Assata Shakur and Cuba – U.S. Relations

It has been 40 years since Assata Shakur was convicted of gunning down New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973 and sentenced to 26-33 years in prison. However, in November 1979, she escaped from prison and eventually received political asylum in Cuba in 1984. On May 2, it was announced that Shakur became number one on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. What does this mean for U.S.-Cuban relations?
Kevin Edmonds 5/16/2013


It has been 40 years since Assata Shakur was convicted of gunning down New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973. During the trial, Shakur was found guilty and sentenced to 26-33 years in prison. However, in November 1979, she escaped from the Clinton County Correctional Facility, spending several years underground—eventually receiving political asylum in Cuba in 1984. One would have thought, given the 21st century’s perpetual war on terror, that Shakur’s killing of a police officer had been largely forgotten, but on May 2 it was announced that forty years after her shootout on a New Jersey turnpike, Shakur had been added to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. It begs to be asked why her—and why now?

1774 "Photo Credit: Huffington Post"

Granted, at the time Shakur sought asylum in Cuba, there was no such thing as the Most Wanted Terrorists list; it was created after the events of 9/11. However, the current head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains on the list but is curiously ranked 17. Luis Posada Carilles—convicted in absentia in Panama for terrorist attacks throughout the Americas, including bombing an airliner and killing 76 people, is walking around free in the United States. Regarded as a real “Cold Warrior” in many U.S. circles, he is universally considered to be a terrorist in the rest of the hemisphere. The only legal battles Posada has had to face were regarding perjury and remaining in the country without authorization.

Regarding the legitimacy of Shakur’s place on the list, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “Nor is there any evidence that Shakur actually fired the shots that took the life of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, said Rutgers University criminal justice professor Lennox Hinds.” It has been well documented via COINTELPRO that during the 1970s the U.S. government undertook violent action against black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party in order to "neutralize" them.

Professor Hinds went on to state to Democracy Now that “I think that with the massacre that occurred there, the FBI and the state police are attempting to inflame the public opinion to characterize her as a terrorist, because the acts that she was convicted of have nothing to do with terrorism.” If the meaning of terrorism can be stretched in such a way by the U.S. government to include Shakur but dismiss Posada Carilles—what is one to make of its legitimacy to categorize offenders? One would be hard pressed to find a better double standard defining who counts as a terrorist when it comes to Posada Carilles and Shakur.  

It has been speculated that the move was an attempt to pressure Cuba to release Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering communications equipment to opposition groups via USAID’s pro-democracy programs. Cuba has outlawed such “pro-democracy programs” stating that they are subversive and intend to topple the government.

Little else has been said about the meaning behind the FBI moving Shakur to number one on their list. It can be easily assumed that it was done to intimidate and bully Cuba and try to somehow get the world to believe that Cuba is a threat to the United States. It would appear that the world has a strong track record on this issue and will not fall for the bait, as 2012 was the 21st straight year in which an overwhelming majority at the United Nations has called for an end to the embargo. In the minds of the U.S. government, embargos and sanctions are a useful tool to topple dictators and enemies of Washington. The reality is that these policies only end up hurting the civilian populations; it is a flawed idea which seeks to bring about respect for human rights by denying them through the use of an embargo. Yet this message has not sunk in.

On May 1, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell remarked that Washington "has no current plans to remove Cuba" from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The fact that Cuba is even on the list to begin with is evidence of outdated and irrational Cold War minds. Cuba sits on the list with countries such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Is the U.S. posturing trying to suggest that they will resort to another Bay of Pigs invasion in order to get Shakur? Indeed the U.S. went to greater lengths to get long time number one terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Is this an act of militarism or confusion on behalf of the United States?

Whatever the case may be, such posturing reveals how problematic the ongoing U.S. embargo with Cuba is and the ignorance of the U.S. administration for refusing to jump into the 21st century. The United States has normalized relations with the countries of the former Soviet Union, China, Japan—and even treats North Korea and their ongoing nuclear antics in a more respectable manner than it does Cuba. Since the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba has never threatened the United States, but the reverse cannot be said. Those arguing that the U.S. government is pursuing the embargo on Cuba in the name of freedom need a reality check. It has never been about freedom, it has always been about exercising regional power and punishing the threat of revolution. There are plenty of Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Chile which saw their respective struggles for freedom cut down in a hail of U.S. sponsored bullets. Former U.S. ally and Guatemalan leader Rios Montt was just convicted of genocide—and he never appeared on the list of most wanted terrorists. If a nation is to stand against terrorism, it should strongly condemn terrorism all forms—not just the ones it finds convenient to oppose.



Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.

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