Assata Shakur and the History of Cuban Internationalism

Yanis Iqbal

BY YANIS IQBAL

As the United States re-designates Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” for “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists,” we need to look at the personal history of Assata Shakur (originally named Joanne Chesimard), one of those mentioned by the State Department’s press release.

By looking at Shakur’s individual trajectory, we can understand that the U.S. is not concerned about terrorism; it is only concerned about the strength of the Cuban revolution, which proved to the entire world that oppressed peoples can make their own history.

A Popular Black Activist

On November 3, 1979, headlines announced the prison break of Shakur, a former Black Panther and a member of the organization’s clandestine offshoot, the Black Liberation Army, or BLA. Convicted in 1977 by an all-white jury for murdering a New Jersey State trooper, with no physical evidence indicating that she had been the shooter, Shakur’s trial had been widely covered in Black media as a symbol of police and FBI efforts to violently repress radical Black movements.

On hearing the news of the escape, one of New York’s oldest Black newspapers, the New York Amsterdam News, elatedly wrote: “they say three brave brothers and a sister went to fetch Assata Shakur from the cold confines of steel and stone where she had been held fast against her will. Who the four were, I know not. But, every Black person knows them and have met them in the collective unconscious mind of the race.”

Listed at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Shakur was extremely popular among poor Black communities. Supporters in New York City and Los Angeles pasted notices on the windows of their homes: “Assata Shakur is welcome here.” However, Shakur was not found for the next five years. In an October 1987 report from Cuba, it was revealed that she was living in Havana, where she had been granted political asylum by the government of Fidel Castro.

Cuba: A Haven for Left-Wing Political Refugees

Shakur’s sanctuary in Cuba was in line with earlier episodes in which Black activists had found asylum there. Many had taken refuge on the island since the early 1960s, including members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, the Black Panther Party, BPP, and the Republic of New Afrika, RNA.

Speaking at Havana’s Chaplin Theater in October 1965, Fidel contrasted Cuba’s status as a haven for left-wing political refugees with the emigration of rich Cubans to the U.S., who were seeking shelter from the radical changes brought about by the revolution. “Although it is true that certain citizens educated in those ideas of the past and in that system of life of the past prefer to go to the United States,” Fidel argued, “it is also true that this country has become the sanctuary of the revolutionaries of this continent.”

He continued: “The revolutionaries of the continent have a right to consider themselves our brothers, and they are worthy of this right. This includes North American revolutionaries, because some leaders, like Robert Williams [leader of the NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, who had formed a Black gun club to help local residents defend themselves against violence from the Ku Klux Klan and white vigilantes], fiercely persecuted there, found asylum in this land. Thus, just as he, so can those being persecuted by reactionaries and exploiters find asylum here. It does not matter if they speak English and were born in the United States. This is the fatherland of the revolutionaries of this continent.”

Shakur greatly admired the internationalist spirit of the Cuban revolution, noting that the Caribbean nation had “a long history of supporting victims of political repression … not only of people in the United States, like Huey Newton, Robert Williams, Eldridge Cleaver … but also people who were victims of political repression in other places, like Chile, the apartheid government of South Africa, Namibia. I felt this was a place that held the principle of international[ism] very close to heart.”

Persistence Amid U.S. Pressure

When New Jersey’s governor announced a $100,000 reward for Shakur’s capture in 1998, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, citing the country’s right as a sovereign nation to provide political sanctuary to foreigners, countered that she was not a criminal but a “well-known civil rights activist” who had fled from state-sponsored violence. As the FBI indefatigably tried to apprehend her, Shakur characterized herself as “a 20th century escaped slave” and described Cuba as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques [communities of formerly enslaved people] that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”

While Fidel has not publicly named Shakur, he once defended Cuba’s provision of political asylum to an unnamed fugitive accused of shooting a New Jersey police officer (undoubtedly Shakur). He characterized the individual as a victim of “the fierce repression against the black movement in the United States” and “a true political prisoner” who had sought protection against persecution. “They wanted to portray her as a terrorist,” Fidel charged, “something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.”

As U.S. foreign policy became hysterically fixated on terrorism, the FBI added Shakur to its “most wanted terrorists” list in May 2013 and increased the reward for her apprehension to $2 million, the “bounty” for Shakur becoming among the highest of any fugitive in the world. Despite this, Cuba has not budged from its principled position.

Since the revolution of 1959, Cuba has ended its ossified dependence on the United States, attempted to steer its societal structures toward socialism and actively supported anti-imperialist liberation movements. This cohesive political agenda has always angered the U.S. empire, whose dictatorial co-conspirator Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee to Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. Ever since then, the U.S. has initiated an economic war, intended to disrupt and sabotage Cuba’s economy. Contemporary sanctions need to be understood in that history of imperialism which has disguised itself in the outfit of “War on Terror” and propagandistically maligned revolutionaries such as Shakur.

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