored.

HT: But it is also legitimate for the citizens who disagree with the government to oppose it.  

Pizza and Spaghetti for sale. Foto: Juan Suarez
Pizza and Spaghetti for sale. Foto: Juan Suarez

WP: I would never tell you, you shouldn’t act as you feel. This is your country. You even have the right to be a counterrevolutionary if you want to.

HT: What do you mean by counterrevolutionary?

WP: I am using the government’s term to define someone who opposes them. But you even have the right to be that.

HT: That word has stigmatized people who want to express their ideas and associate in political parties in which their interests are represented. That is not counterrevolution; it’s just a political position that is different from that of the government.

WP: I agree with you. But many people, with their legitimate complaints, have led themselves to the forces of counterrevolution. I have artist friends who are constantly falling into this trap. So you need to find another way to fight for your rights.

HT: Does demanding freedom of speech, of press and association turns people into counterrevolutionaries?

WP: No, the same that knowing Marxism doesn’t make you a revolutionary. But you have to be aware of the realities. Counterrevolution exists. And the revolution exists. The counterrevolutionary movement is supported by the US government. In any country, to be in the paid service of another nation against your country is a crime.

HT: What’s your opinion about the racial issue here in Cuba? Have you ever felt or seen racial discrimination here?

WP: Of course, but it is in a different context. A simplistic way to see it is that racism is racism. But it is not that simple. In Cuba, any white person can tell a black one: “oye, mi negro”, “qué pasa mi negro”. A white person in the US would never venture to do that. Racism just as hatred to blacks, I’ve seen very little in Cuba. I’ve seen residual traces of capitalism in negros y blancos. But the government dealt with the problem like it didn’t exist. I hold it responsible for not addressing it.

I have met the most ignorant negros here in Cuba. At the same time, they dance guaguancó as I could never do it. I feel white when I see them, because I can’t do it.  But in a cultural sense, they are very backwards. They only see racism when it is slapped in their faces.  Why is that? It is the responsibility of the government. You cannot afford to have ignorant negros in 2013.

Flags of Cuba's neighborhood Committes in Defense of the Revolution (CDR)
Flags of Cuba’s neighborhood Committes in Defense of the Revolution (CDR).  Photo: Juan Suarez

HT: Don’t you think there shouldn’t be ignorant people at all?

WP:  Exactly. But we are talking about racism and the negros. The society suffers as a whole, because of racism, but they are the ones who receive the impact more immediately. This doesn’t disappear with a proclamation, and less by pretending it doesn’t exist.

The official line of the Revolution is “There is no racism in Cuba”. But as a foreigner, when I came and saw the TV, I wondered: Where are we, in South Africa? The negros are in sports or playing an instrument. Even now, I’ve never seen a Cuban soup opera with a black protagonist.  The roles played by blacks are always stereotyped. They have overcome that problem in the US, because it produces a cultural stagnation.

HT: When you hijacked a plane to come here, because you admired the Revolution, were you aware that homosexuals were highly discriminated against here, and were even sent to work in camps, at a time?

WP: When I was in prison here, I remember they had like 15 homosexuals in a very tiny cell. But I see a lot of tolerance now. I don’t see discrimination now.

HT: I know many people who would disagree with you. Homosexuals and transsexuals are still harassed by the police on the streets.

WP: Well, I know most these orientales policemen (from eastern Cuba) don’t have the cultural level to respect diversity and they make the lives of people really difficult, not only of homosexuals. I see women been discriminated by them too. But from my perspective, given the time I’ve lived here, I don’t see people killing homosexuals like in the States, where there are these special categories of hate crimes.

To be continued…

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