The politics of American fugitives in Cuba
The politics of American fugitives in Cuba
By Tracey Eaton | Al Jazeera
Havana, Cuba – Charles Hill scoffs at the idea of surrender after more
than four decades as a fugitive in Cuba.
“I’ve had my difficulties but this is my home,” Hill told Al Jazeera.
“What would I do in the United States of America? I mean for me it would
be a disaster. Of course, I would love to go back and visit.”
The FBI would like that, too. So would police in New Mexico state, where
Hill faces a murder charge for his role in the 1971 killing of police
officer Robert Rosenbloom.
But Hill, 65, said he can’t imagine facing charges in the United States.
“First off, they’d give me 100 years, you know, a life sentence. And
what would I look like in jail, 65 years almost, with a life sentence?
No man. I’ll stay here in Cuba. You know, my son eats every day. I eat
every day. I got clean sheets. Hey man, I’ll stay here in Cuba.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, Cuba gave political asylum to dozens of
fugitives, most of them African-Americans accused of everything from
hijacking to murder.
On December 17, the US and Cuba said they were restoring diplomatic
ties, prompting new calls for Cuba to return the aging fugitives.
The fugitives include Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, who
escaped prison and made her way to Cuba after her conviction in the 1973
killing of a New Jersey state trooper. State and federal officials offer
up to $2 million for information leading to her capture.
Brought to justice?
Authorities ought to put a bounty on Hill’s head, too, said Rex Sagle, a
former New Mexico police academy instructor who was friends with Rosenbloom.
“Personally, I’m not interested in the reward money,” said Sagle, 77, of
Houston, Texas. “It’d be nice, but at my age I’d rather see Hill brought
Hill doesn’t consider himself a criminal. “As far as I’m concerned, I
didn’t commit a crime. My thing was totally political.”
Hill was born in 1949 to a Cherokee father and an African-American
mother in Olney, Illinois. He went to college in Oakland, California,
but later dropped out.
In 1966, Hill joined the US Army. He went to Vietnam in 1968 but refused
combat, deserted his unit, and was arrested. Once back home, he joined
the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist movement that hoped to
take over five southern states and create an independent nation.
On November 8, 1971, Hill and two other New Afrika members were
traveling across New Mexico in a Ford Galaxie loaded with military
rifles, bomb-making materials, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Patrolman Rosenbloom was driving a Plymouth Superbird, a car developed
for NASCAR racing and had a horn that sounded like the Road Runner
Rosenbloom stopped the Ford. One of the suspects shot the officer in the
neck with a .45-calibre handgun. Rosenbloom drew his weapon, but never
Hill compared the officer to the American actor John Wayne, but Sagle
said he was no cowboy.
“He was very good natured, very respectful to the violators,” Sagle
said. “He didn’t enforce the speed limits. He just didn’t believe in it.
If you were just 10 miles [per hour] over, he wouldn’t look at you. You
had to go 15 miles over the speed limit.
“He said, ‘I’m not a highway patrolman. I’m a state policeman. I like to
solve crimes. I don’t like to be out there wasting time.’ So he didn’t
write very many tickets. And when he did, he would say, ‘This is the
Land of Enchantment. Slow down. Enjoy the scenery.’ He was that kind of
After shooting Rosenbloom, the men hid out for nearly three weeks. Then
they stole a wrecker, crashed through a fence at the Albuquerque
airport, and hijacked a Trans World Airlines plane bound for Philadelphia.
Former flight attendant Elizabeth Walthall was working Flight 106 when
Hill and the other men – Michael Finney and Ralph Goodwin – came aboard.
“Charles grabbed me. He had a little tiny penknife. He said, ‘This ain’t
no butter knife.’ I looked up over my shoulder and I said, ‘And I’m no
piece of bread,'” said Walthall, now 71.
The hijackers wanted to go to Africa. Walthall said the plane didn’t
have enough fuel and suggested Cuba instead. She said Finney had a gun
and seemed “really high strung”.
“Finney admitted to me that he had already killed a police officer,” she
said. “He had nothing to lose.”
Goodwin seemed more educated and less threatening. Walthall didn’t know
who the hijackers were, so she gave them nicknames: Finney was “the
Murderer”, Goodwin was “the Academic”, and Hill “the Comedian”.
When Hill came aboard, his jeans were torn “in a very critical area”,
“I wore a size 30 waist, 29 inseam jeans and so did he. I said, ‘You
can’t go around like that. Let me give you some jeans. And he took them
and wore them. He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone I’m wearing girls’ jeans.’ I
said, ‘I bought them in the boys’ department.’
