Exclusive interview of Assata Shakur with
Elombe Brath and Rosemari Mealy
In Black World Today
21 January 1997
Rosemari Mealy: Many individuals
who have been most hostile toward the Cuban Revolution have also
been some of the first to criticize the Vatican's visit to Havana.
Curiously, some other groups purporting to represent the New Jersey
(NJ) police have attempted to have you extradited back to the U.S.
Is your open letter in response to those news reports which were
circulated last month to this effect?
Assata Shakur: This open letter
is a response to that specific event, but it is a response to a
large issue, which is the issue of police brutality; of repression.
I have nothing whatsoever to say to the NJ State Police. I don't
believe that they deserve a response since they sneakily wrote a
letter to the Pope and refused to publish it or to assert publicly
what their inntentions were. I felt that I had to tell the Pope
about my reality, and to talk about the reality in which I grew
up, and in which my people are still living.
RM: I assume then that you found
yourself in a unique situation. While as an internationalist, living
in a country where the Pope is visiting, you also had access to
having your letter delivered direct- ly to him. This was something
that most of us would never dream possible.
AS: That's absolutely correct.
When I was in prison they would say and accuse me of all kinds of
things, I was not able to answer. I was not able to defend myself.
I felt that since I could answer, and I could speak to the Pope,
that I needed to do that. Again, I want to reiterate, I don't feel
that I am talking for myself, but I think that there are many sisters
and brothers who are in my same condition whether it's in exile,
whether it's in prison. Therefore, I think I have done a duty to
them to try to do all that I can. This goes especially to the case
of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is facing death. We must work and do everything
possible to ensure Mumia's release and to bring him back into the
community where he is so desperately needed...
RM: With the Pope's arrival, the
news in this country is inundated by perspectives from exiles and
others who are ignorant of Cuba's revolutionary achievements. Having
lived and visited there myself, I see how the airwaves and TV cameras
have attempted to present Cuba as an island without hope or soul.
From your perspective, and from the observations made within your
own community, what are the sentiments as you see them expressed?
AS: I think people are certainly
very interested in hearing what the Pope has to say. I think that
people in Cuba, in general, are intere- sted in spirituality, and
spirituality as it relates to social justice. The Pope has made
many statements recently which have dealt very much with the current
issues that people are facing around the world..I think that the
Pope has turned over a new leaf or gown, and that the whole so-called
Cold War Era is coming to an end. I think that people are seeing
that the construction of socialism and the practicing of religion
has become more and more interactive.
These two things are not contradictory by any means.
The construction of socialism and the practicing of religion are
more complementary than contradictory. People in Havana seem to
be chilling out and enjoying the day,and feeling hopeful, because
the people in Miami who have been so critical of the Revolution,
who have been doing everything to promote counterrevolution are
certainly not popular here. People do not see them as the bearers
of religion, and they can no longer use religion to hide their counterrevolutionary
Elombe Brath: One of the things
being projected here relates to the big media spin regarding religion
in Cuba. Yet you would think that with the Pope visiting, they would
have to admit that it's not just Catholicism that exists in Cuba.
A variety of denominations exist such as the Assemblies of God,
the Protestants, and the Pentecostals, the Baptists and also Santeria.
Gloria Rolando's recent film, "Eyes on the Rainbow" in
which you are subject, presented a very personal side of you showing
that you have become more orientated toward our traditional African
religion. What could you say about religion in Cuba?
AS: In the early 1990's, the Cuban
Communist Party changed its position on religion, even though Cuba
never discriminated against those who practiced religion. Inside
of the party, people who had religious beliefs were not admitted.
The party admitted that this was an error and began admitting people
with religious beliefs and others who were already in the party
and had practiced their beliefs clan- destinely came out of the
closet so to speak. This made for a healthy situation. I believe
that the spirituality is one of the things which has helped the
religion to survive.
During all of the political struggles of Cuba going
back to the struggles against Spanish colonialism, religion has
been a very important factor, especially the African religions.
Africans who practiced those religious beliefs during the war for
independence in those tightly knit religious houses, where they
worked secretly to preserve the African rituals were able to secretly
and clandestinely move to plot the war for independence against
Spain. And the same things happened with the revolution that triumphed
in 1959. Religion has been a very important part in my opinion of
the Cuban revolutionary spirit. These times are very crucial in
terms of religion and are more and more being divided along the
lines of whether you are on the side of the oppressed or oppressor
...whether you are on the side of pomp and circumstance or whether
you are on the side of those who have nothing.
EB: Assata, how would you directly
address how the people in the United States can respond to your
AS: I think the first thing that
people need to do is to become involved. I believe that the only
way that people like myself and others who are in prison or exiled
will ever be "safe" is for people to build a strong movement
around the issue of political repression. We must build a strong
movement to free political prisoners. In conjunction, we must build
a strong movement for amnesty for all of those people -those political
activists -who were victimized by COINTELPRO...We must demand freedom
and amnesty for our political prisoners.