Why My Students and I Met With a Potentially Violent Fugitive in Cuba

A university professor leads a school trip to Cuba and winds up the focus of intrigue at the highest levels of US government

Cubans chat in the streets of Havana, on January 7, 2015. (Photo: Getty Images)
Cubans chat in the streets of Havana, on January 7, 2015. (Photo: Getty Images)

Why had my students and I met in Cuba with a fugitive wanted by the FBI on 32 felony counts, the head of International Studies wanted to know. Put that way, I suppose it sounded pretty irresponsible of me, though he hadn’t exactly put it that way, because he didn’t know exactly who the American fugitive from justice was. There are at least seventy living in Cuba. But that’s what he meant when he gave me a call. He also meant, why are you making my life and job difficult? I don’t recall how he phrased it, but there were a lot of questions, he said, about my trip and he sounded nervous as he recounted the chain of telephone calls that had preceded his call to me: first, a Congressman (he didn’t say whom, but most likely Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, whose great aunt was Fidel Castro’s first wife) had called the Governor of Iowa, who had then called the head of the Board of Trustees of The University of Iowa, who had then called the President of the University, who had then called the head of International Programs. This was the first time I recalled ever speaking more than a few words to him, and I felt a combination of pride that I was the subject of such high-level scrutiny, panic that I was the subject of such high-level scrutiny, and the growing certainty that there was now probably an FBI file with my name on it, a fact that in itself gave me, a highly-politicized child in the 1960’s with an older brother and sister who kept me informed about the protests of the day, with a little frisson of pleasure.

A few days earlier, a website called Contacto Latino had reported my trip to Cuba as a symptom of the moral bankruptcy of the Obama administration’s “lax” policy in allowing educators such as myself to demean America and its principles by meeting with wanted felons. Three Republican Congressmen, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Peter King of New York, and Scott Garrett of New Jersey, had written a letter to President Obama expressing their “outrage that, while on a so-called ‘educational’ trip to Cuba, permitted by President Obama’s weakened sanctions, at least one U.S. university arranged for its students to meet with a potentially violent fugitive from U.S. justice.” And Jose Cardenas, writing in Foreign Policy said that I had “gushed” about the meeting and speculated that the fugitive we had met with was “likely be either Joanne Chesimard or Charlie Hill, two radicals wanted by U.S. authorities for the murders of U.S. law enforcement officials in the 1970s.” Why this was “likely,” he never said. We had met neither Charlie Hill or Chesimard, known more widely as Assata Shakur, the most famous of the American exiles.

The article that started all of this and led to the head of International Studies calling me to explain myself was simply an informational piece meant to drum up interest in a short course I was leading with my colleague Bonnie Sunstein over the winter break. The reporter had written “Hemley said one of the students on the trip last year wrote an excellent piece on an American fugitive who had escaped the country and taken asylum in Cuba. The exile met 13 UI students who had enrolled in the UI’s study abroad program to Cuba last winter.” Next thing I knew, I was being accused of endangering students and worse yet, “gushing.”

A group of students and faculty from The University of Iowa and Nehanda Abiodun sat in a circle on the balcony of my suite at the Presidente Hotel in the Vedado section of Havana. Nehanda, sunglasses perched on head, wore orange that day: orange pants, a purple/orange patterned blouse, orange dangling earrings, and an orange tie keeping her roped hair in place. Exuding more of a grandmother aura than that of a bank robber or revolutionary, at sixty-two, Nehanda told us in a soft-spoken voice that she took her name, Nehanda Isoke Abiodun when she was thirty. The original Nehanda had been a Zimbabwean spiritual leader who led a revolt against the British colonizers and was eventually hanged by them, though reputedly, she wasn’t easy to kill. Isoke means a precious gift from God. Abiodun means “born at a time of war.”

Born in Harlem in 1950, her mother was a “Christian integrationist” and her father was a Muslim nationalist. In 1962, Fidel came to New York and her father took her to see him. At ten, she started her “political career” when she joined a group opposing Columbia’s takeover of a gym in the neighborhood. Later graduating from Columbia, she worked at first in a methadone clinic, thinking methadone was a cure for heroin, only to find methadone “was a worse addiction.” She was fired from her job when she refused to administer an increased dosage to one of the patients. At the time, heroin addiction was devastating the black community and a group of activists, including members of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Republic of New Africa, and SDS, simply took over a part of Lincoln Hospital by occupying it, a move that was at first met by the police surrounding the hospital, but eventual acquiescence and a rather remarkable turnaround. The hospital administration reluctantly agreed to the program and the Lincoln Detox Center was born. Nehanda claims a success rate of 75 – 80 percent because “the people who were addicted were no longer parasites but contributors to the community.” It ran until 1979, when Ed Koch “sent a SWAT team to close the clinic, because it was a training center ‘for terrorists.”