“He was very handsome. Very nice looking.”
Walthall sat with the hijackers in first class while Finney held a gun
to another flight attendant.
“I lit a cigarette and Goodwin said, ‘You can’t smoke on take-off.’ I
said, ‘Honey, when I’m hijacked, I can smoke anywhere I want.’ I said,
‘Do you want one?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ So we smoked, knocking the ashes on
the floor, and he relaxed and we got in the air.
“And this was a time when the airline was carrying glass bottles of
Michelob, and so I dragged the bottles down and I said, ‘Would you guys
like a beer?’ Charlie said, ‘Yeah!'”
Once the hijackers finished their beverages, Walthall said she quietly
marked the bottles – C for Comedian, A for Academic, and M for Murderer
– slipped them into air sickness bags and stowed them in an overhead
rack. The FBI later thanked her for getting the suspects’ fingerprints.
The plane landed in Havana and authorities granted aslyum to the hijackers.
Hill said the Cuban government sent him to college for three years and
gave him work doing construction and cutting sugarcane. Finney died of
throat cancer in 2005. Goodwin – who called himself Antar, for an
African warrior-poet – died in a drowning accident in 1973.
Hill named one of his children after Antar. The boy is now 8. He lives
with his father in a neighbourhood about 10 kilometres south of Havana’s
famed seawall, the Malecón.
On a recent day, Hill greeted a neighbour who was hanging clothes, then
walked past a staircase and opened his front door. He stepped into a
sparsely decorated living room and turned on the television.
A bookcase held such works as Ready for Revolution by Stokely Carmichael
and Jazz by Toni Morrison.
“This book, for me, is the most important,” said Hill, holding a copy of
The African Origin of Civilization by Cheikh Anta Diop.
Asked if he’s a Muslim Hill said “no”. But he said he had read the Quran.
“The Quran is there somewhere,” said Hill, rummaging through his books.
“I’m an old man and my memory’s …” His voice trailed off.
Life in exile
His home had three rooms: the living room, a bedroom and a kitchen.
“Things are difficult,” Hill said. “But I feel comfortable. Everybody in
my neighbourhood loves me, just like I love everyone else. This is my
Hill sometimes works as a translator for American tourists, but he says
jobs are hard to find. He spends some days drinking cheap rum with
“Charlie, I’ve known him since 1987. He’s a beautiful person,” said
Generoso Rodriguez, 49, a labourer. “When he has something, he shares.
When he doesn’t, he gives you love and happiness.”
Unimpressed, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez calls Hill a “cop
killer” and asked for his return in a December 18 letter to Secretary of
State John Kerry.
Days later, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie demanded that President
Barack Obama press for Chesimard’s return “before any further
consideration of restoration of diplomatic relations with the Cuban
For now, Cuban authorities aren’t likely to extradite the fugitives.
“We’ve explained to the US government in the past that there are some
people living in Cuba to whom Cuba has legitimately granted political
asylum,” Cuban official Josefina Vidal told the Associated Press recently.
James Early is a Smithsonian Institution researcher who has led
delegations to Cuba.
“The Cuban government at this point has put on the table what they feel
they can negotiate with the United States,” said Early. “The Cubans have
made it very clear there are issues they are not going to entertain.”
American officials lack a certain degree of moral authority in demanding
the fugitives’ given their “historic horrific treatment of black
Americans”, said Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston.
“I agree with those Cuban authorities who said it’s the sovereign right
of any government to decide to grant political refuge or political
asylum,” said Horne, author of Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba
During Slavery and Jim Crow.
Recent police shootings in the United States “have led to thousands of
people demonstrating under the banner, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ which at
once shows you how difficult and powerless the situation is for black
people in North America”, he said.
“I would hope that the Cuban authorities would keep faith with the
fugitives who sought asylum there.”
Undeterred, police, politicians and others say they’ll continue pushing
for the fugitives’ return.
Sagle said he fears Hill will never be brought to justice. “There’s a
chance he’ll die over there and never stand trial,” he said.
Hill denied shooting Sagle’s friend Rosenbloom.
“It’s a shame when a life is taken, no matter what the reason is,” Hill
said. “Nobody has the right to take another life – only in self defence.
And that I do regret. But what can I say? If a cop pulled a gun on me, I
Asked what he would tell the slain officer’s family, Hill said: “I’m
sorry. I’m sorry.”
Source: The politics of American fugitives in Cuba – Yahoo Maktoob News