A black militant's exile
in Castro's Cuba
By ARTHUR ALLEN0 6/22/05,
In a cozy, ramshackle apartment in what used to be the swanky part of Havana, a senior citizen of the black liberation movement waits out an exile linked irrevocably to the fate of Fidel Castro. William Lee Brent, 65-year-old Black Panther and air pirate, is a retiree in Communist Cuba. He has a salt-and- pepper goatee and a swashbuckling gold earring, with gray stubble fighting a comeback on his shaved head. While his longhaired dachshunds Jason and Rufus yip and waddle about, pausing in their frantic rounds to make a mess on the balcony, Brent sits shirtless on his rattan couch looking out at the banyon trees in the park across the street. John Coltrane's "Gentle Side'' plays on the CD player. Down on Quinta Avenida Cubans wheel by on their Chinese-made bicycles, too broke to buy gas in this forlorn but defiant outpost of the fallen Soviet empire. Out past the park lie the beach and the open sea, deep and tantalizing in its infinite blue reach toward the Florida Keys, 90 miles away.
Twenty-seven years ago, Brent shot and wounded three San Francisco police officers in a gunbattle outside the Hall of Justice. Rather than face the California justice system, Brent hopped bail and hijacked a plane to Cuba on June 17, 1969.
The shootout followed a surreal, almost farcical episode at a gas station. Brent and other Panthers had pulled their van into the station to gas up. When Brent opened his jacket to pay, the attendant saw a gun in Brent's waistband, assumed he was being robbed and shoved wads of money at him. High on beer and dexedrine, Brent simply took the money, filled up the van's tank and drove off. The other Panthers weren't even aware of what had gone down until the police started to chase them.
The pictures still play in Brent's mind: the cops running toward his parked van as he crouched and took aim, the cops 20 yards away with drawn guns, the strange sense of calm as he squeezed the trigger -- squeeze, don't pull.
Long Time Gone:
A Black Militant's Exile in Castro's Cuba, page 2
"I have no regrets,'' he says. "I was a soldier at war. I carried a gun because I intended to use it, in my defense or the defense of anyone who was in danger of abuse by the Oakland or San Francisco police. It was nothing in those days for the cops to shoot a Black Panther and claim he was resisting arrest. I have no doubt that if I hadn't gotten them, they'd have gotten me.''
That gunbattle marked the turning point of a rough voyage that took Brent from a poor Louisiana boyhood to exile in Havana's Miramar district. Along the way, as he relates in his vivid new memoir, "Long Time Gone" (Times Books) Brent was a petty grifter and b&e man in Oakland, an army grunt, a prison inmate in California and Cuba, a soldier in the extravagant, marijuana-smoked world of Panther politics, and a bridge between stranded skyjackers and leftie fellow travelers in the American expatriate community of Cuba. Through all this he has remained a lone wolf idealist, burned by experience but still searching for a leader in the fight for black dignity.
I met Brent in late March, a few weeks after Fidel Castro blew two Cuban exile planes out of the sky Feb. 24 in a show of cojones that provoked President Clinton to sign draconian new anti-Cuban legislation. The Helms-Burton bill signed by the president is aimed at paralyzing all trade with Cuba until a government takes office that is to the liking of Sen. Jesse Helms, assuming Helms is still alive -- Castro has a way of outlasting his enemies.
Among the bill's many conditions for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba are the ouster of Fidel and his brother Raul from the government, and the extradition of fugitives to America. At the U.S. Interest Section, a scaffolded enclave in central Havana's Vedado section, officials have a list of 77 fugitives who are believed to be living in Cuba. Brent is No. 10 on the list, which includes 68 air pirates as well as fraudulent businessman and Nixon friend Robert Vesco and Frank Terpil, CIA man gone bad, like Conrad's Kurtz, beyond all reasonable constraint.
On the one hand, the bill might be seen as a blessing for Brent, because it strips Castro of any incentive for returning the fugitives in a deal with Washington. On the other hand, it ties his fate forever to a socialist idyll that soured for Brent long ago. And he's not convinced Fidel wouldn't try to sell him down the river anyway.
"Hey, politics are politics," Brent says. "If he thinks he can get some advantage out of peddling us to the Americans, he'll do it."
When Brent, accompanied by an English-speaking Interior Ministry official, walked off TWA Flight 154 from Oakland Airport onto Cuban soil (he used a .38 special to hijack the plane in that pre-metal detector age), he thought he had arrived in a socialist land of upright men in the mold of Che Guevara. His first discouraging experience came soon after he landed. Rather than being received with open arms as a revolutionary, Brent spent two years in a series of foul- smelling prison cells. Castro's government viewed many hijackers with intense suspicion, suspecting they might be double agents or undesirable criminals. When he got out, the comrades lodged him in "Hijack House," a home for wayward Americans who were fed, watered and clothed under the watchful eye of the government.
