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HAVANA, CUBA—Pope Francis brokered a deal between the Obama administration and Cuba leader Raul Castro, helping to thaw relations between Cuba and the USA.
"I have instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since 1961," wrote President Barack Obama in a mass e-mail.
Obama also called for Kerry "to review Cuba's desiganation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism," and promised "to take steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information," between the two nations.
The deal also provided for an exchange of a handful of prisoners, including a former American spy who was jailed for nearly two decades.
But the deal is not without its critics, including some who are still concerned about an activist who escaped prison 35 years ago and fled to Cuba after being convicted of killing a NJ State Trooper in East Brunswick.
Many Cuban-Americans in positions of power such as US Senator Bob Menendez and NJ Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto have been critical of the deal as too deferential to the Cuban regime of Raul Castro.
In defense of the move, Obama asserted, "These changes don't constitute a reward or a concession to Cuba. We are making them because it will spur change among the people of Cuba, and that is our main objective."
But other institutions, including the New Jersey State Police, and their supporters, hope that this restoration of relations with Cuba will help them arrest a woman they call Joanne Chesimard, who escaped from a NJ prison in 1979.
Chesimard, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, was convicted of the assault and murder of NJ State Trooper Werner Foerster by an all-white jury in one of the most famous trials in Middlesex County history, and sentenced to life in prison in 1977.
Shakur was broken out of jail in 1979 by her brother and two other Black Liberation Army members, leading to a game of cat and mouse between police and Black Liberation Army supporters.
Shakur has been living in Cuba, under the protection of Fidel Castro's government, since 1984, and Fidel's brother Raul has apparently extended that courtesy.
Shakur is one of many former Americans who have been granted political asylum by Cuba and fled the US to escape prosecution in the case of the shootout, where both Trooper Foerster and one of Shakur's associates were killed, and Shakur and another State Trooper named Harper were shot and injured.
In response to a question about the Cuban government's statement that all sovereign nations have a right to grant political asylum to anyone they feel is persecuted, NJ Governor Chris Christie Christie claimed America's criminal justice system was "the fairest and most just" in the world.
"A cold-blooded cop-killer, convicted by a jury of her peers, in what is without question the fairest and most just criminal justice system in the world – certainly much more just than anything that’s happened in Cuba under the Castro brothers – she is now, according to an official of the Cuban government, persecuted."
Perhaps in an attempt to appeal to Cuban exiles in Presidential battleground state of Florida, Christie made the extra effort of writing an open letter to Obama saying that Cuba had been providing "safe haven" to a "murderer," and urging him to push for her extradition to America so she could be jailed.
"In New Jersey, [Shakur] is notorious for her role in the cold-blooded execution-style killing of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and seriously wounding New Jersey State Trooper James Harper."
Christie wrote, "It is believed that [Shakur] moved to Cuba in 1984 and has, since that time, lived freely there, attending government functions and being provided with housing, food, and transportation by the Cuban government."
But Josefina Vidal, Director of North American affairs for Cuba, replied with a firm no, with a slight hint that a treaty could change that answer.
Vidal said, "[Cuba has] explained to the US government in the past that there are some people living in Cuba to whom Cuba has legitimately granted political asylum. There's no extradition treaty in effect between Cuba and the US."
In his plea to the President, Christie restated the state troopers' version of the 1973 gunfight just south of Exit Nine on the NJ Turnpike.
That fateful night, Shakur and two of her allies was pulled over, just past what was then the Turnpike headquarters, for a broken taillight.
Christie referred to the taillight as an unspecified "motor vehicle violation."
According to the official story, Shakur and her two male associates had semi-automatic handguns and fake ID's, and Assata had started the shootout, which hurt another State Trooper.
Someone then used Shakur's gun to shoot Foerster in the stomach, according to the and someone also took Foerster's gun while he was down and shot him in the head twice.
Christie went so far as to call Shakur a "domestic terrorist," a designation first given to her by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In his previous job as US Attorney, Christie worked closely with the FBI.
"There certainly can be no review of Cuba's designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism until [Assata Shakur], a person designated by the FBI as a domestic terrorist, is returned to the United States."
NJ State Police have been making attempts to get Shakur sent back to New Jersey, reaching out as far and wide as the Vatican to do so.
Back in 1998, when Pope John Paul II went to Cuba, NJ law enforcement petitioned him to voice his support forthe extradition Shakur.
Christie said, "A long history of bipartisan support exists for the need to bring this convicted murderer back to the United States so she can be made to serve the prison time she was sentenced to more than thirty-seven years ago."
Christie noted that both houses of Congress unanimously passed Concurrent Resolution 254 in 1998, asking Cuba to return Shakur to the United States.
In 2005, the Department of Justice boosted the reward for capturing Shakur to $1 million, and the FBI doubled this reward to $2 million in 2013, as well as designating her as the first female ever on its most wanted terrorists list.
State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said, "We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of two million dollars will prompt fresh information in the light of the altered relationship [between the USA and Cuba]."