Alleged criminals aging, miss U.S. they left behind
Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
May 18, 2008
Nearly four decades after allegedly killing a New Mexico state trooper
and fleeing to Cuba, Charlie Hill lives on the outskirts of the capital
in a tiny apartment with a backed-up toilet. He gets by on a ration card
and a $10 monthly state stipend.
The 58-year-old grandfather and avowed black separatist listens to South
Florida AM radio stations that reach across the straits for news and
sports scores. Phrases from the turbulent 1960s, like "right on," pepper
Hill is among 70 fugitives from American justice who live as ordinary
citizens in Cuba, where the revolutionary government welcomed many as
militants and political activists who faced persecution in the United
States. Cuba's government has refused almost all requests for their
return but, in 2006, said "it would no longer provide safe haven to new
U.S. fugitives entering Cuba," according to the State Department.
Still, time, not the law, is catching up with the U.S. fugitives. One of
the most notorious was Robert Vesco, an American businessman
investigated in the 1970s for stealing more than $200 million from a
Swiss mutual fund company. Rather than face charges, Vesco moved around
Latin America before settling in Cuba in the 1980s.
Burial records at Havana's Colon Cemetery show a 71-year-old man with
the same name and birth date as Vesco died on Nov. 23 from lung cancer
and was buried the next day in a private plot. His demise was not known,
even among other American fugitives, until recent press reports.
Hill is among a handful of holdovers who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s,
an era when revolution and violent activism was romanticized, and
hijacking planes to Cuba was a common escape for radicals seeking
refuge. To them, Vesco was another kind of outlaw.
"Vesco was running from the law because he stole money," Hill said.
"When you are a revolutionary you're in exile and you still continue
your struggle as best you can. I'm an exile."
American fugitives in Cuba include black separatists, Black Panthers and
Puerto Rican independence militants. To American law enforcement, they
are cop killers, bank robbers and common criminals. Some fugitives
speculate their future on the island could end if Cuba tries to work out
a prisoner exchange for the so-called Cuban Five — Cuban nationals
imprisoned for spying in America.
"I don't want that, but hey man, if it happened, I would have to go
down, brother," Hill said.
Wayne Smith, who once served as America's top diplomat in Havana,
dismissed the idea of a prisoner swap.
"I think the Cuban government might be interested, but I don't think it
would really happen," he said. "The U.S. government would be very
reluctant to get into that."
At least one fugitive, Joanne Chesimard, a black nationalist who fled to
Cuba after escaping from a U.S. prison in 1979, has gone into hiding on
the island. She has a $1 million bounty on her head for killing a New
Jersey state trooper in 1973.
Chesimard now goes by the name Assata Shakur. She once listed her number
in the Havana phone book, but now fears that bounty hunters may try to
snatch her, according to a friend who has not seen Shakur in more than a
For its part, Cuba accuses the United States of harboring one of the
island's most-wanted men. Authorities want the United States to hand
over anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative
and alleged mastermind of the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976. All
73 passengers on board were killed. Venezuela, where the downed plane
originated, also has requested his extradition.
Posada Carriles, who was held on immigration charges but freed from a
federal prison in Texas a year ago, also is suspected of plotting a
series of Havana hotel bombings in the late 1990s. Hundreds of
Cuban-Americans honored the exile this month with a sold-out gala in
Miami, where he now lives.
In Cuba, Hill longs for the life he left behind.
"I miss apple pie and sweet potato pie, man," he said. "I miss watching
football. But that doesn't mean I regret being a revolutionary and doing
what I did."
Hill escaped to Cuba in 1971 after a state trooper stopped him and two
other members of a black separatist group outside Albuquerque, N.M. They
were transporting arms and explosives. One of the suspects shot the
trooper, Robert Rosenbloom, in the throat, killing him. The men forced
their way into the Albuquerque airport and hijacked an airliner to Cuba.
Hill's accomplices both died in Cuba: Ralph Goodwin drowned at a beach
outside Havana decades ago; Michael Finney died of throat cancer in 2005.
Asked if he expected to return to America, Hill said: "Maybe in a coffin."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.