This past May in Newark, the FBI added former Black Liberation Army mercenary Joanne Chesimard to its Most Wanted Terrorists list at a ceremony held on the 40th anniversary of New Jersey’s most infamous cop killing. Now known as Assata Shakur, the step-aunt of the late rapper Tupac Shakur became the 46th fugitive—as well as the first woman and the second American—added to the loathsome roster created by George W. Bush in response to the September 11 attacks. After a string of acquittals on separate bank-robbery and kidnapping charges, Chesimard’s luck ran out in 1977 when a jury convicted her of both first- and second-degree murder along with six assault charges for her participation in the 1973 roadside execution of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. Judge Theodore Appleby slapped Chesimard with a mandatory life sentence for the slaying, plus another 26 to 33 years to be served consecutively for the assault charges. Upon hearing her sentence, Chesimard hissed at the court that she was “ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial” before slandering the jurors as “racist.” Radical lawyer William Kunstler echoed his client’s accusations and further inflamed racial tensions by kvetching, “The white element was there to destroy her.”
As Kunstler prepared to appeal Chesimard’s convictions two years after her sentencing, several of her Black Liberation Army comrades took two prison guards hostage and hijacked a government van as they sprung her from a maximum-security New Jersey prison. FBI agents plastered the New York tristate area with wanted posters. Chesimard’s supporters responded in kind with defiant flyers declaring “Assata Shakur is Welcome Here.” After years of fruitless pursuit through black neighborhoods up and down the East Coast, the FBI learned in 1984 that Cuba had granted Chesimard political asylum. Today, while subsisting underground in Cuba, Chesimard describes herself as a “twentieth-century escaped slave” and her island hideout as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques [escaped-slave camps] that has ever existed on the face of this planet.” Since her days on the plantation, Chesimard has found time in Cuba to write two books—Assata: An Autobiography (1987) and Still Black, Still Strong (1993)—when not busying herself as Radio Havana Cuba’s English-language editor.
Cuba, lying just 90 miles off Florida’s most southerly point, has for more than five decades been the best location for American criminals seeking asylum. With no diplomatic relations between the two countries, legal extradition remains unlikely. Fidel Castro’s hatred of the United States mirrors the animosity of Miami’s Cuban-American counterrevolutionaries in exile. Fifty years of ill will, minimal intergovernmental communications, and rabid intransigence by both sides have hardened into a permanent standoff from which neither side has reaped a single benefit.
Most Americans, however, do not realize that the dismal relations between the two nations predate Castro’s violent 1959 communist revolution. For almost 200 years the United States has fixated on annexing the “Pearl of the Antilles” because of the island’s proximity, strategic location, and abundant natural resources. Only the most myopic American democratic crusaders would be surprised to learn that patriotic opposition in Cuba, ignored by U.S. policymakers at every turn, has refused to die over those two volatile centuries.
Similar to the United States’ westward expansion, “Cuba’s destiny was manifest,” writes historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. In accordance with the expansionist mind-set, a confluence of forces—“partly sentimental, partly historical, and partly pragmatic”—combined over time to make the future of the two nations seem “not merely intertwined but nearly indissoluble.” As early as 1823, Thomas Jefferson suggested to President James Monroe that Cuba represented “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.” Later, during a more combative moment, John Quincy Adams reported on Jefferson’s contention to then-Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.” Calhoun hardly needed convincing. In earlier conversations with other U.S. government officials he had expressed “a most ardent desire” to annex the island.
The most notable expression of the American sentiment linking Cuba and the United States appeared in an 1823 letter from Adams (during his tenure as secretary of state) to Hugh Nelson, the U.S. minister to Spain. Adams argued in support of his expansionist beliefs that
There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation, and if an apple, severed by a tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.
Pérez further described the mutual attraction of Cuba and the United States as “political gravitation,” a phenomenon representing “the central and enduring feature of U.S. policy through much of the nineteenth century.”
