The worry about Assata Shakur

Since the historic events of Dec.17, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz simultaneously announced the freedom of the Cuban Five, the restoration of diplomatic relations between their two countries and the impending effort to eliminate the U.S. blockade of Cuba completely, the worldwide response has been overwhelmingly positive. In Cuba there was public rejoicing, and initial indications are that the majority of the U.S. population also supports these changes.

However, some express worry. Some people friendly to Cuba fret that an influx of tourists, dollars and spies will have a negative impact on Cuba. I think these worries are exaggerated; after all, Cuba already hosts tourists from many capitalist countries who bring in Euros and other currencies, and Cuba has a way of dealing with spies. Such worries reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of Cuban leaders and the Cuban people to deal with their own national problems, something they have been doing effectively since January 1, 1959, when the Cuban Revolution triumphed.

A particular concern has been raised about the fate of Assata Shakur, an African-American activist who was given political asylum by the government of Fidel Castro in 1982. She had been convicted in very dubious trial for killing a police officer in 1973. The People’s World has covered her situation previously.

No sooner had Presidents Obama and Castro announced the glad tidings than New Jersey officials and the FBI renewed their demands for her extradition. After Florida, New Jersey is the U.S. state where anti-Castro Cuban exiles are politically strongest. Don’t forget, New Jersey is represented by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, born in New York City on January 1, 1954 – exactly five years before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution – to working-class Cuban immigrants who had left Batista’s Cuba in late 1953. Menendez is among the staunchest allies of the ultra-right Cuban exile community.

The announcement by President Obama on Wednesday made no mention of extradition of Assata or anyone else. I think there is practically no set of circumstances that would cause the Cuban government to extradite Ms. Shakur to the United States. Not only would the Cubans think such an action to be dishonorable, they could argue – as they did when Assata first arrived in their country – that it was impossible for an African-American radical activist to get a fair trial in the U.S., where J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI did not scruple to frame people like Assata for the political purpose of decimating the leadership of the civil rights movement. There is a huge amount of evidence for this, including the exoneration, years later, of many mostly African-American people who had, to put it simply, been framed.

It is not uncommon for countries to refuse each other’s extradition requests: Mexico and other countries which have abolished the death penalty will not extradite prisoners to the United States unless they get guarantees that U.S. prosecutors will not ask for the death penalty. Cuba can easily say to the United States, “Look, it does not appear to us as if your country has resolved the problem between African-American communities and the police, so we’re not going to extradite.” Indeed, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s point person for North American affairs, has stated categorically that Cuba is not going to extradite anyone.

However, the announcement by New Jersey authorities may serve another purpose, namely as a pretext for blocking the removal of Cuba from the U.S. government’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Besides Cuba, this list now includes only Iran, Syria and Sudan. Other than being an insult to Cuba, inclusion in the list has some practical implications, e.g., it obliges the United States to oppose World Bank and other international loans to the country in question, opens up that country’s diplomats in the United States to possible lawsuits by individuals claiming they are victims of state-sponsored terrorism, and certain monetary, banking and trade restrictions.

Secretary of State John Kerry will have to make a report on state sponsors of terrorism to Congress in April. Last year, his report called for the continued designation of Cuba as such a sponsor even though it practically admitted that Cuba was not, in reality, sponsoring terrorism.  In previous years, the justification for the continuation of Cuba on the list was that the Armed Forces of the Colombian Revolution (FARC) and the ETA Basque separatist organization have offices in Cuba. But the Colombian government has expressed gratitude that Cuba has been hosting talks between itself and the FARC, and the ETA organization is in Cuba by request of previous Spanish governments.

I believe the U.S. government really means to end the listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, but a lot of things could happen between now and April. Therefore it is important that we continue to contact the State Department and the White House to point out the foolishness of such an unjust policy. The contact information for President Obama is found here; for Secretary of State John Kerry here; and for your Senators and Congressperson here.

The message is: “Cuba does not belong on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Please remove Cuba from the list so that the work begun by President Obama’s initiative on Dec. 17 can continue!”

Photo: Assata Shakur  |


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.