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.
"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
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
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."