(Photo: Jared Rodriguez/ Truthout)
Assata Shakur (illustration: Jared Rodriguez/Truthout).

This is how she tells it, and of course in such hotly-contested histories, who’s telling the story makes all the difference. The first time we met her, American journalist Tom Miller, who has known Nehanda for many years, warned in advance that she didn’t want to discuss the charges against her, which include bank robbery, escape from prison, and racketeering, and that first time she didn’t. She talked almost exclusively about what it was like to live in exile.

Understandably, or at least predictably, her views on the charges against her favored a narrative of struggle against oppression. Accused of helping free convicted bank robber and cop killer Assata Shakur from prison in 1979, she used the word “liberated” and wanted us to understand the difference between that word and “escaped,” which all of us understood, but whether we sympathized with her version was another matter. Among our group on my first visit was a student who had interned the previous summer for a conservative anti-Castro think tank. Our guide, Lian, took me aside one day and asked what I knew of him, what his story was. Obviously, the Castro government was watching. Lian, with whom we all got along fabulously, was nonetheless the daughter of a well-known Cuban journalist and like all guides, vetted for loyalty. She wanted to know, though not in so many words, whether he was a spy.

On another occasion at the National Art Museum, I wanted to show my students some paintings displayed in a corner of the museum that were implicitly critical of Castro. Lian scolded me. “Remember where you are, Robin,” she said, indicating the cameras watching us and two elderly women near us, perhaps listening. Later, she told me I had made the mistake of calling him “Castro,” which was how his enemies referred to him, while his supporters called him “Fidel.”

On this second visit, one of our students was a young woman whose grandparents and mother had fled the Castro regime and whose family, like so many others, had lost practically everything they owned when they left. Her mother and sister joined her on the trip, and Bonnie and I allowed her to split off a few times from the rest of the group to explore with her family all that they had lost in the Revolution. The sisters had never visited Cuba before and her mother had left as a young child in 1960, but she had raised them to speak Spanish and carry proudly the legacy of their family’s roots. Among the first places they visited, was their grandmother’s house, which had been converted into a printing plant. They had grown up hearing the story of their grandmother’s sister teasing their grandmother as a little girl, telling her that there was a ghost at the top of the grand staircase. Now there was an enormous likeness of Fidel on the wall there, the ghost that had haunted their family all these years, and an inspirational slogan. Inspirational if you’re not the granddaughter of the woman from whom the house was taken. My student and her sister hugged one another and sobbed at what they saw and the sadness that their grandparents, both buried in a cemetery in the U.S., could never return.

Nehanda didn’t tell us how she managed to escape to Cuba in the early 1990’s, only that she had to do so. “I’ll be real honest with you,” she told us. “I didn’t want to come to Cuba, because I thought I had a responsibility to my community. But there came a time when it became clear to everybody but me that I was going to be captured. I saw it coming – I wasn’t even in the U.S. when I came. The thing that convinced me — the people who loved me said if you’re captured it’s a victory for our enemies. If you come to Cuba, it’s a victory for us. If I’m in prison, there’s very little I can do.”

A case in point, she mentioned only in passing: Geronimo Pratt, a high ranking official of the Black Panthers whom the FBI wanted removed, and through its counter intelligence program framed Pratt for a murder he couldn’t have committed, because he was 350 miles away at the time of murder, and he became a suspect only when a paid FBI informant accused him of the murder. Only after he’d spent 27 years in prison, the first eight years in solitary confinement, were the charges against him vacated and he was awarded $4.5 million for false imprisonment. He died a few years later, spending his money to try to free other victims of “Cointelpro” languishing in prison.

She put her head on the table when Bonnie asked her what she’s done to build freedom in Cuba. She’s known here as the “Godmother of Cuban Hip-Hop,” a title that she’s proud of, as well as being Tupak Shakur’s godmother (Tupak was Assata Shakur’s nephew by marriage). “And I don’t even like hip hop,” she said, the class laughing in response.

Now she mentors medical students from the U.S. whom, she admitted proudly, “lifted my breasts for me.” She prepares them home cooked meals and talks to them about what they’re going to do with their medical degrees in the U.S. She talks about social responsibility.

