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

(FBI spokesman Jim Margolin said charges against Abiodun are still standing but further investigation has ended. The Cuban government has not commented publicly on her status in that nation. Abiodun says she is officially classified as a “temporary resident.”)

Not all of Abiodun's underground compatriots are quite so comfortable with their pasts. Alan Berkman was a doctor indicted as an accessory after the fact in the Brinks robbery case, accused of treating one of the Family member's gunshot wounds. Berkman jumped bail and, according to authorities, was involved in the armed robbery of a Connecticut supermarket, as well as several bombings of government buildings between 1983 and 1985. Caught in 1985, he served time for the robbery and possession of explosives. In 1994, after his release, he told the New York Times: “We made some really bad decisions, and I don't want to justify them. And if you remove the context of the times, then we were crazed people.... We were trying to make radical change in a nonradical time. We became desperate and kept going further out on the limb.”

Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Brett Sokol
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Brett Sokol
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana

The lobby of the Hotel Panamericano is a fitting place to ponder the schizophrenic nature of present-day Cuba. Located to the east of Havana, the hotel sits in the heart of the sprawling Panamericano complex, originally built for the 1991 Pan American Games, a grand stage for socialist Cuba to trumpet its achievements. Less than a decade later, buildings that once hosted visiting athletes serve as housing blocks, and like many of the nation's recent construction projects, they're already crumbling.

It was on August 18, 1991, the last day of the games, that Boris Yeltsin took power in the Soviet Union. During the previous two years, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern European nations of the Soviet bloc splintered, the massive economic subsidies that had kept Cuba's economy afloat shrank drastically. With Yeltsin's ascent that aid disappeared completely. The “special period” of austerity, inaugurated in 1990, worsened dramatically: Everyday staples, such as butter and toilet paper, vanished from store shelves. Oil imports dried up, and with them electricity and gasoline. Rolling blackouts became common, and bicycles took pre-eminence as a mode of urban transport.

Castro's solution to this state of near-total social collapse was to turn his embrace of foreign investment, private enterprise, and tourism into a desperate bear hug. Thus even while he decried the collapse of Soviet communism and vowed he would brook no Gorbachev-style perestroika, he opened up Cuba to more international influence than at any point since 1959.

At the Panamericano in June 2000, that economic stimulation meant that Nehanda Abiodun's voice and her declarations on the revolution were forced to compete with the sound of a television in the adjoining bar. Thanks to a satellite hookup, ubiquitous at Havana's hotels, VH1's Pop-Up Video blared out a caterwauling Bon Jovi tune that made for a surreal counterpoint to the paperback copy of Penny Lernoux's Cry of the People that Abiodun cradled in her lap.

“We all complain here in Cuba, all of us,” she said, discussing how neighbors in her apartment building felt about the evolution of the revolution. “I woke up today and my water was coming out of my pipes green -- what the hell is this? Or I'm at my computer and the lights go out!” She flashed a good-natured look of exasperation and continued, “We all complain but there is a very minute segment of the population here -- I mean, microminute -- that wants to see a change here. The majority of the people, regardless of how much they complain, are in support of this process.”

At mention of reports of repression of dissidents and independent journalists, her expression grew stern. And as for freedom of speech, in particular, she said pointedly: “When the United States is at war, does it not control the press? If you look at the enemies of Cuba, the United States government, and -- I put them on equal standing -- the Miami Cubans, they are waiting for this process to change. They've got their bags packed, okay? They have really contributed to what some people might call lack of freedoms. Stop the war against Cuba and then criticize.”

But what about the steady stream of Cubans so desperate for a better life they're willing to hire smugglers to carry them across the Florida Straits? “It's economics, clearly economics,” she said of the draw northward. “If you were to talk to the majority of the people who have decided to take to the sea, once they touch soil they will tell you: 'It's not that we're against these policies. It's just that we want to live better. You know, we're tired of struggling.'” And here she slapped her palm against her thigh with each word: “'But that does not mean we do not support this socialist process.'”

Presented with quotes from new Cuban arrivals to South Florida who certainly are not enamored of the “socialist process,” Abiodun grew visibly annoyed, as if her patience for debate had reached its end. “I'll be honest with you. My position is, those who want to go should go,” she snapped. “If you're in a place that you don't like, you're dead weight.”

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