U.S. fugitive Charles Hill reflects on his 38 years in Cuba.
"No, no, I wouldn't give it up, man," said Hill, 59. "You know, I'm too old now. I don't have any retirement plan back in the United States. This is my life."
But his life isn't without worries. Some lawmakers are stepping up demands that Hill and other American fugitives in Cuba be extradited to back to U.S. soil.
One fugitive--Joanne Chesimard--is among the FBI's most wanted criminals. She was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper. She escaped from prison in 1979 and now has a $1 million bounty on her head.
On June 4, New Jersey lawmakers passed a resolution urging President Obama and Congress "to delay normalizing relations with Cuba until Joanne Chesimard is extradited."
Chesimard, a former Black Liberation Army activist who goes by the name Assata Shakur, says she's a "political exile," not a criminal. But the FBI calls her a "domestic terrorist," a label that Fidel Castro protested in 2005, calling it "an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie."
Castro has also pointed out that the United States is harboring people he regards as "terrorists." These include Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative linked to Castro assassination plots and the 1976 bombing of a Cubana passenger jet off the coast of Barbados that left 73 people dead.
HILL: BLACK REVOLUTIONARY, NOT TERRORIST
Caught in this Cold-War divide is Hill, son of a Cherokee father and a black mother.
Before Cuba, he dropped out of college in Oakland, Calif., joined the Army and went to Vietnam. But he said fighting the Vietnamese "didn't make any sense. These people didn't do anything to me."
So he deserted his unit. He was arrested, returned home and joined the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist movement.
He is wanted in the murder of Robert Rosenbloom, a New Mexico state police officer. Hill and two other New Afrika militants confronted the Rosenbloom on a highway west of Albuquerque in 1971.
One of the suspects shot Rosenbloom in the neck with a .45-caliber handgun, police say. The militants hid out for nearly three weeks, then hijacked a Trans World Airlines Boeing 727 and forced the pilot to fly to Cuba.
Today, Hill is reluctant to talk about what happened. During a two-hour interview at a hole-in-the-wall cafe near Havana's Parque Central, Hill chose his words carefully.
"Back in those days, we were considered 'black revolutionaries.' Now we're considered 'black terrorists.' That's a whole misconception." Hill said he has never considered himself a "domestic terrorist." People forget that blacks were fighting for a just cause, he said. "They were rising up against discrimination and inequality."
That argument doesn't sway Rosenbloom's friends, who say Hill should face the death penalty.
"I would hope that Hill be sentenced to die if ever he returns to New Mexico to stand trial," said Rex Sagle, a New Mexico police academy instructor who knew the officer.
"Robert was an outstanding man in all ways," Sagle said. "I feel cheated that I only got to associate with him such a short time. It is certainly a time in my life I shall never forget."
In 2001, authorities in Albuquerque named a state police building after Rosenbloom, who had a wife and two children.
On a memorial website for her husband, Linda Rosenbloom calls the suspects "cold-blooded cop killing murderers." But she said she was against extradition because she didn't want to go through a court trial and media frenzy.
"The hurt is still there, it always will be. I just don't want to deal with them anymore!" she wrote. "... they will be dealt with justly by God when they die."
Linda Rosenbloom didn't respond to requests for comment. On her website, she recalled reading a newspaper article saying that Michael Finney, then 20, had bragged on the plane that he had shot "the pig."
Finney died of throat cancer in 2005. The third suspect, Ralph Goodwin, died in a drowning accident on Mar. 4, 1973, Hill said.
Hill and Goodwin were friends. Goodwin called himself Antar, for an African warrior-poet. Hill's African name was Fela.
FUGITIVE SAYS CUBA 'WORKS FOR THE PEOPLE'
By 1968, their New Afrika organization had members in five states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina--and sought to form a black nation. Members set up a provisional government in Jackson, Miss., and produced a constitution.
