In May 2013, on the 40th anniversary of her arrest, Assata Shakur was suddenly and inexplicably named to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, with an award of up to $2 million for her capture. She was the first woman ever put on that list, but she gained that notorious promotion at a time when she was doing little that could be conceived of as criminal. Shakur, also known as Joanne Deborah Chesimard, was serving a life sentence for murder when she escaped from prison in 1979. For the last 30 years, she has been quietly living in Havana, occasionally entertaining visitors in her modest apartment, writing and rarely drawing attention to herself.
At the time Shakur made the Most Wanted Terrorists list, Aaron Ford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark office, said, "While living openly and freely in Cuba, she continues to maintain and promote her terrorist ideology. She provides anti-U.S.-government speeches, espousing the Black Liberation Army's message of revolution and terrorism."
In other words, even by FBI standards, Shakur was raised to terrorist level on pretty shaky grounds: for speaking and writing, usually protected activities. At the time, I speculated in an essay for WBEZ that Shakur's addition to the FBI list might have been a way to pressure Cuba to release U.S. Agency for International Development worker Alan Gross. That was 19 months ago. Just this month, when President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba were working to normalize relations and that Gross would be released, he said the two countries had been in secret talks for 18 months.
Not surprisingly, Shakur is back in the news. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, where Shakur was convicted of killing one state trooper and grievously wounding another, has called for her extradition.
But Shakur will never go back to New Jersey or anywhere on American soil, and it's not just because Cuba and the U.S. have no extradition treaty. Both countries have inherent interests, ethical and not so ethical, in allowing Shakur to die of natural causes in Havana.
The first is practical: If the U.S. makes a serious request for Shakur, Cuba will undoubtedly counter with a request of its own for Luis Posada Carriles. The 86-year-old, who has long ties to the CIA and its covert activities in Latin America, is now living out his old age in Miami. Among his crimes: He was convicted in Panama of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 civilians. He has been suspected of planting bombs in Havana in 1997 (including one that killed an Italian tourist). He was arrested in Panama for an attempt on Fidel Castro's life but pardoned by the U.S.-supported president of that country in 2004.
Bringing Shakur to the U.S. may satisfy a whole lot of folks who are outraged because a convicted cop killer is free, but she has little intelligence value to the American government. Releasing Posada Carriles to the Cubans, however, is a whole different story: The guy has had his hands in everything from the Bay of Pigs to the Contra wars.
Though neither the U.S. nor Cuba — this would be a pre-Castro Cuba — is a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which covers political asylum, both have built curious reputations for routinely offering asylum. (The U.S. is a signatory to the update known as the 1967 Protocol, while Cuba has signed only the Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action to Strengthen the International Protection of Refugees in Latin America in 2004.)
Cuba has long been a haven for African-Americans who've committed what might be interpreted as political crimes. Black Panthers such as Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Raymond Johnson all spent time in Cuba in the 1960s (not always happily). At one time it was speculated that as many as 90 African-Americans were living in Cuba under asylum. Indeed, Shakur is not even the only one who's been on an FBI wanted list; Victor Manuel Gerena has been on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list since 1984.
For Cuba, turning Shakur in to U.S. authorities would constitute a betrayal of its long, very carefully cultivated relationship with the African-American community, with the African diaspora and Africa itself. Castro didn't just do photo ops with Malcolm X; under his leadership, Cuba articulated a vision for the elimination of institutional racism and attempted to dismantle it (though even he admitted this was not as successful as he'd hoped), put men and women on the ground in several wars of liberation in Africa, trained doctors from Africa for free through its Latin American School of Medicine and, in recent years, extended scholarships to the school through the Congressional Black Caucus to U.S. students from underserved communities. (Of course, all this has also resulted in tremendous tolerance by African and other Third World countries of Cuba's human rights abuses.)
Returning Shakur to the U.S. would be an inconceivable 180 on the principles that governed all that. And whatever Cuba's actual record on more general ethical behavior, this is one issue on which it has never wavered.
Achy Obejas, born in Havana, Cuba, is a columnist for In These Times and the author of five books.