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

Abiodun is hoping this kind of publicity will mushroom, allowing U.S. blacks to begin to see themselves as New Afrikans who need to struggle for their own land -- the Republic of New Afrika -- if they're going to be truly free. “Black August is a tool to raise the consciousness of young people,” she explained, “not necessarily to train them to wage armed struggle but to be conscious of their rights. Even if you're not a victim of repression, it's like that old adage: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.”

Some of that consciousness-raising may still be needed back in Alamar. This past June, as about 200 people milled outside the pool building waiting for the rap show to start, one Cuban fan sauntered over to Abiodun, who was standing with some friends. After ostentatiously whipping out a thick roll of U.S. dollars, he was soon explaining in his best approximation of an American player's patois that he was from “Minneapolis-Boston,” a mack daddy “raised in the South.” Abiodun was not amused, particularly when he asked her where in America she was from.

“I'm a New Afrikan,” she replied icily, her chin thrust out.

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

Dinnertime at Abiodun's Havana apartment is a humble affair, easily dispelling any notion that she lives some form of gilded exile. In fact the walk to her dilapidated building reveals a neighborhood that looks eerily similar to the tenement complexes in America's inner cities, complete with stray dogs meandering through the trash strewn along the adjoining alleys. As the sounds of music and cooking waft out of windows, though, the feeling in the air is one more of resilience than despair.

Abiodun swung by the local community center where her Cuban boyfriend, Mario -- her partner for the bulk of her time on the island -- was shooting pool on a battered table alongside several other local men. After he finished his last few shots, the two headed home.

Up several flights of stairs, their apartment is small but tidy. The living room is full of family pictures, but it's obvious the couple enjoys little in the way of creature comforts. Abiodun has an old computer for typing essays for U.S. publications such as the cultural journal BLU and the hip-hop magazine Stress, but there's no phone (she relies on a neighbor to relay messages). A CD from a New Orleans jazz band is on display, but there's no CD player on which to hear it. The water wasn't running at all that June day, and an open balcony door provided little relief from the stifling summer heat.

As Mario stood in the kitchen slicing mangoes, Abiodun noted that he's the one with public notoriety. Featured on a Sunday-afternoon televised dance competition a few years ago, Mario won time after time, returning to the show each week for almost twelve months. He remains something of a celebrity, often recognized in the street. “My fame isn't because I'm me,” Abiodun joked, “it's because I'm hooked up with Mario.” She imitated the offhand greeting she often receives: “Oh, you Mario's woman.”

To some American critics, however, even this modest existence is an affront. So far the bulk of their anger has largely focused on Assata Shakur. A September 1998 U.S. House of Representatives resolution, cosponsored by Miami Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, demanded her extradition. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman upped the level of saber-rattling, offering a $100,000 reward for Shakur's return, even advertising the sum on Radio Martí broadcasts into Cuba. Shakur apparently has taken the bounty on her head seriously: She is now underground, even in Cuba -- her location known only to the government and a few close friends who say she moves constantly.

Miami's Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the most prominent Cuban-exile lobbying organization in Washington, D.C., has tried to make Abiodun, Shakur, and the 75 other individuals in Cuba wanted by the FBI (from William Lee Brent and Republic of New Afrika member Michael Finney to notorious financier Robert Vesco) an election issue, as well as a wedge against growing congressional support to lift the U.S. embargo against the island. Besides trying to drum up support for a House bill that would link any loosening of the embargo to the extradition of fugitives such as Shakur and Abiodun, CANF also has created a television commercial featuring Assata Shakur, branding her a “cop killer” harbored by Castro.

Abiodun said she approached the Cuban government to see if the growing Stateside clamor was having any effect on Abiodun and Shakur's asylum status: “This sassy-assed woman went right up to [Cuban officials] and asked, “This is what they're saying. So what's up?' I sat down and talked with them, and I feel comfortable that they will not [extradite us].”

Abiodun also said she considers the failures of the Family and its predecessors to be less ideological than tactical. “If I had it to do over again” -- she quickly corrected herself -- “if we had it to do over again, we would be more conscious of having a strong, rooted, community grassroots organization that would be able to support [underground] activities.” And activists, she stressed, still need to be willing to take up arms.

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