Americans Take Refuge in Cuba

By David Abel  |  The Baltimore Sun  |  10/01/1998

HAVANA -- Some came for love. Others to flee the reach of U.S. justice. And some were seeking Utopia.

Susan Hurlich's pilgrimage blended the three. The Boston native, 53, a devout communist, fled her home in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969 to help a boyfriend escape the Vietnam War draft. Her havens included a home in Canada and development missions throughout southern Africa. She worked for a time with the Ernesto "Che" Guevara brigade, building hospitals in Angola, a Marxist ally of Cuba.

Along the way she married a Cuban, and she settled here permanently in 1992, when other communist states were collapsing.

She has promised never again to live in the United States. "I was embarrassed to be an American," Hurlich says. "I knew there had to be a more human, equal and just system." Today the gray-haired "anthropological journalist," as she describes herself, navigates Cuba's pot-holed streets on a Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycle.

According to officials at the U.S. Interests Section, the Havana office that acts in place of an embassy, 2,000 to 3,000 Americans live in Cuba -- a mere handful in a nation of 11 million, considering that only 90 miles separate the countries.

Most U.S. citizens here are the children of Cuban parents who were living in the United States when they were born. Americans born to American parents, such as Hurlich, are much fewer. Officials at the Interests Section, which ironically has the island's largest foreign diplomatic staff with 290 personnel, say they don't see much of the U.S. expatriates, who unlike American expatriates elsewhere, tend to steer clear of their country's representatives.

While the law does not explicitly prohibit Americans from living in Cuba, the Trading with the Enemy Act bans U.S. citizens from spending money in Cuba. A select few, including journalists, academics, religious persons and Cuban Americans, are permitted to visit the island.

Before it fizzled out in the 1980s, there was an organized group of Americans here. Some were members of the U.S. Communist Party, others leftist writers or English teachers. They numbered about 30, and they called themselves the Union of North American Residents. On May 1 -- International Workers Day, a holiday in communist countries -- they would march under the Stars and Stripes in Havana parades.

"The one thing we all had in common was our respect and unbridled admiration for Fidel Castro," wrote William Lee Brent in his autobiography "Long Time Gone." Brent, a former member of the Black Panther Party, came to Cuba from Oakland, Calif., in a TWA airliner that he hijacked in 1969.

"The union [of American expatriates] supported the Cuban revolution with words and deeds," Brent wrote. It "held solidarity meetings with other unions, organized Marxist-Leninist study groups and sent messages of support to political prisoners in the States."

Like many of the U.S. citizens still living in Cuba, Brent, who is wanted in the United States on charges stemming from a shootout with San Francisco police, is reluctant to be interviewed. But unlike many of the others, he is not eager to see the 30-year-old U.S. embargo lifted. The former air pirate is one of about 90 U.S. fugitives living under the diplomatic aegis of Cuba.

Other prominent outlaws wanted in the United States include Robert Vesco, a wealthy U.S. financier indicted for illegal cash contributions of $250,000 to Richard M. Nixon's 1972 presidential re-election campaign, and Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who escaped from a New Jersey jail in 1984 after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.

Brent, 67, lives quietly in the capital with his American wife. For years he cut sugar cane, hauled cement at a pig farm, labored at a soap factory and taught English. He understands that his future and that of other fugitives hinges on the conflict between Fidel Castro's communist government and the United States. A reconciliation between the two countries, which have no extradition treaties, could allow a federal marshal to escort him to a U.S. prison.

"Politics are politics," he says. "If he [Castro] thinks he can get some advantage out of peddling us to the Americans, he'll do it."

Some expatriates will never go back. Lorna Burdsall, a white-haired grandmother who has lived in Cuba since before the revolution, has too much invested in the tropical island.

The 70-year-old daughter of a wealthy Connecticut doctor, whose family's roots trace to the American Revolution, Burdsall quit a fellowship as a dance student at New York's Juilliard School in 1955 and boarded a plane with her new husband, a Columbia business student, to an island she had never visited.

Soon she was pregnant and her husband, Manuel Pineiro, had gone to the eastern end of the island to fight in the Sierra Maestra with Castro's guerrillas. He later was Cuba's top spy for more 30 years. Though Burdsall and Pineiro were divorced more than 20 years ago, she continued to raise her children on the tropical island, and eventually became the director of Cuba's Modern Dance Company.

"Cuba is my home," she says. "This is where my life is."

Hurlich says she too is likely settled here for good, but she frequently returns to the United States for visits. "I have a lot of friends that I miss, and that makes it hard," she says. "There are also not enough good bookstores. I miss bookstores."

But she has "human" reasons to value Cuba. "I have never found a stronger sense of collectivism -- people helping people," she says. "There's no price for that. I don't think you can find the same sort of community feeling in the United States.

In her second-floor apartment in the capital's once-exclusive Miramar district, paint peels off the walls and an old Soviet television flickers with an afternoon soap opera. Issues of Granma, the Communist Party's official newspaper, and Bohemia, a venerable magazine long ago taken over by Castro's government, are stacked neatly on a glass table.

Living in an economically devastated country, Hurlich acknowledges, is a daily struggle. But Cuba, she says, has less violence, free medical care and a strong community of caring people.

"This is not the United States," she says. "Things are done differently. You can't think of what you lack by being here; you always gain something living abroad."

Copyright, The Baltimore Sun