Is Assata Shakur Safe?
by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate
Even amid worsening US-Cuba relations under Trump, it still seemed like a sign of changing times when Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, a fugitive animal-rights militant, was intercepted by Cuban authorities and turned over to the FBI in early August.
Popped by Cuban cops on an INTERPOL Red Notice, Dibee was flown to Portland, Ore., where he pleaded not guilty Aug 10 to taking part in a 1997 arson attack. The target had been a meatpacking plant in the Oregon desert, where wild horses were processed into dog food. This was but the first of several charges he faces before federal courts in Oregon, Washington and California.
The Cubans had apparently been tipped off by US authorities, who had learned that Dibee would pass through the island while traveling from Central America to Russia. He was apparently keeping mobile in a bid to avoid detection.
Dibee was one 12 accused militants of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front who were indicted by a federal grand jury in Oregon in 2006. They were said to make up an ELF cell called "The Family," responsible for a string of such attacks across the West—most famously, the 1998 torching of a ski resort in Vail, Colo., that was encroaching on endangered lynx habitat. They were accused following an FBI investigation dubbed Operation Backfire.
With Dibee's arrest, only one of the defendants remains at large—Josephine Sunshine Overaker.
The FBI and federal prosecutors of course called the defendants "eco-terrorists," despite the fact that their attacks claimed no casualties. When Operation Backfire was launched, the FBI even declared the ELF their number one priority for "domestic terrorism."
Retorted Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights attorney in San Francisco: "Apparently, according to the FBI, the threat is greater than that posed by neo-Nazis, systemically brutal and racist police forces, or al-Qaeda. The government's vendetta is a campaign in a broader witch-hunt against radical environmentalists and self-identified 'green anarchists'—those who merge ecology, animal rights, and anarchism in a vision of freedom and sustainability for all living beings."
The case opened much debate about the definition of terrorism, as distinct from sabotage and vandalism—with arson obviously falling into an ambiguous area where these lines blur.
Should Assata be worried?
Although Dibee does not appear to have been on the ground in Cuba very long, the affair does seem counterintuitive. Cuba of course protects several radicals and militants who are wanted in the United States, refusing to turn them over.
The most famous of these is veteran Black Panther Assata Shakur—the first woman to make the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorists" list.
Shakur—then known as Joanne Chesimard—was convicted in 1977 in the killing four years earlier of a state trooper during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Police said Shakur and two comrades—then members of the underground Black Liberation Army—opened fire on the cops. Shakur was accused of shooting one trooper with his own gun as he lay wounded on the ground. But Shakur contended the police opened fire first, while she had her hands up, and that she never got a shot off. After she was convicted of murder, facing a mandatory life term, Shakur said a "racist" jury had "convicted a woman with her hands up."
Shakur escaped from prison in 1979 with the help of the BLA and Weather Underground. After five years living in safe houses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she surfaced under her new name in Cuba in 1984.
She is also famous as the "godmother" of the late rap star Tupac Shakur, who was the stepson of her BLA comrade Mutulu Shakur, now serving a federal prison term for bank robbery.
There are others. One is Nehanda Abiodun, who has been in Cuba since 1990 and is accused by US authorities as an accomplice of Assata Shakur. She has emerged as a mentor figure for a generation of Cuban hip-hop artists.
Another is William Morales, accused as a bomb-maker for the National Liberation Armed Forces, or FALN, a now-disbanded militant organization seeking the independence of Puerto Rico. While the FALN's attack on New York's Fraunces Tavern in 1975 left four dead, Morales was only convicted on explosives charges. He escaped in 1979, a year after his apprehension, and was given political asylum in Cuba in 1988.
William Lee Brent, a Black Panther who hijacked a commercial flight to Havana in in 1969, was initially imprisoned there, but released after not quite two years, and allowed to work and study. He died in Cuba in 2006.
Should Shakur and her comrades feel vulnerable in the wake of Dibee’s surrender?
When the Obama administration launched its rapprochement with Cuba, eventually leading to restoration of diplomatic ties in 2015, the surrender of "Joanne Chesimard" was raised as a demand by political conservatives in the US. Then New Jersey governor Chris Christie was among the most aggressive on the issue. Cuban authorities made clear it wasn't going to happen. Havana's head of North American affairs Josefina Vidal told the press, "Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted… That's a legitimate right."
Which is the 'terrorist state'?
One thing that may have changed the moral equation since then is the death in May 2018 of accused mass murderer Luis Posada Carriles. Far-right anti-Castro militant Posada Carriles was wanted by Cuba—the land of his birth—for the bombings of two Havana hotels in 1997, which left an Italian tourist dead. He was also wanted by Venezuela for masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in which 73 were killed.
The US refused to extradite to either country. Posada Carriles (who had also been part of Oliver North's network to illegally arm the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s) was living openly in the Miami area at the time of his death. He did face some legal trouble when he was accused of lying to immigration officers about how he got into the US before applying for asylum in 2005, but was acquitted in 2011 and spent his remaining years in a comfortable South Florida existence. In 2014, he was given a medal by the Cuban History Academy at Miami Dade College.
In this light, the US official designation of Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism" seems highly ironic. Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 for its backing of insurgencies in Central America, and only removed by Obama in 2015—long after the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were over.
Shakur's status was never in any way linked to demands for extradition of Posada Carriles, but both figures were part of the moral accounting between Washington and Havana.
Old-school radicals in state-capitalist Cuba
One obvious difference between Dibee and the exiled militants protected by Havana is that the prior's anarchist-informed radical environmentalism never fit into the Cold War paradigm. The Black and Puerto Rican militants of the 1970s explicitly looked to Cuba as a model; the eco-militants of 1990s certainly did not.
Even if it has been somewhat revived in the renewed tensions since Trump assumed the presidency, that Cold War paradigm does appear to be eroding. In July, Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power approved a new constitution, which will be put before the voters later this year in a formalistic process. It replaces the 1976 charter, and much has been made of new provisions recognizing private property rights—and the dropping of verbiage about moving toward a "communist society." However, it continued to enshrine the Communist Party as the sole "superior leading force of society and the state."
Later, in December, the constitutional commission agreed to re-insert the reference to "communism," after it was apparently demanded by thousands of citizens at community-level meetings called to discuss the new charter.
The Cuban workers don't want to be sold to foreign-owned sweatshops as in Vietnam (or a crash conversion to savage capitalism as in China), and rightly see continued state control of the ecoomy as an obstacle to this. This is not necessarily to be interpreted as enthusiasm for a one-party dictatorship, or refutation of democratic aspirations.
In April, Raúl Castro retired as president and passed power to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who represents a new generation, born after the 1959 Revolution. Castro, however, continues to lead the Communist Party. Cuba does indeed appear to be moving toward a more openly state-capitalist system, but still under one-party rule, in the style of China and Vietnam. To what extent this will mean further rapprochement with the US depends in large part on whether Washington will reciprocate—and under Trump that is unlikely.
Will a post-Castro leadership eventually be tempted to sacrifice Shakur and her comrades in order to get the US sanctions overturned by Congress? At the moment, nothing suggests it. Other things, however, may well be sacrificed—such as the modicum of dignity and security won by Cuba's workers and peasants under an authoritarian Revolution that nonetheless sought to build popular support.
Meanwhile, some activists in the United States are calling for a truth and reconciliation process over the period of armed left militancy and state repression from the late '60s through the early '80s—based on recognition that the FBI's notorious Counter-Intelligence Operation, or COINTELPRO, in this era constituted a campaign of state terrorism.
A shorter version of this story appears in the Winter 2018-9 issue of Fifth Estate.
Photo via OregonLive
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