If anything has shaken me fully free from childhood desires to see the world as a concrete-mould, comprehensible place, a planet where all questions have answers, it has been the time I’ve spent in Cuba. If only I could reach back and tell myself at 12, “Spend some time in Cuba as soon as you can.” It would have saved me all those years I believed that if you were inquiring enough, and had a genuine desire to understand something, facts would offer themselves up as reliable, fixed, and morally clear.
On my first trip to Cuba in 2001 I met Nehanda Abiodun, an American exile who was granted political asylum by Cuba in 1990. My friend Sarah, an American living in Cuba, said in an offhand way that Nehanda “had an interesting story” and invited her to speak with our students, young Americans learning Spanish and Cuban music and dance and creative writing and filmmaking. “Nehanda’s big in the island’s hip hop community,” Sarah elaborated—Sarah’s Cuban boyfriend was a musician—so I anticipated some talk about contemporary Afro-Cuban music.
In walked this revolutionary. A tall, formidable, smooth-moving and intense African-American woman in her 50s, who had, she told us, escaped from the United States when she was #3 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, fled to Cuba with the help of some comrades, and had been living here in semi-hiding since as a political exile. The room went dead silent.
In a parallel universe 25 miles away from the photography shop in New Jersey where I, age 12, had my first passport picture snapped in a red-and-black Esprit sweater that went down to my knees, shit was going down for Nehanda Abiodun in and around Harlem, New York. Back then she was called Cheri Dalton, and she was in hiding after some deep trouble with the law. Then, she was in Cuba, that zone blacked out for Americans. Inside my first passport was a note explaining that the document would not permit me entry to Cuba. So I didn’t go until I thought I could, 17 years later. Nehanda entered passport-less.
Nehanda was wanted for a variety of crimes in connection with a string of armed robberies. Rumour had it that she’d helped notorious fugitive Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, break of out prison in 1979. Assata has also (allegedly) been living in Cuba since Cuba granted her asylum in 1984.
Nehanda was the daughter of a Christian mother, an integrationist, and a Muslim father, a Black Nationalist. For a while her father was Malcolm X’s bodyguard. “So as you can imagine,” Nehanda says now, in an air-conditioned room in the Hotel Florida in Havana, “I grew up confused.”
Cheri Laverne Dalton is wanted for her alleged involvement in the Brinks Armoured Car robbery which occurred on October 21, 1981, in Nanuet, New York. The robbery resulted in the loss of $1.6 million. Two police officers and one security guard were killed, and one police officer and two guards were wounded. On November 17, 1982, a federal grand jury operating in the Southern District of New York returned a superseding indictment charging Dalton with Violations of RICO Statute; Interference with Interstate Commerce by Robbery; Obstruction of Justice; Armed Bank Robbery; Bank Robbery Killings; and Aiding and Abetting.
It’s hard for me to square the FBI narrative with the woman sitting next to me at the bar, in her cute black kicks and jeans with rhinestone pockets, calling me “babygirl” and sipping white rum. It is now May 2016, my sixth trip to Cuba. I am back in Havana to run a new programme, the Cuba Writers Program, which I have launched with my friend Tim. I’d contacted Nehanda to see if she would meet us and share her story. “Done deal,” she wrote back. “I just need one dollar for transport.”
I’ve been thinking about Nehanda a lot this year. The recent loosening of restrictions on US-Cuban relations raises the question of her extradition. Would the US government, in exchange for new policies that benefitted the Cuban people, start applying pressure on the Cuban government to return Nehanda, and other political exiles, to the States? I don’t think Cuba would do that, but no one ever knows what Cuba will do until Cuba does it. (Just ask a Cuban.) But certainly, the media in the US and Cuba has thrown it out there. How far would Cuba go to protect those it had granted political asylum as La Revolución makes way for more permissive capitalism, and reopens a relationship with Fidel’s arch enemy, the United States?
The United States isn’t feeling so much like the enemy these days. President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, in March 2016, two months earlier, was a celebration. Everyone is talking about it. At a Havana art studio I watch an artist do shade work on an elaborate pencil drawing of Obama, dressed as Spiderman, swinging over Havana, shooting webs from his wrists with a confident smile.
“Who do you think would buy this?” I asked the artist. “A Cuban? A tourist?”
He shrugs. “Whoever wants it can buy it,” he replies.
“But if you could imagine the perfect audience for this drawing?”
He shrugs again. “Michelle Obama,” he says. You can see, then, how the drawing comes from love.
