How will the thawing of decades of chilly U.S.-Cuba relations impact a former rights activist who has lived in exile on the tiny island nation since she was sprung from prison — where she was serving a life sentence for murder — over three decades ago?
In this April 25, 1977 file photo, Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, leaves Middlesex County courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J. Now known as Assata Shakur, she was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper four years earlier, in a case that drew international attention. She was sentenced to life in prison but escaped. She wound up in Cuba in the 1980s and like other fugitives with political asylum there. (AP Photo)
December’s U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap — three of the Cuban Five being held in the United States exchanged for USAID subcontractor Alan Gross — has dominated the news, especially as part of the narrative surrounding the resumption of diplomatic relations between the small island nation and the major imperialist power.
With this news taking the center stage, however, the manipulation of power and demands appear to be taking place behind the scenes.
One of the expectations that surfaced immediately was the possibility of extraditing Assata Shakur, an American rights activist and member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, from Cuba to the U.S. Shakur’s case sheds light upon the political facet of the struggle for liberation and self-determination of black Americans.
On May 2, 1973, Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, was stopped by state troopers while traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike with two others — Zayd Malik and Sundiata Acoli. In the shootout that ensued, Shakur herself was shot and wounded, while New Jersey State Trooper Foerster and Malik were killed. Another state trooper, James Harper, was grievously wounded.
Shakur and Acoli were accused of killing both Foerster and Malik. In 1977, Shakur was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and other felonies related to the shootout. She was sentenced to life in prison, plus 33 years.
In a letter that serves as a testimony of her experience, Shakur asserts that political repression forced her to seek political asylum in Cuba in 1984.
“Fearing that I would be murdered in prison and knowing that I would never receive any justice, I was liberated from prison [in 1979], aided by committed comrades who understood the depth of the injustices in my case,” she wrote.
Compiled evidence supports Shakur’s claim that she did not shoot anyone during the gunfight. No fingerprints belonging to Shakur were discovered on the weapons, and analysis proved there was no gunpowder residue on her hands. Evidence of her guilt, therefore, was influenced by external factors which, according to Evelyn A. Williams, Shakur’s attorney in her appeal, include prejudice and racism, as well as the selection of jurors who were relatives or personal friends of individuals working in law enforcement.
Despite evidence pointing to Shakur’s innocence, New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes stated this month: “We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her [Shakur] back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973.”
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (later shortened to the Black Panther Party) was founded in October 1966 in Oakland, California, aligning itself with the Black Liberation Movement. The BPP combined self-defense, revolutionary nationalist ideology, mass organizing techniques, women’s equality, and spreading its message.
The following year, the FBI commenced the counterintelligence program COINTELPRO. Orchestrated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the program was intended “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.”
The FBI’s repression of revolutionary groups in the U.S., including Malcolm X and people and groups associated with him, was exposed in 1971. As the FBI’s intention was to disrupt revolutionary expression and activity, as opposed to simply monitoring it, four main tactics were used: infiltration; psychological warfare; legal harassment; and illegal force. The Church Commission Report, published in 1976, provides detailed insights into COINTELPRO and its defined targets, including assertions that the intelligence gathering “violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens.”
The shootout during which Assata Shakur was captured is a manifestation of the FBI’s counterintelligence program. As in other circumstances when U.S. efforts to neutralize dissent fail, Shakur was deemed a terrorist. In 2013, she was named to the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, with bounties for her capture soaring to $2 million from the initial $50,000 declared after her assisted escape from prison and subsequent flight to Cuba.
On the FBI’s website, Shakur is described as a “Most Wanted Terrorist,” and “the first woman ever to make the list.” According to the FBI, Shakur escaped from prison with the help of “armed, domestic terrorists” – the official and hostile translation of “comrades in the struggle for liberation.”
Shakur was added to this list on the 40th anniversary of the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, transforming the list of individuals wanted for their alleged roles in acts of terrorism against the so-called “Western democracy” into one that redefines the official definition of terrorism within the national perspective.
An extradition treaty never revoked
According to international criminal defense lawyer Douglas McNabb, who was interviewed by Al-Jazeera America, the extradition agreement enacted in 1905 between Cuba and the U.S. was never revoked, thus the treaty would not be subject to renegotiation. McNabb also pointed out that the extradition treaty allows Cuba to utilize an article which gives the host country the right to refuse to extradite a wanted individual if the alleged offense is “of a political character.”
Since Shakur’s activism and links to the BPP were of a revolutionary nature that led to the organization and its members being targeted by the FBI, Shakur’s case qualifies as a matter of political persecution by the U.S.
Revolutionary Cuba’s support for liberation movements around the world is in line with Fidel Castro’s internationalist ideology and practice. Based on the example of the Cuban Revolution, as well as the clause that allows the host country to refuse extradition on grounds of political offense, Cuba is under no obligation to extradite Shakur. Further, the FBI’s COINTELPRO is proof of the political repression that forced Shakur to seek political asylum in Cuba.
If Cuba is under no legal obligation to extradite Shakur, the U.S. has limited avenues for recourse. Normalizing relations with the U.S. will ultimately show whether or not Raul Castro will uphold the values of the Cuban Revolution and thus, safeguard Shakur from further persecution and violence by the imperialist power.