Havana Is Haven for Fugitive '70s Hijacker

By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 1999; Page A07

HAVANA—Strolling through a farmers' market in his Havana neighborhood on a recent morning, Charlie Hill abruptly made a beeline toward one of the stalls, where a mound of large carrots sat on a wooden table.

"Man! I got to buy some of these. They don't have them year-round. Look at these carrots, man. I am going to go crazy on these," the Illinois native exclaimed before purchasing several and setting his eyes on another rarity at the market: beets. "I've got carrots, and now I'll get some beets to take home, man. This is great."

Given the scarcities here, getting carrots and beets can seem important in Cuba. And Hill has come to know the island well. He is living here in a self-imposed exile that began on a November night 27 years ago when he and two other members of the Republic of New Afrika separatist movement emerged from a desert ditch and hijacked a TWA 727 at gunpoint from an airport in Albuquerque to Havana.

Hill, 49, is one of a half-dozen American hijackers and other fugitives from the 1970s still in Cuba, part of a total of 84 U.S. citizens wanted by the FBI who have sought refuge on the Caribbean island over the years. He lives a life in Havana that he says is free of compunction but not loneliness and homesickness. He owns a ramshackle, one-bedroom apartment with no telephone that the government allowed him to buy 14 years ago, he purchases much of his food and other staples using state-issued ration tickets and he is a morning regular at the local bakery.

Like all Cubans, he has access to free health care and carries a Cuban identification card. He has a Cuban girlfriend and a 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

Hill, who sometimes uses the name Fela Olatunji from his activist days, speaks Spanish with Cuban flair, using colloquialisms unique to this Caribbean island, and he has gone from being an atheist to a believer in the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria. He chain-smokes Cuban cigarettes and relies on infrequent, dilapidated and overcrowded buses to get around the city.

"I often think, 'Yeah, my life could have been a whole lot better,' " he said, "but it could have been a whole lot worse, too."

Hill and his two partners in the hijacking were being sought for the slaying of a New Mexico state trooper who had stopped their car on a remote highway. Authorities called the act coldblooded murder. Hill, while refusing to divulge who pulled the trigger, claims it was self-defense and says that to this day he has no remorse about the fact that the officer, Robert Rosenbloom, lost his life at age 28.

"He had a real John Wayne attitude," Hill said during a series of interviews. "He was also a racist. He was real stupid and that's what got him killed, man." He added: "I have never felt guilty about that cop. I never think about that dude. I wish the whole thing never happened, but I don't feel ashamed."

Large numbers of hijackers from the period when commandeering commercial jetliners reached epidemic proportions have returned to the United States to serve prison terms. The number of hijackings decreased after the Castro government began giving hijackers stiff sentences under a 1973 agreement with Washington.

But Cuba, which has criticized the United States for racial discrimination, has long welcomed black radicals such as Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party who lived in Havana for several years as a fugitive. Assata Shakur--a Black Liberation Army leader also known as Joanne Chesimard who escaped from a New Jersey prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper--has lived in Cuba with her daughter for the past 15 years.

Law enforcement authorities and some lawmakers in the United States have sought to have Hill returned to face charges that are punishable by death. Their efforts, however, have been unsuccessful, since he is in effect shielded from extradition by the hostility between Cuba and its capitalist neighbor to the north.

"He is no different from a common, cowardly thug attempting to avoid prosecution for the murder of a police officer and the hijacking he committed. . . . It repulses me that he would disparage the memory of a fine husband, father and police officer," said Darren White, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.

One of Hill's two accomplices, Michael Finney, formerly of San Francisco, still lives in Havana and works in a state media job. The third suspect, Ralph Lawrence Goodwin of Berkeley, Calif., reportedly drowned in 1973 while swimming at a beach outside Havana.

Hill said that Cuba was supposed to be a "pit stop" to Africa, but the three fugitives stayed. First, they worked cutting sugar cane. "We definitely had a connection with the Cuban revolution, and we heavily related to Fidel and Che," he said, referring to Cuban President Fidel Castro and revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. "The revolution was real, man, and we felt like we were part of the struggle."

Notwithstanding book titles like "Fidel and Malcolm X" that line his living room shelves or a favorite T-shirt emblazoned with the words "The Black Holocaust," much of the revolutionary fervor he had as a member of the Republic of New Afrika is gone as he lives a mundane life doing translation and hanging out with friends.

"I have lost the revolutionary zeal, but not the principles," he said.

For all the familiarity that Hill has developed with Cuban life over the years, he is clearly a man who at times struggles with his outsider status and exudes a wistful sense of nostalgia for the things he likes most about the United States. He spends much of his free time by a radio next to his bed listening to news shows or professional sports games broadcast on stations he can tune in from Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York and Illinois.

"There are still things I miss spiritually about the United States. I also miss things like just going to a party, man, and American sense of humor and my spare ribs," he said. "I would love to have the opportunity to go back because I was born there. It is my country. But I would also like to be able to come back to Cuba because it is in my blood, too."

Hill has battled with alcohol problems over the years, drinking more than a large bottle of rum a day during a period when he felt "out of contact and in a slump."

"Privately, I think, he suffers from the isolation," said Hill's girlfriend, Raiza Marques, 30. "Sometimes, he suffers from pain in his heart and mind."

Hill, who says he is a Vietnam veteran who was discharged for leaving his unit, also has had his share of problems with the law here. He was arrested in 1979 for falsifying currency receipts and served 14 months of a four-year sentence. In 1986, he was jailed for eight months for possession of a marijuana cigarette.

Nevertheless, Hill said he holds no grudges against the Cuban government, to which he feels indebted for allowing him to build a new life. As for his daughter, Hill hopes to get her a U.S. passport so she can live in the United States if she chooses.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company