“If you’re willing to listen to me, you can be one of my babies. I like argument. You do not have to agree with me. The biggest problem is lack of history, misinformation.”

At this point, our Cuban-American student told Nehanda about her own family story, about her grandfather refusing to work as a doctor for Fidel and their house being vandalized and having to leave the country as a result. Nehanda listened sympathetically, admitting there were mistakes that were made and that she wasn’t going to tell this young woman not to feel the way she did, but she just wanted her to come to Cuba and make up her own mind.

That’s exactly what we had done. When the head of International Studies called me and asked what I was doing meeting with a felon, I pointed out the U.S. doesn’t require journalists to hold the same political views as the subjects of their interviews. That seemed more like something an oppressive country such as, say, Cuba, might make as a prerequisite. He took my point but he had wanted to know if I was planning to meet with the fugitive again?

“Planning?” I asked. “No, I’m not planning on meeting her, but if the opportunity arises …”

“Fair enough,” he said, “Of course, I’m not forbidding you, but you won’t go out of your way …” It seemed to me he was forbidding me without actually forbidding me, but we both pretended he wasn’t.

Congressman Diaz-Balart and his fellow signers of the letter to Obama complained that we had dared to expose such impressionable young minds to a potentially violent felon, and how disrespectful that was toward the police officers who had been killed by Nehanda’s confederates. Respect or disrespect had nothing to do with it. We weren’t indoctrinating them. We were simply exposing them to different points of view. Bonnie and I were leading a writing course.

And so, despite the disapproval of some of my country’s politicians and the tacit disapproval of my own Study Abroad office, we exposed our students a second time (!) to a “potentially violent felon” on the rooftop of the Presidente Hotel with a view of the sea and the famous promenade known as the Malecon.

And so, despite the disapproval of some of my country’s politicians and the tacit disapproval of my own Study Abroad office, we exposed our students a second time (!) to a “potentially violent felon” on the rooftop of the Presidente Hotel with a view of the sea and the famous promenade known as the Malecon. I suppose she might have, on a whim, pulled out a pair of six-guns ala Yosemite Sam, aimed them at our feet, and yelled, “Dance, Varmints,” before blasting away. But remarkably, she didn’t. Instead, we were privy to an extraordinary scene, Nehanda and our Cuban-American student hugging, the young woman saying, “I love you” which at that moment seemed possible. Not ‘I agree with you’ or ‘I admire all your choices.’ But a simple and heartfelt moment, one of the most important moments for this young woman of the entire trip, when she was given permission from a fugitive from U.S. justice to feel however she was going to feel.

And the moment, you could see was important for this old revolutionary as well, whose mother had died three years earlier and who hadn’t seen her for thirty years before that. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she said. “I’m sitting on the sidewalk waiting by the Capitolio. Going through a litany of things that are wrong with my life, and I see this young couple with this little baby that’s maybe one years old who’s just learning to walk and his father has one hand. The mother has the other hand. There comes a moment when he says leave me alone,” and she pantomimed the baby looking up at his parents. “I can see in his face, I’ve got my mom and my pop to hold me up. I’ve got this.’” She took three baby steps. “I’ve got people who will lift me up if I fall. That baby saved my life at that moment. So you ask me how I survive. I sometimes forget I’ve got people who hold me up. Talking to you saves my life. It gives me purpose. That’s how I see it.”

As I see it, the potential of violence in meeting Nehanda was that of cognitive dissonance. That there were many things wrong in the way the Black Panthers and their associates had worked for social justice seems obvious, certainly in the banks that were robbed, the guards and policemen murdered. That the government’s way of handling its opponents was often just as criminal – how many Geronimo Pratts were railroaded or gunned down by racist police and FBI agents? Many mistakes made, and some things right about both sides. Moral myopia might be satisfying but rarely is it smart. By the time we left, our Cuban-American student was just as anti-Castro, if not more so, than when she first set foot in Cuba. But her views were that much more informed and complex.

While it’s so much easier to punish a person than a state—after all, we know how many counts there are against Nehanda—neither the U.S. or Cuba has clean hands. Both countries have committed crimes against their own dissenting citizens in the name of officially lofty ideals. Our crime against America was in meeting Nehanda with our students and listening to her story. Our crime was that we chose in a small way to press the reset button and move, if only in baby steps, toward reconciliation.

Robin Hemley is the author of ten books and the recipient of many awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes in both fiction and nonfiction. Why My Students and I Met With a Potentially Violent Fugitive in Cuba