The face of Obama appears in new art all over Havana. He has touched nerves. It isn’t just about economic systems, the earning possibilities that an improved relationship with the United States will bring. It is also very much about race.
Some brag that Cuba is a “post-racial” society, but of course racial inequality exists in Cuba. Just after the Revolution, Fidel Castro declared that racism in Cuba was “solved.” Many things did improve for Afro-Cubans after the Revolution, but in some glaring ways they did not. Nehanda mentions, for example, that black Cubans didn’t start leaving the island until the ‘80s. Cubans who fled the Revolution were white, and they were the ones who sent money home to their relatives remaining in Cuba; that money was used to fund the paladars and casas particulares that were the only permissible way to make real money outside the system. Those in power in the Cuban government are overwhelmingly white in a country where two-thirds of its citizens are black or mixed race. Racial profiling—or any profiling based on how you look—is standard and accepted procedure. In the ‘90s, Cubans and tourists could be stopped for walking down the street together. This happened to Sarah and her then-boyfriend Ariel, who is black; he was fined forty dollars, and she, white, faced no consequences. Anyone who has spent significant time in Cuba has a catalogue of stories like that.
Fidel considers any denial of Cuba’s “post-racial” status an affront, making the subject off limits in any public way. But when Cuban citizens assembled to hear Obama make his speech at the Gran Teatro in March, they heard him say that both the US and Cuba have work to do when it comes to racial equality; he admitted that racism was a problem. He said it as a black man with massive amounts of power. That was something revolutionary right there.
“At first I rooted for Obama to be president,” Nehanda says. “Then I was disappointed, very disappointed with some of his policies. But I fell back in love with Obama when he came to Cuba. He was dude when he was in Cuba. He was from the hood! Obama went to a baseball game with his sleeves rolled up and slapped Raúl five.” Nehanda laughs with glee. That slap means more than cordial diplomatic talk.
Nehanda has lost a significant amount of weight since the last time I saw her. When I first scanned the hotel bar for her familiar figure, my eyes grazed over the super-skinny woman with her thin dreadlocks pulled back into a high pony, her torso curved over her glass of white rum. But she looks good. Older—she’s 66 now. I offer her my arm as we make our way down the cracked-cobblestone streets of Old Havana. Older or not, she is a woman who will groove until she meets her maker.
“I’m nervous to meet your group,” she tells me.
I give a commiserating laugh. I know she is serious about her jitters. Still, Nehanda used to, like, rob banks, which seems significantly more nerve-wracking than sitting in a room talking to a group of docile writer-types.
“These writers are completely delightful and one hundred percent un-intimidating,” I assure her.
“Well, we’ll see,” she says, eyes straight ahead. “I’ve talked to some groups who clearly didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”
But we all want to hear. Nehanda’s story is a fascinating lens through which to try to understand Cuba as an American. The ideals for which Nehanda and her comrades have fought are similar to what Fidel and Che fought for, and with which they triumphed, in Cuba. Nehanda’s story pops the idea of the “revolutionary” out of its particular national frame.
Put on the set of glasses through which the dominant American ideology sees the world, and Nehanda is a criminal. It is a hard fact to argue: she broke multiple laws; she committed crimes. During the robbery for which she was arrested, law enforcement officers were killed. Put on another set of glasses, and she is in the company of Comandante Che Guevara, a visionary who saw the injustice of a system and took up arms against it; whose crimes were not only forgiven, but went down in local history as acts of heroism, and whose face is plastered all over the shirts and trinkets non-revolutionary tourists carry home with them, a mark of what’s cool about Cuba.
“I’ll need some water,” Nehanda tells Tim as she settles in at the front of the room. Then she adds, “and if you threw some rum in there, that would be okay.” Tim runs down to the bar for a glass of white rum. Once out of the bottle it looks just like water.
Nehanda doesn’t call it “holding up an armoured car.” She calls it an “ex-appropriation of money that went totally wrong.” 12 were involved in the 1981 robbery, and Nehanda was the only one that got away. She was underground for eight years.
“I didn’t want to come to Cuba,” she says. “But my comrades convinced me. They said, ‘If they capture you it’s a victory for our enemy. But if you get away it’s a victory for us.’ So I came.”
