Exiled in Havana

With the FBI in pursuit, black activist Nehanda Abiodun a decade ago fled to Cuba, where she still dreams of fomenting a socialist revolution in the United States

Even a casual observer in Havana would notice the striking disconnect between the slogans emblazoned on billboards across the city and the actual mood of the Cuban people who pass underneath them. “Imperialists, You Don't Scare Us at All!” reads one towering graphic depicting a Cuban soldier facing off against a Godzilla-like Uncle Sam. Elsewhere “Socialism or Death” banners compete with stirring admonitions to follow the life example of Che Guevara, a man who once declared that had it been his finger on the button during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he would have gladly launched a nuclear salvo northward.

Foreign analysts may debate the vitality of Fidel Castro's regime and the actual dangers it poses to the United States. What's clear, however, is that Cubans themselves have very different attitudes from those of el jefe when it comes to their Yankee neighbor and his culture.

On a Saturday night this past June, movie theaters across Havana were packed with Cubans soaking up the finest mayhem American directors had to offer: from the feminist road-trip flick Thelma and Louise and the thriller Double Jeopardy to Bruce Willis as an amoral hired gun in Last Man Standing and Brian De Palma's classic splatterfest Carrie. For those who chose to stay in, the late show on Cuban state television offered, unedited, the HBO mobster biopic Gotti.

Black Liberation Army cause célèbre Assata Shakur (center) during her 1973 trial for  the murder of a New Jersey state trooper
AP/Wide World Photo
Black Liberation Army cause célèbre Assata Shakur (center) during her 1973 trial for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper

It's hardly a coincidence that the films passing official muster shared an implicit message: Life in America is nasty, brutish, and short -- and in the case of Carrie, an unappetizing place for little Elian to attend high school. Still the Cuban people seem to be deriving other unintended lessons from these movies, at least if their growing mania for designer fashions, electronic gadgets, and U.S. pop music is any indication.

Nehanda Abiodun is quite familiar with this Cuban phenomenon. She has lived in Havana for the past ten years as a political exile from the United States (that's her term; the FBI prefers the phrase “fugitive from U.S. justice”), long enough to bemoan the city's younger generation. “They watch these movies from the United States, and they see sixteen-year-old kids who have cell phones, cars, computers, all the trappings,” she said with a sigh during a recent interview on the eastern outskirts of Havana. “So they wanna know, “Why don't we have that?'”

At age 50 Abiodun has a lifetime of social activism behind her -- from a Harlem childhood spent listening firsthand to the speeches of Malcolm X on through the civil-rights and black-power movements of the turbulent Sixties and early Seventies. Through it all, even when the conservative cultural chill of the Reagan years should have tested her faith, she believed steadfastly that the kind of revolution that transformed Cuba also would come to the United States. So the attraction of Cuban youths to the glitter of American wealth doesn't sit well with her.

“This younger generation doesn't know what it took to get to this point,” Abiodun lamented, “where you don't have to worry about a drive-by [shootings], where you don't have to worry about getting your teeth fixed, where you don't have to worry about paying for college.”

Her lament over materialism, however, seemed aimed almost as much at the current state of American society as at Cuba's. When she first arrived on the island in 1990 and received political asylum, Abiodun viewed the stay as a tactical move, a pit stop in her efforts to realize “the revolution” back home and a place to regroup in a land that would treat her as an ally. “I never decided to come down here; it was decided for me,” she said, referring obliquely to her notorious presence in the early Eighties on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted list.

Since 1981 she'd been living underground, pursued across the United States by the FBI on charges of armed robbery, murder, racketeering, and federal conspiracy in connection with a string of armored-car holdups in the New York City area. She was wanted as well on charges connected to the 1979 New Jersey jailbreak of Black Liberation Army figurehead Assata Shakur, who had been convicted of charges stemming from the murder of a police officer in 1973. (Shakur also was granted political asylum by Cuba and lives there today, though she recently has gone into hiding.)

The FBI alleges that Abiodun was part of a group that came into being in late 1978 and originally called itself simply “the Family.” According to court records and statements from captured members who became informers, the Family's ranks consisted of some two dozen people, both blacks and whites, most of whom had cultivated their ideological fervor as members of groups such as the Sixties-era Black Panther Party and its offshoot, the Black Liberation Army; the Republic of New Afrika; and the Weather Underground.

It was a seemingly odd birth date. By 1978 those militant groups, and the cultural tenor that produced them, had long been moribund. For most Sixties survivors, the era was just that: a period they'd survived, learned from, and moved beyond. Indeed those who remained with the Panthers were devoting their energies to political campaigns in the San Francisco Bay area. By then Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver had returned from Algerian exile to face charges from a 1968 shootout with police, telling the New York Times: “I think a situation now exists in this country where I can have my day in court.... Anyone who hasn't changed their views since 1968 is in trouble.”

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