by Tasbeeh Herwees, GOOD Magazine
When President Obama announced that the U.S. was preparing to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba on Wednesday, the news provoked mixed reactions – opponents of the Castro government were dismayed and some Cuban immigrants celebrated, eager to return home. And yet, one name kept reappearing over and over in ancillary discussions on the lifting of the embargo: Assata.
Assata is Assata Shakur, the Black Panther activist who famously broke out of prison in 1979 after being convicted for the first-degree murder of a New Jersey state police officer and found refuge in Cuba. Just last year, she became the first woman on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list and the New Jersey attorney general offered a $2 million award for information that would lead to her capture. The New Jersey state police have made several attempts to have her extradited. And now that U.S.-Cuba relations are thawing, they are going to renew efforts for extradition. On the same day that Obama announced the lifting of the embargo, the New Jersey state police released this statement: “We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973.”
In Cuba, Shakur was one of multiple Black political activists, dissidents and revolutionaries granted political asylum in the 60s and 70s, among them Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton. In addition to the killing of the New Jersey cop, Shakur was also accused of bank robbery, the kidnapping of a drug dealer, and the attempted murder of two other police officers from Queens. Most of these charges were dropped; in other cases she was acquitted. It’s likely Shakur was victim to the FBI’s COINTEL program (often referred to as COINTELPRO), a Cold War-era national security apparatus that relied on secret and often illegal operations to surveil, infiltrate and disrupt the activities of subversive political organizations. Many of the targeted groups were communist or socialist in nature, but civil rights groups and groups associated with Black Nationalism withstood the brunt of COINTELPRO probes. Trumping up charges for a popular Black nationalist figure was not, at the time, outside the purview of the FBI, which was concerned with neutralizing any and all threats to U.S. power, even at the expense of democratic values.
During the heady years of the Cold War, Cuba provided a safe haven for Black activists who were being persecuted by intelligence and security agencies. The socialist ideals they shared with Cuban revolutionaries like Che Guevara provided a platform from which they could forge transnational ties with people in “third-world” struggles all over the world. In fact, Algeria, which had emerged from a violent decolonial war waged by socialist revolutionaries, also served as a sanctuary for Black American activists. Cleaver, who sought exile after being charged with attempted murder in the United States, set up an outpost for the Black Panthers in Algiers.
Shakur is 67 years old now, still hiding out somewhere in Cuba, where she has received the protection of the Castro government. But, decades later, her existence continues to provoke the ire of U.S. officials and it’s not totally clear why. Last year, when the U.S. put Shakur on the most wanted list, eyebrows were raised. In an interview with Vice, Anna Hartnell, a professor of American studies, expressed confusion about their dogged pursuit of an exiled Black activist. “Why the US government want to flag this up now is both mysterious and disturbing,” said Hartnell. “If they really were pursuing her for what they say they’re pursuing her for, it doesn’t make any sense. She was a large figure of threat, and the United States government are asserting the fact that they are still interested.”