For a year she lived in nice hotels. “Then, I had a tantrum, because I am a spoiled brat. They speeded up my apartment. The government was good to me. They made it possible for my children to come see me.” Here, her expression goes dark. “That,” she said, “was the hardest part. I never forgave myself for having to leave my children.” There are several mothers and fathers participating in the Cuba Writers Program. We all consider this, the unfathomable thought, in silence. I have three kids at home. No way.
Talk turns to her granddaughter, who is graduating this year, and who has visited Nehanda recently. “And she looks just like me when I was that age,” she says. “She is gorgeous.” A woman openly referring to herself as gorgeous? That, too, is revolutionary.
When Cuba became Nehanda’s fate, her community, she offered her name and her work in activism to Cubans she saw in need of empowerment. She arrived at hip hop not because she liked the music, but because she identified the hip hop movement as one of protest. “I am not from the hip hop generation,” she says. “I am old school.” She does some “old school” dance moves in her chair. “But the title, the Grandmother of Cuban Hip Hop, means a great deal to me. Because hip hop is about the history of those who have struggled.”
Afterwards, back to me and her alone on the street, she says she didn’t even need the rum.
“I told you they were nice!” I say.
“They were very nice!” she agrees. We stroll slowly in the stifling heat to a corner where two bicitaxis wait for passengers. Nehanda offers the name of the restaurant near the Capitolio where we are headed for lunch. “Three CUCs,” the first taxista says.
We look American. We are both American. The taxista is profiling us just like the Cuban officials would. Nehanda gives him a look of profound disgust. “It does not cost three dollars to get to the Capitolio,” she says. Then she speaks some Cuban I don’t understand. Her groove is out, her hands and hips waving in protest.
The taxista shrugs. “Three CUCs.”
Nehanda loses her shit. “This is an abuse!” she yells. “I have lived here 20 years! Esto es un abuso!”
Both taxistas are looking uncomfortable now, but the first one doesn’t budge on price, then slowly pushes a pedal until his bicitaxi moves away from us. The other one says quietly, “Two CUCs?” We climb onto the seat. She pats my leg and off we go through the streets of Old Havana.
It’s not about the dollar. I invited her to lunch, and I am paying for the bici. It’s the principle: that people should be fair.
In the global consciousness, Cuba is considered an intelligent nation. Some attribute this to Cuba’s excellent and accessible system of education. This is only part of it.
Another part of it is that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous test of a first-rate intelligence—“the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”—is compulsory in Cuba. All Cubans must accept massive logical conflict as part of their day-to-day life. Its most major institutions are two-sided, ideologically conflicting systems: the legal market and the black market, nationalism and humanism, socialism and capitalism, life as it should be and life as it is. The idea of a spy, a double-agent, is not something of mystery and intrigue in Cuba. Spydom is the norm, the banality of evil.
I know the glasses metaphor might seem lame. But sometimes I feel like I am physically reaching to grab the lenses off my face and replace them with the correct ones, just so I can keep up with the shifting logic of conversational threads in Cuba. This is because I am American, and because there is still a part of me that is 12 years old, expecting things to make sense in an empirical way.
Cuba teaches me not to blink when Nehanda says, “Listen. My mother was bourgeoisie. She used to fly to Paris to buy perfume. I didn’t become a revolutionary to be bad. I did it to end injustices and to have more. I like good things. I like bling. I think everyone should have a BMW. I do. Because it’s a good car.”
Is she scared of what will happen to her, now that US-Cuban relationships are healing? “No, she says. “I’m not scared. I know the Cuban government will protect me. But I’m scared of what will happen to the mind of Cuba. I’ve seen lots of good changes since I’ve been here—with homophobia, questions of gender, and racism. I’ve also seen the youth become extremely materialistic. I’m afraid of what it will do to the thinking of young people.” I hear you, Nehanda. And I’ll square that with the comments on bling and BMWs.
Because I can. The freedom of seeing truth as not black and white is the choice it offers you to declare your own truths.
Here are some truths I have decided are true.
Che Guevara and I would have been friends. He was a good guy. I like him. He’s just so handsome—that picture!—I can’t help myself. And he died too young to prove his revolutionary philosophies wrong.
Under the right circumstances, I have what it takes to be a real revolutionary.
Those circumstances would have to be extreme.
I choose to believe that Nehanda has never killed anyone, that she was only driving the getaway car, because she says she has never killed anyone, and I read somewhere reliable that she was driving the getaway car. I believe that because I can.
You think you need to pick a side. But don’t pick a side. Because at some point in history you will find yourself on the side of being dead wrong.
There is no side.