Brent worked hard to convince the Cubans he was a dues-paying revolutionary. He proudly cut miles of sugar cane, carted cement at a pig farm, studied Spanish and taught English, and worked as a journalist at Radio Havana. At moments he felt he belonged in the Cuban revolution, but the pettiness and arbitrary dictates of the top-down revolution got on his nerves. Still, "in spite of my great disappointment at the course the Cuban revolution has taken," he writes, "I have not lost my resolve or my dedication to the struggle of my people and the cause of justice and equality for all."
Today, Brent and his wife of 23 years, journalist and fellow radical Jane McManus, make a living doing odd translating and teaching jobs. Brent, born a Baptist, frequents a babalao -- an Afro-Cuban priest whose religion stresses the spirit that lies in things of the earth.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the disappearance of its $8 billion in annual subsidies, Cubans are suddenly hustling to survive in a society where nearly everything is charged in dollars and the average monthly salary is $10. Brent is not sure if the system can survive the crisis. "Cubans have been taught what to think, how to think and why to think. They've been taught to get in line and march,'' he says. "But Fidel has educated so many people that he has difficulty getting them in line. The youth of Cuba support the revolution, but they want change. There are too many old men at the top and young people at the bottom."
In 1993, with his nation's socialist economy in tatters, Fidel and his old comrades in arms began a series of grudging reforms. After being told how to think for years, people were invited to learn how to get by for themselves. 200,000 Cubans were laid off from state jobs; many started their own tiny businesses. Scholars were urged to dream up new economic models to keep the Cuban Revolution afloat. But the period of openness, in which everyday Cubans were apparently allowed to speak their minds as never before, didn't fool Brent. "They give you the green light and you give gas, give gas, but you keep your foot close to the brake pedal cuz down the road you know a red light's gonna pop up and -- eeeerk -- you gotta jump on the brakes."
Sure enough, Fidel jammed on the brakes in late March. The Helms-Burton law provided the pretext to claim that the Revolution was under attack. In the first meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in four years, the leadership charged that a "Trojan horse" of imperialist "fifth columnists" had infiltrated the Cuban media and research centers. Scholars who had been publishing books and articles pushing more liberalization, under the mistaken belief that the Revolution supported them, have abruptly been told their thoughts are no longer wanted. Exchange programs with U.S. scholars have been cancelled. The Big Chill has returned.
Jane, who has lived in Cuba even longer than Brent, is even more glum about the Revolution's prospects. "Revolutionary idealism died a long time ago," she says. Cuba is simply her home, she says. She likes her life with Bill, her friends and her dogs. Unlike Brent, she returns to New York for a three- or four- week visit every year. Brent would like to return to the states. He wants to see his 81-year-old mother, to spend time with his sister Ella and her children. He says that Cuban blacks lack a sense of identity as blacks and continue to face discrimination -- something he feels every time he walks into certain buildings with Jane, who is white, at his side. "They wave me right in and they ask him for his ID," Jane says.
Although he acknowledges that the gun-toting Panthers introduced additional violence into the black community, Brent feels their struggle was justified. No fan of Farrakhan, he admired the organization of the Million Man March and asks, "what would the system have done if those million -- or 400,000 or whatever it was -- brothers had arms in their hands?" He itches for the street buzz back in Oakland. "I miss the rhythms and emotions of the black American liberation struggle."
But the rhythms have changed, grown crazy at times, and Brent is not the only Panther to have strayed off the shining path of the '60s. Bobby Seale, whom Brent served as a bodyguard, is a lecturer and barbecue chef in Philadelphia. Huey Newton, who lived on the lam in Cuba from 1974-77, ended up on the streets of West Oakland, where he died in a soured crack deal in 1989. Of Brent's early compatriots from Hijack House, one has become a babalao, another a disc jockey. Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Liberation Army militant who came to Cuba after breaking out of a New Jersey prison, assumed the name Assata Shakur and is writing her second book. Other hijackers have gone back to America, served several years in prison and returned to normal life. But Brent is too old to contemplate going back to prison, even briefly.
The last few years have witnessed a growing revival of interest in the Black Panthers, reflected in several new Panther biographies and Mario van Peebles' film "Panther." But for Brent, there'll be no book tour. "I still consider the U.S. government the enemy. I've seen nothing to change my opinion of why I took up the struggle in 1968," he says. "And so I doubt that I will ever go back."