Foreign observers also divined that Adams’ “law of nature” was driving Cuba into the American realm. One British subject—Queen Victoria’s maid of honor, the Hon. Amelia M. Murray—traveled widely throughout Cuba and the United States in 1855-56. Murray’s diary and letters unfortunately included her impolitic support of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. These tasteless remarks, one of which likened a Havana surrey driver to an orangutan, scandalized the royal court and led to her involuntary retirement from the queen’s service. Nonetheless, Murray’s overall commentary reflected popular sentiments pushing for further American involvement on the island. In one instance, after meeting several prominent families in Cuba, Murray remarked that she found it “impossible not to wish that their fine island should be more free.” But for Britons like Murray writing during the heyday of the British Empire, “free” may have meant something other than independence from all foreign interference. Murray preferred that the United States purchase Cuba outright, in the same way the Crown had acquired “the little kingdom of Man.”
The novelist Anthony Trollope espoused similar pro-annexation views. Like Jefferson and Adams, Trollope envisioned a brighter Cuban future after what he anticipated to be her legal “transfer” to the United States. A skeptic at heart when it came to issues of Cuban independence, Trollope had low expectations of sweeping political change arising within Cuba herself. He deemed the average Cuban too effete to revolt against Spain thanks to the “Hispano-Creole blood in his veins.” Instead, he perceived most Cubans as happy to loll “in a dormant state” as Cuba legally passed from Spanish to American control. Trollope’s demeaning comments masked his underlying hope that the disorder in Cuba would improve and thereby redound to the benefit, first, of Britain and, later, of the United States.
Trollope justified Cuba’s future designation as a U.S. satellite as both a boost for British trade and a first step toward eradicating the importation of slaves there. Although he voiced commonplace English misgivings for whatever republican government was likely to arise after Spain’s departure from the island, Trollope considered even an inchoate republicanism preferable to Cuban suffering under centuries of abusive colonial rule. Trollope expected “the infusion of new blood” likely to arrive after Cuba’s transfer to the United States sufficient to overcome any racial shortcomings that might prevent native Cubans from achieving successful republican self-rule. He finally prophesied that “Havana will soon become as much American as New Orleans,” an outcome he counseled intelligent Englishmen to accept as “infinitely for our benefit” in terms of increased trade and commerce.
In 1881, U.S. Secretary of State James Blaine presented yet another argument for American linkage to Cuba. The “Magnetic Man” saw Cuban annexation as a special case, one more pressing than similar arguments circulating about Hawaii. Blaine reckoned Cuba was already “part of the American commercial system” because of her geographic importance in providing passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. In his opinion, Cuba’s sovereign status was not an issue for European powers to decide among themselves. Rather, Cuba’s future was “essentially an American question.” Blaine boldly predicted that, in the event Cuba were ever to escape Spanish colonial rule, she “must necessarily become American.” He made this prediction, which echoed his earlier hopes for expanded American commerce throughout the Caribbean islands and the Gulf of Mexico, in support of his plans for an isthmian canal. But regardless of their context or purpose, his remarks echoed those of other U.S. officials who saw Cuba, not as a nation evolving toward sovereign status, but as a germinating American state awaiting her invitation to the North American union.
Cubans have looked askance at these paternalistic American opinions throughout their history. No one embodied Cuba’s desire for complete independence better than the nation’s founding hero José Martí, who warned of imperialist American intentions in the lead-up to Cuba’s final war for independence from Spain in 1895. At an October 1889 Interamerican Congress held in Washington, attendees weighed the various U.S. options regarding Cuba, including purchase, annexation, and outright seizure. Martí protested the participants’ advocacy of American expansionism, arguing instead for Cuba’s political independence. Ever skeptical about U.S. intentions in Latin America, Martí later urged his compatriots onward in their fight against Spain at the same time that he reminded them of the pressing need to keep the United States out. When John Hay’s “splendid little war” ended just ten weeks after its start, American conquest of the island was complete; Martí’s death three years earlier spared him the indignity of witnessing his worst fear become reality.
