HAVANA TIMES — Last weekend, Josefina Vidal (the Cuban government’s main negotiator in its talks with the US State Secretary) went on Cuban television to declare that Cuban authorities would return individuals on the island sought by US justice to the United States, of its own initiative and without a previous agreement with their counterparts.
The case of Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, two African-Americans residing in Cuba as political refugees, immediately came to mind.
In December, when the US and Cuban presidents declared that relations between the two governments would begin to be normalized, US journalists asked Vidal if Cuba would repatriate Assata Shakur, and the reply was a resounding “no.”
In addition to stating that Assata had been granted political asylum – a status acknowledged by Cuba’s constitution – Vidal alleged that no extradition treaty between the two countries existed.
In view of the official’s recent declarations, it would be convenient to know whether Cuba is willing to hand the two African American refugees over to US justice, or whether these were offered guarantees as to their status and the possibility of remaining safely on the island. Assata Shakur (born Joanne Deborah Byron Chesimard in New York, on July 16, 1947) was a Black Panther and Black Liberation Army militant.
US authorities allege that, on May 2, 1973, Assata opened fire on the New Jersey police officers who had stopped her car. The shootout caused the death of officer Werner Foerster and Assata’s comrade Zayd Shakur. Assata Shakur and the other agent were wounded.
In 1979, Assata Shakur escaped from the Hunterdon County maximum security prison and was a fugitive until 1984, when she travelled to Cuba and was granted political asylum.
In 1998, the US Congress unanimously demanded that Cuba extradite Joanne Chesimard. Many black congress people would later declare they were against her extradition, but had not recognized the name when the resolution was advanced. On May 2, 2005, her name was added to the FBI Terrorists List and a one million dollar reward was offered for any help leading to her capture.
When I visited the US Interests Section (USINT) in Havana in 2006 to request a travel visa, I saw a large sign with photos of Assata Shakur requesting assistance in her capture in Cuba (and offering a US $ 1 million reward) posted in the lobby. More recently (in 2012), I saw that the sign was no longer there. According to more recent FBI declarations and the New Jersey Police Department, the reward has gone up to US $ 2 million and Shakur’s name is now in the Most Wanted Terrorist List.
Assata has a daughter and is the step-mother of famous rapper Tupac Shakur.
Nehanda Isoke Abiodun (born Cheri Dalton in 1950) is an African American activist who considers herself a citizen of the Republic of New Africa (a social movement that seeks to create an independent state for African Americans in the United States). US authorities accuse her of having helped Assata Shakur escape from prison and of a series of robberies. Nehanda Abiodun has lived in Cuba since the 1990s and is known on the island as “Nehanda Shakur,” owing to her close links to Assata and the Shakur family.
Unlike Assata (whose whereabouts are unknown and is believed to be at a secret location, owing to the US police effort to capture her), since the 90s Nehanda has organized a series of campaigns in her home to encourage the creation of a black and Afro-Cuban awareness movement. Her home has become a center for cultural and socio-political projects and the venue of Cuba’s first hip hop gatherings. She has also organized debates on contemporary issues and African history which have seen the participation of activists and artists, such as the Cuban rap band Anonimo Consejo.
While the current US government regards them as terrorists and criminals, for many people in Cuba Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun are black resistance activists. It would therefore be important to know whether Cuba would consider their return to the United States feasible within the context of current talks.