Friday, February 19, 2016

Kelly - Critics don’t share Obama’s hope on Cuba

Kelly: Critics don't share Obama's hope on Cuba

The messages and meanings seemed to come from two distinct universes.

As the White House touted on Thursday what it called a "truly historic"
trip to Cuba by President Obama as a symbolic end to a half-century of
Cold War antagonism, critics in New Jersey countered with a nagging

What about first bringing back several notorious fugitives who were
given political asylum in Cuba years ago, including Joanne Chesimard,
who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper, and Guillermo
"Willie" Morales, who is believed to have built a terrorist bomb that
killed a Fair Lawn man?

As with so many questions about the new relationship between the United
States and Cuba, including concerns about Cuba's treatment of dissidents
and its refusal to hold democratic elections, there was no apparent answer.

The White House was silent on what, if anything, Obama intends to say to
Cuban officials about Chesimard, Morales and dozens of other American
fugitives when he arrives in Cuba on March 21 for a two-day visit — the
first by a U.S. president in 88 years.

In New Jersey, where the Chesimard and Morales cases are still felt
deeply, the criticism of Obama was loud, clear and persistent.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrat who has been a vocal critic of Obama's
open-door policy with Cuba, called the president's visit to Havana
"totally unacceptable" and an indication that the White House is not
serious about demanding the return of Chesimard, the only woman on the
FBI's most-wanted list of terrorists.

"I don't think there is the real engagement to try to get Joanne
Chesimard back," Menendez said, singling out the former Black Liberation
Army militant who escaped from a New Jersey women's prison and fled to
Cuba in 1978 after being convicted of the murder of Trooper Werner
Foerster on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Speaking in Union City, at offices of a Cuban group that monitors the
status of political prisoners in the island nation, Menendez accused
Obama of "prioritizing short-term economic interests over long-term and
enduring American values."

The announcement of Obama's stop in Cuba as part of a longer trip to
Argentina was not completely unexpected. Since the White House announced
14 months ago that it was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba
and attempting to end the half-century U.S. economic embargo that began
when Fidel Castro seized American properties and established a communist
dictatorship, many experts predicted that Obama would visit the island
in the final year of his presidency.

But experts also felt both nations might begin to reach an accord on
some of their most nettlesome disagreements first, including the legal
status of Chesimard and other fugitives.

$2M bounty

That Obama will arrive in Havana with Chesimard and Morales living
freely there sparked criticism and disappointment.

Chesimard, for whom there is a $2 million bounty, was considered a
leader in the Black Liberation Army, which carried out a series of
crimes in the 1970s and was linked to the slayings of several police
officers before the gunbattle on the turnpike.

Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist, reportedly built the bomb that blew
up the Revolutionary-era Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan in 1975,
killing four people, including Frank Connor, a 33-year-old bank
executive who lived in Fair Lawn with his wife and two sons.

Reached at her home in Florida where she now lives, Foerster's widow
said she was deeply upset by the news of Obama's trip.

"I just can't talk about it," Rose Foerster said in a brief telephone

Connor's son, Joseph, who lives in Glen Rock, said it was "disgraceful"
for Obama to visit Cuba.

In a text message from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where he
is observing pretrial proceedings in cases involving alleged al Qaida
operatives involved in the 9/11 attacks, Connor called Obama's trip "an
affront to all Americans."

Morales, who was convicted in New York City of other terrorist bombings
on behalf of the Puerto Rican national group Armed Forces of National
Liberation, or FALN, escaped from a prison ward at Bellevue Hospital
Center in New York City in 1979 and made his way to Cuba, where he was
granted political asylum by the Castro regime.

While Morales was never charged with the attack on Fraunces Tavern, an
iconic Manhattan landmark where George Washington bade farewell to his
officers after the American Revolution, police and FBI investigators
believed he made the bomb that blew apart the restaurant during lunch on
Jan. 24, 1975.

Reached in Cuba last September by The Record at his apartment in Havana,
Morales, 65, angrily declined to comment on his asylum or whether he
wants to return to the United States.

Contacted through her attorney, Chesimard, 68, who goes by the name
Assata Shakur, also declined to comment.

Friends in Havana, including American fugitive Cheri Laverne Dalton, 65,
a Black Liberation Army operative who was implicated in the 1981 Brinks
robbery slayings in Nanuet, N.Y., and in Chesimard's prison escape and
who also made her way to Cuba, said Chesimard had gone into hiding since
the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations and was deeply fearful of being
kidnapped and returned to the United States.

Cuban fugitives in U.S.

Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba expert and director of the National Security
Archive at George Washington University in Washington, praised Obama for
the trip.

"The president's trip will accelerate, rather dramatically, the ongoing
process of normalizing overall relations," Kornbluh said. "As part of
the normalization process the legal procedures for future extraditions
may fall into place."

Kornbluh added that Cuban authorities also want to extradite several
fugitives hiding in the United States, including Luis Posada Carriles,
the Cuban dissident and CIA operative who is charged with blowing up a
Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people.

"The issue of fugitives is not a one-way street," Kornbluh said.

But in a letter Thursday to Obama, Christopher Burgos, the president of
the union that represents New Jersey state troopers, called on the
president to "enforce the rule of law" and demand Chesimard's return.

In an interview late Thursday, Burgos, whose State Troopers Fraternal
Association of N.J. represents some 2,000 officers, called the Chesimard
case "an open wound that continues to bleed" for many in law enforcement.

"It cannot be cured with just a Band-Aid," Burgos said. "We need
closure. We need to get her back here."

At the White House, the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes,
briefed journalists for nearly an hour about the merits of Obama's trip
and its impact on future U.S.-Cuba relations. But Rhodes never mentioned
Chesimard or the overall fugitive issue even though he was asked about
it in one multipart question.

Rhodes instead pointed out that since the United States announced it
would try to resume relations with Cuba in December 2014, more political
prisoners have been released by Cuban authorities, travel between the
United States and Cuba has begun to open up and American companies have
begun opening businesses there, including a tractor factory.

Visit defended

Rhodes did not comment on Menendez's remarks, but he singled out similar
criticism of Obama by two GOP presidential candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio
of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who say the United States should hold
back on diplomatic relations and continue the economic embargo until the
Castro regime embraces democratic reforms.

"The long-standing approach that those senators have supported has
failed to produce any results," Rhodes said.

"The Cuban government is still in place. It's not as if, you know, one
more year of the embargo is going to bring transformational change."

Although the White House has pushed for full diplomatic relations with
Cuba, Congress has still left in place a half-century economic embargo
on Cuba.

Ron Kuby, the New York-based civil rights attorney and talk-radio
personality who represents Morales, praised Obama's visit.

"The wall that America put up in the Kennedy administration is
crumbling," Kuby said. "This is another piece of that wall [falling]."

But citing polls that show a majority of Americans favor improved
relations with Cuba, Kuby does not see the fugitive issue being resolved
anytime soon – and certainly not being used as a blockage to improved
ties between the United States and Cuba.

"This is not an issue," he said, "that seems to be capturing the
attention of the American electorate."

Staff Writers Herb Jackson and Kim Lueddeke contributed to this article.

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