Sadly, American schools do not teach these annoying facts. Instead, U.S. high-school and college history curricula promote a one-sided account of 19th-century American global triumphalism. A belief in the Wilsonian aspirations to self-determination does not apply to our nearby Caribbean neighbor. But these details are taught in Cuba. Since taking power in 1959, Castro’s totalitarian regime has seared the long history of Cuba’s resistance to American incursions into the nation’s captive conscience.
In May 2008, during a month-long stay in Havana leading a group of American MBA students, I noticed the national television system offered only three channels of morning programming. One station presented a Marxist version of the United States’ historical evolution running on a continuous loop throughout the day. The propagandistic narrative went roughly as follows: Fed up with their monarchical overlords, European proto-imperialists invaded the North American continent and built settlements in the eastern half of the territory. After a while, the white capitalist buccaneers put their belief in Manifest Destiny into practice, hauling their slaves west and killing every Indian they encountered along the way. When the Pacific Ocean halted the white devils’ westward spread, they decided to assault our island. These imperialist marauders are still trying to do so today. We must remain forever vigilant against future Yankee invasions. ¡Viva la Revolución!
When I wasn’t doubled over laughing at the video’s amateurish production value, I drove myself crazy trying to refute its conclusion. This was no easy task in light of the declarations of Adams, Blaine, and every other American leader eager for the conquest of Cuba.
Castro and his despicable regime take great delight in provoking the United States at every turn. During that same May 2008 visit to Havana, my students and I met with the head of the Cuban Interest Section visiting Cuba from her post in Washington, D.C. Tired of being harangued about American society’s economic inequality by the middle-aged communist zealot wearing a gold Rolex and designer suit, I tried to change the subject by proposing a hypothetical trade. I asked her if she would be willing to exchange Joanne Chesimard for Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born former CIA operative who had been living in asylum in the United States since 2005. Cuba had long sought Posada Carriles because of his in absentia conviction in Panama for blowing up a 1976 Cubana Airlines flight, killing all 76 of those aboard, in addition to his alleged role in a series of 1997 hotel and nightclub bombings in Havana. Instead of a reasoned discussion about the merits of the deal, she unleashed a nonsensical tongue-lashing caricaturing the history of American racism and the horrors of capitalism. Even William Kunstler would have found her rant excessive to the point of absurdity. Nonetheless, her tirade represented, in microcosm, the current wretched state of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Joanne Chesimard’s three-decade holiday from justice in Cuba will end only with her natural death. At that same May FBI press conference, hope triumphed over diplomatic history when the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark office promised, “While we cannot right the wrongs of the past, we can and will continue to pursue justice no matter how long it takes.” Then, as if the historical reality of the diplomatic deadlock of the last 50 years had suddenly smacked him in the face, Special Agent Aaron Ford officially surrendered, pleading to Chesimard, “Give yourself up, come to America and face justice.”
The addition of Joanne Chesimard, a convicted murderer and fugitive from justice, to the Most Wanted Terrorists list will not increase the likelihood of her capture. Her inclusion devalues the list’s significance as a tool for alerting the public to the evildoers wanted in connection with real terror attacks against U.S. interests. If every cop killer is a terrorist, then the United States has a much bigger terrorism problem than even the most demagogic neocon could conjure up. Likewise, in raising the bounty on Chesimard’s head from one million dollars to the two million announced in May, U.S. authorities have conceded their impotence.
Cop killers aren’t terrorists; they are murderers. And until the United States tries to break her diplomatic impasse with Cuba and the repugnant hermanos Castro, American criminals will find a welcome home just to our south. The United States has open relations with communist China. But different rules apply to Cuba thanks to vested ethnic interests, presidential electoral politics in Florida, and a distorted understanding of the historical relations between the two nations. As Lou Perez explained to me, “Cuba is to Americans as a full moon is to a werewolf.” Americans are incapable of dealing rationally with Cuba. All these years after Cuba embarrassed JFK at the Bay of Pigs, Washington stands on principles in its relations with Cuba that it casually discards in its dealings with China and other undemocratic regimes. While we remain mired in mulishness, Trooper Foerster’s family and colleagues will have to suppress their yearning for justice as Chesimard pumps out the final book of her trilogy, a fitting title for which might be “Come and Get Me, Suckers!”