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Washington Post Foreign Service
Fugitives Sought By U.S. Find A Protector In Cuba
Administration Ties Return of Felons to Anti-Terror Effort
By Mary Jordan
September 2, 2002
HAVANA -- Guillermo Morales is a fugitive on the run from the FBI, but at this particular moment he is sipping a cappuccino in a chic hotel lobby in Havana.
Nine and a half of his fingers are gone, blown to bits by a bomb he was making in New York in 1978, but he manages to open a packet of sugar and stir it into his coffee. On the lam for 23 years, he has cleverly learned how to live with what remains of his hands and his life.
The convicted felon was facing 89 years in prison for illegal possession of firearms when he escaped from a New York hospital in 1979 while under police custody. A member of a militant Puerto Rican separatist movement that was planting bombs all over New York, he was in jail at Rikers Island when he was sent to Bellevue Hospital to be outfitted with artificial hands.
His escape, on a rope made from elastic bandages dangled down three stories, was one of the most publicized in U.S. history. After life underground in the United States and five dark years in a Mexican prison, he eventually came ashore on this communist island, where he lives a comfortable seaside life as President Fidel Castro's guest.
Cuba has long protected fugitives on the run from U.S. authorities, and it now protects more than 70 of them. While Washington has always wanted them returned, the Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about the issue, tying it to its global offensive against terrorism.
The State Department includes Cuba on its list of countries supporting terrorism, partly because the United States says Cuba harbors people involved in rebel groups from Colombia, Spain and elsewhere. Washington also calls Castro a terrorist for harboring Morales and other outlaws from the United States.
Cuban officials say those on their soil are not terrorists. They say, for example, that Colombian rebels living here have been key participants in peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana in recent months.
Officials here also say the only Americans they protect are those who deserve protection. Earlier this year, they point out, they turned over to the FBI two people: Jessie James Bell, wanted in the District on narcotics charges, and William Joseph Harris, wanted in Georgia on child-molestation charges.
Cuba does welcome those it contends were unfairly prosecuted in the United States, officials said. They include people considered to be freedom fighters -- such as Morales, who believes Puerto Rico should be independent.
A spokesman for the Cuban government, who asked not to be identified, said Cuba would be willing to consider a mutual extradition of fugitives.
"Cuba would be willing to negotiate on this issue as an issue of equity," the official said. "There are many people who have committed crimes in Cuba who are living in the United States."
The official specifically said Cuban authorities want Orlando Bosch, a Miami pediatrician accused of blowing up an airliner in 1976. The blast killed 73 people traveling from Venezuela to Cuba. Bosch is a militant foe of Castro who has been convicted of other violent acts against Cuba, including one involving a bazooka, and he is a hero to anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami.
After serving more than a decade in a Venezuelan prison, Bosch was acquitted in the plane bombing. Later he said the plane was "a warplane, because Cuban airlines are not tourist lines. . . . In that plane, there were 27 members of the Cuban DGI [intelligence service] and seven North Korean diplomats." Two dozen Cuban athletes also perished on the plane.
Cuban officials say the Bush administration will not give up Bosch or others supported by the politically potent Cuban exiles in Florida. That means the current stalemate will continue, with President Bush receiving ovations for anti-Castro speeches in Miami and Castro lapping up cheers at huge outdoor rallies here decrying Bush, Bosch and those he calls terrorists in Miami.
As the political powers thunder on, Morales and other fugitives live quietly on Havana's sun-cracked streets.
"Only once I met Fidel Castro," Morales said. "It was at a reception and I said to him, 'Thank you.' "
JoAnne Chesimard, another U.S. fugitive, is even listed in the Havana phone directory. Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, was a Black Panther member convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She claimed she was unfairly convicted by an all-white jury. After breaking out of jail in 1979, she made her way to Cuba.
As Cuban musicians in traditional white guayabera shirts serenaded visiting honeymooners in the hotel lobby, Morales said he recognized that he lives free because of the strained relations between his former country and his new one. "Everyone else is afraid of the American empire," he said. "Anywhere else I would go they would turn me over."
Now graying and 52, he looks different than he did in the "wanted" posters that were displayed in thousands of U.S. post offices after he shimmied out of the hospital in New York more than two decades ago. He works as a correspondent for a small, pro-independence Puerto Rican newspaper and moves around this steamy capital in a 17-year-old Soviet-made Lada car.
In the sunny lobby of the Parque Central hotel, surrounded by Americans breaking the U.S. ban on tourist travel to Cuba, Morales described his odyssey here in his still-heavy New York accent. On that long-ago 1978 night, he said, he was aiming to place a bomb in a military installation in New York when it blew up in his face, which still bears scars. He said he did not intend to hurt anyone, simply to destroy government property as a protest.
He was caught, tried and sentenced by a federal judge to 10 years in prison. Morales does not deny his guilt, and he said that at 29, he was willing to "take responsibility" and serve his sentence.
But he said that after the conviction, state prosecutors brought additional charges that carried a maximum sentence of 89 years in prison. He said the prosecution had turned political, so he decided to flee.
He eventually landed in Mexico, where he joined an anti-government rebel group that was involved in killing a Mexican police officer. He was arrested and spent five years in prison, where he said he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He said the only light moment of his years in Mexico was watching a video of a 1986 Robert Redford movie, "Legal Eagles," and seeing his own wanted poster in the background of one of the scenes.
When he completed his term in 1988, the Mexican government allowed Morales to slip away to Cuba rather than sending him back to the United States. Washington was so furious that the U.S. ambassador was recalled.
Morales is now married to a Cuban woman and they have a 5-year-old son. He said his only contact with U.S. authorities is an occasional chance meeting with diplomats stationed in Havana, who recognize him but do not speak to him.
President Bill Clinton in 1999 pardoned 16 members of Morales's former separatist group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which had been linked to numerous attacks, including the bombing of a Wall Street tavern that killed four and injured dozens. Morales's former girlfriend was among those pardoned, but Morales was not.