Graying Cold War fugitives spawn potential Cuba-US tension as politicians push for extradition



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HAVANA — For decades some of America's most-wanted fugitives made new lives for themselves in Cuba, marrying, having children and becoming fixtures of their modest Havana neighborhoods as their cases went mostly forgotten at home.

Granted political asylum by former President Fidel Castro, they became players in his government's outreach to American minorities and leftists, giving talks about Cuba's merits to sympathetic visitors, medical students and reporters from the U.S.

Last week's stunning reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba has returned these graying relics of the Cold War to the headlines, transforming them into a potential source of tension in the new era of detente between the two nations.

The dozens of men and woman wanted by the U.S. range from quotidian Medicaid fraud suspects to black militants and Puerto Rican nationalists with major bounties on their heads.

They include Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. Now known as Assata Shakur, she was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper and was sentenced to life in prison. She escaped, and wound up in Cuba in the 1980s. Like other fugitives with political asylum here, she was living so openly in Havana that her number was listed in the phone book.

"I came and it was like a whole new world," she told the director of a 1997 documentary. "This is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in my life. Everything is so lush, so green, so ripe."

Life for Shakur changed as U.S. authorities raised the price on her head. The reward offered by the FBI and the New Jersey State Police for information leading to her capture now stands at $2 million and members of the once close-knit community of black militants living in Cuba say their only contact with Shakur these days is an occasional unexpected but friendly phone call.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is urging President Barack Obama to demand Shakur's return before restoring full relations with Cuba, saying, "These thugs in Cuba have given her political asylum for 30 years. It's unacceptable."

The Obama administration says it will push for return of the fugitives, but Cuba made clear Monday that extraditing Shakur and others with political asylum was off the table.

"Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted," the Cuban Foreign Ministry's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press.

She noted that the U.S. has repeatedly refused to return suspects wanted in Cuba for crimes including murder, kidnapping and terrorism. The most infuriating for Cubans is the case of Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted by Venezuela and Cuba for alleged involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, one of the worst terror attacks in the Western Hemisphere prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Posada Carriles has been living in the United States since 2005 and U.S. officials have steadfastly refused to turn him over.

Another FBI most-wanted fugitive, Victor Manuel Gerena, has been on the top 10 list since 1984 and long suspected of living in Cuba. Gerena is accused of playing the key role in a 1983 Connecticut armored car depot robbery that netted about $7 million, at the time the largest cash heist in U.S. history.

It was committed by militants advocating Puerto Rican independence from the U.S., a goal long been pushed by Fidel Castro.

Other fugitives included culprits in a wave of air hijackings in the 1970s and '80s. Many were jailed but allowed to remain in Cuba after serving their time.

Among them was William Potts Jr., a self-styled black militant who hijacked a Piedmont Airlines flight en route from New York to Miami and said he thought he'd be welcomed as a hero. Instead, he served 13 years in prison.

After his release, Potts married a Cuban university professor, had two children and lived in a modest apartment east of Havana until he sent his children to the U.S., declared himself homesick for the U.S. and returned home voluntarily.

He was sentenced in July to 20 years in U.S. prison but will be eligible for early release in acknowledgement of the years he spent behind bars in Cuba.

Cuba has recently returned more people accused of committing crimes in the U.S. without political overtones. Last year, the Cubans refused asylum to a Florida couple accused of kidnapping their children from their grandparents and sailing to Havana.

In 2008, Cuba deported Leonard Auerbach to face charges in California that he had sexually abused a young Costa Rican girl.

David S. Weinstein, a former Miami federal prosecutor now in private practice, said that without a fully functioning extradition treaty, U.S. authorities must depend on Cuba to simply refuse entry to fugitives or kick them out.

"Right now it's more of an expulsion," Weinstein said. "The Cubans say, 'You're persona non grata. Get out of our country.'"

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Curt Anderson contributed from Miami.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ miamicurt

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