By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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"Almost the only thing I knew about Cuba was Che Guevara," Finney adds. "My ideological understanding about radical politics was not that old."
Cuba, on the other hand, was well acquainted with foreign radicals, especially two of America's most wanted black militants, Black Panthers Tony Bryant and Eldridge Cleaver. Bryant, who hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1969, spent nearly a dozen years in a Cuban jail before returning to the United States to face a possible life sentence. "Communism is humanity's vomit," he said upon his return to the U.S. "Wipe it out." Cleaver, once the Black Panthers' minister of information and author of the then-celebrated autobiography Soul on Ice, spent only eight months as a fugitive in Cuba during a seven-year international odyssey. Eventually Cleaver returned to California and served ten years in prison for assault with intent to commit murder, a charge that stemmed from a shoot-out between activists and Oakland police. Cleaver, too, is now a born-again Christian, an avowed anti-Communist, and a Republican who even staged an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Cleaver was quoted by a reporter in 1986 as saying, "The oppression of the United States was nothing compared to that of countries like Cuba and North Korea. In Cuba we wore fatigues and grew beards as revolutionary gestures, but I began to realize that the people viewed those fatigues as a symbol of repression."
"We suffered a lot of flak for Cleaver's visit," says Finney. "He was known to be a sexist, machista, abusive individual. It was him who left a bad name for those who came behind him." Other hijackers, he adds, have caused trouble for the Cuban government over the years, some through political protests, but most through a failure to adjust to life on the island.
After six weeks in the state security department cell, the three hijackers were transported to a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of Havana. "I walked inside and there was this real fine-looking Asian chick coming down the stairs. I was standing there wondering what to say to her when she smiled and said, `Hi,' asked us how we were doing, in perfect English. She was American."
And like Finney, she was a hijacker. For the next several years Finney lived in the mansion with between 30 and 40 of his fellow fugitives, about half of whom were Americans. Finney, Goodwin, and Hill began working almost immediately, cutting cane in the sugar fields. Six months later, they switched to construction work. Finney and his partners asked to be sent to Africa to help with anti-colonial struggles there, but they had no American passports. (Friends of Finney's say one exile managed to slip off to Jamaica, but he was discovered and beaten to death by Jamaican police.)
"Adapting to the profoundly different world of Cuba, and accepting the idea that this was our permanent home, was very difficult," Finney says. "Being a hijacker was a stigma. [The Cuban government] didn't want people hijacking planes to Cuba."
In the early Eighties he married, but that relationship only lasted a year and a half. Finney blames his own restlessness. He began taking college history courses in 1980, but dropped out in 1983. That same year, he tried to leave the island. "We made a serious effort to leave - me and [Charlie Hill] one of the brothers that came down with me," he says. "We weren't sure exactly where we were heading - not from a real heavy sense of frustration but from a clear kind of unemotional sense that there was nowhere to go, there was no room to move here. We didn't see ourselves as capable of living normal lives here."
The attempt, which entailed a trip to another Caribbean island Finney refuses to identify, wasn't successful. "Immigration authorities in the country we went to did not accept our documentation - in fact there was a lot of suspicion since we had come from Cuba, and we were sent back to Havana the same day."
After the initial frustration of being sent back to the island, Finney says, it finally began to sink in that he wasn't going anywhere - at least for the time being - and that he had to try to make the best of the life he was living. In the mid-Seventies Finney had moved from the halfway house for hijackers into a hotel; due to Cuba's severe housing shortage, he spent the next ten years living in a series of hotel rooms. In 1985 a law was passed that stipulated that all permanent hotel residents were entitled to apartments of their own, and Finney moved into his own place. The following year, after having worked at jobs he saw as "temporary," he was finally given the radio announcer's position.
Life on the island has involved more than just the ordinary red tape. As part of Cuba's compulsory AIDS testing program, he was notified that he had been selected for screening, most likely because of his frequent contacts with Americans, who are considered a high-risk group in Cuba. He ignored that notice, he says, as well as several others that followed. Finally a state official showed up while Finney was at work and checked him into a hospital for testing.