On Aug. 18, 1971, FBI agents and police raided their Jackson headquarters and arrested 11 people. The militants killed a police lieutenant in the confrontation, but as they saw it, they were under attack.
On Nov. 8, 1971, Hill, Finney and Goodwin were en route to Mississippi to join the fight. Rosenbloom stopped their Ford Galaxie sedan near Albuquerque after 10:30 p.m. and asked to search the trunk.
One of the three suspects shot him, and a fellow officer found his body after 11 p.m. His unholstered weapon hadn't been fired.
Police found the suspects' car the next day. Nearby were three military rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun, "bomb-making materials and hundreds of rounds of ammunition," New Mexico's Observer reported in May 2006.
Hill, who denies shooting Rosenbloom, was later quoted as saying the cop drew his gun and "must have thought he was John Wayne."
Sagle, 71, said that didn't fit the policeman's personality. Rosenbloom "really enjoyed solving crimes," but he "was always fair and treated violators with respect and dignity."
But Hill claims police officers targeted blacks in those days.
"They went after us. If you had an Afro hairdo and got stopped by a cop, they went after you. We were being persecuted. There's no doubt about it."
He is among dozens of fugitives who have sought refuge in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Some U.S. officials say about 70 remain. Most are Cuban natives, Miami's El Nuevo Herald reported in 1995. Hill said he thought only about five or six American-born black militants were still on the island.
The Cuban government "has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006," the State Department said in an April 2009 report.
Hill said he never imagined he'd wind up in Cuba. He arrived speaking only high-school Spanish. The government gave him work in construction and in sugarcane fields.
"I accept that as part of the sacrifice that made--to be a revolutionary to help free my people from the chains of racism in the United States," he told CubaNews.
The socialist government also sent him to college for three years and he met revolutionary activists from elsewhere. "That helped me adjust," Hill said. "It made me more revolutionary, more dedicated to the cause."
His Cuban family includes his wife, Yeskenia Cardona, and their son, Antar Charles Hill Cardona, who is almost three. He also has a 23-year-old daughter from another woman and a grandson.
Hill's not sure if he would return to the United States even if authorities pardoned him.
"That would be a tough choice. Right off the top of my head, I don't think I would leave my son and my daughter and my grandson here and not be able to come back to Cuba."
He concedes the socialist system has faults.
"It's not a perfect society. I'm not a perfect person. Nobody's perfect," he said. "They've made some mistakes just like all governments have. But I've always felt they're constantly trying to work for the people.
"See, this is the basic difference. I don't think the United States government works for the American people. I believe the American government works for U.S. dollars."
But the Cuban government "has always worked for the Cuban people," he said.
Hill concedes he's seen racism in Cuba, but believes the country has progressed.
"They're doing it in their own way. Who am I to say how to do things? I don't want to be an arrogant American and say, 'Well, they should do it this way, or that way.' I'm an uninvited guest."
Asked if he's changed since the hijacking nearly 38 years ago, Hill said he's gained "patience, understanding and tranquility."
As for regrets, he says nothing of the Rosenbloom murder. He talks about another son, a son he never met.
Fela Avery was born on June 24, 1972, little more than seven months after Hill and the others hijacked the plane to Cuba. He was just 30 when someone found his body on Jan. 27, 2003, in Fairbanks, Alaska. He'd been murdered. Hill said he doesn't know why.
Another regret, he said, is that he has an older daughter in the U.S. who doesn't recognize him as her father.
Despite it all, he's resigned to his austere life in Cuba.
Hill has little material wealth but enjoys good health and low blood pressure. And he said he doesn't get angry anymore, not like when he was a young man.
"I'm not a bitter old revolutionary. I'm not angry at anyone. I just keep on living. I take it as it comes," he told CubaNews. "I don't feel anybody owes me anything." .
Tracey Eaton, a freelance writer based in St. Augustine, Fla., was Havana correspondent for the Dallas Morning News from 2000 to 2005. He is now a regular contributor to CubaNews. Write to Tracey at email@example.com.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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