Castro government: We will never return fugitive cop killer to U.S.

A top Cuban official tells Yahoo News that releasing Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, is ‘off the table’

Assata Shakur, former leader of the Black Panthers, poses under a Cuban flag in Havana, Cuba, 1998. (SHOBHA/Contrasto/Redux)
Assata Shakur, former leader of the Black Panthers, poses under a Cuban flag in Havana, Cuba, 1998. (SHOBHA/Contrasto/Redux)

HAVANA — A top Cuban official told Yahoo News that his government has no intention of turning over a fugitive wanted by the FBI for killing a New Jersey police officer.

“I can say it is off the table,” said Gustavo Machin, the deputy director for American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked about calls for Cuba to return Joanne Chesimard.

Chesimard, 67, is on the list of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, with a $2 million bounty on her head, for the 1973 murder of a state trooper during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Convicted in 1977, Chesimard — a onetime member of the radical Black Liberation Army — escaped from a New Jersey state women’s prison two years later and fled to Cuba, where she lives in seclusion under the name of Assata Shakur, officially protected by the Cuban government.

Officials in New Jersey, led by Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have demanded that Cuba return Chesimard before the U.S. takes any further steps to normalize relations with the communist government.

Cuba’s decision to provide sanctuary for Chesimard “is an intolerable insult to all those who long to see justice served,” including members of the slain New Jersey state trooper’s family, Menendez wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last week. In an emailed statement to Yahoo News on Monday, Menendez said Chesimard is a “cop killer” and her return should be “a top agenda” item before any further concessions are made to the Castro government.

Machin’s comments during an interview here at the Foreign Ministry underscore the thorny obstacles that still remain even as the U.S. and Cuba continue talks aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations — including the formal opening of embassies in Washington and Havana.

When pressed about Chesimard, Machin responded that Cuba had granted her political asylum and that therefore she would not be subject to any extradition to the United States.

In a caravan of eight cars bearing heavily armed state police and county officers, Joanne Chesimard, the reputed soul of the Black Liberation Army, was taken chained in handcuffs and leg irons from Riker's Island prison in New York City to the Middlesex County jail to await trail in the murder of state trooper Werner Foerster in 1976. (Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

“There are very serious doubts about that case,” said Machin. “We consider that a politically motivated case against that lady.”

The issue of Chesimard’s status — and that of more than 70 other U.S. fugitives who are believed to have received safe haven in Cuba — has taken on new resonance, especially within U.S. law enforcement, since Dec. 17, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of three convicted members of the so-called Cuban Five spy ring and returned them to Havana. The commutations were part of a diplomatic breakthrough that included Cuba’s return of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross and a CIA spy serving time in a Cuban prison.

In a separate interview here, Gerardo Hernandez — the ringleader of the Cuban Five, who had been serving a double life sentence — told Yahoo News he was ready to return to duty for the Castro regime. “I’ll tell you what I told Raúl Castro,” said Hernandez. “I’m a soldier. I’m here to receive my next order.”

Last Friday, Machin’s immediate boss, Josefina Vidal, flew to Washington for a second round of negotiations with State Department officials. U.S. officials have said they want to see further progress by Cuba toward democracy and the freeing of political prisoners. 

But Machin told Yahoo News his government still has its own list of lengthy demands, starting with the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and, after that, a lifting of the U.S embargo and the return of Guantánamo Naval Base.

In the past, U.S. officials have cited Cuba’s support for the leftist FARC guerillas in Colombia as one basis for the terror designation, although the matter is now “under review.” Machin said the charge of a terror link with the FARC is undercut by the fact that Cuba has been sponsoring peace talks between the government of Colombia and the guerrillas.

“At the very least, we deserve a Nobel Peace Prize” for the talks between the Colombian government and the guerrillas, Machin said. “That is the longest-running conflict in North America.”

“They know in their heart that Cuba has not been involved in anything” related to terrorism, Machin said. 

Some U.S. officials have called Chesimard herself a terrorist, given her background with the Black Liberation Army. The group, an outgrowth of the Black Panthers, was linked to a string of bombings, bank robberies and murders of police officers during the 1970s. In Chesimard’s case, she and two accomplices were accused of gunning down New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster after he pulled them over for a moving violation.

But Machin said the U.S. is harboring its own terrorists involved in attacks in Cuba, most prominently Luis Posada Carriles — who is, he said, a “free man” in Miami. Posada, who once worked for the CIA, was charged in Venezuela for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, but later escaped from jail and was accused by the Cubans of orchestrating a spate of hotel bombings in Havana in 1997.

“From the Cubans’ point of view, the U.S. is harboring true international terrorists, and Luis Posada Carriles is a case in point,” said Peter Kornbluh, co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

“But I don’t think another swap,” of Chesimard for Posada, “is in the works,” Kornbluh added. “Fidel Castro gave her asylum, and those decisions are not going to be reversed.”