HAVANA — William Potts burned with the desire to change the world. Nothing really turned out the way he planned.
Dreaming of joining the struggle to uproot global oppression, he dropped out of college, became a Muslim and went to join the Namibian freedom movement. He got stuck in Liberia, half a continent away.
So he returned to the United States and in 1984 he concealed a .25-caliber pistol in a plaster cast and hijacked a plane to Cuba, among the last in a flood of dozens of self-styled revolutionary hijackings. To Potts’ surprise, Cuban authorities didn’t offer him guerrilla training. He was convicted of air piracy and imprisoned for more than 13 years.
Now, 29 years after he changed into a black beret and leather jacket in a plane bathroom and hijacked more than 100 people on their way from Newark to Miami, Potts is optimistic that he’ll soon be heading home. He said Friday that U.S. officials in Cuba are processing a passport application he submitted earlier in the week and they have told him it could be completed in a matter of weeks.
While he faces virtually certain arrest upon return, he said he believes that the time he served in Cuba will allow him to avoid a lengthy second jail term.
“Some people believe I should spend the rest of my life behind bars, but that’s not my position. I was sentenced in a recognized court of law to fifteen years in prison. I did the crime, I did the time,” Potts said. “I don’t expect to pay two times for a crime I already paid 15 years for.”
Potts said going home will help him move beyond what he acknowledges was a mistake that put dozens of passengers’ lives at risk and separated him from his siblings and parents in the U.S. in a way that’s increasingly painful as he ages.
Prosecutors in Florida, where Potts was also indicted for air piracy, did not respond to requests for comments on his case. The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but noted that “through our missions overseas, U.S. citizens traveling or residing overseas are accorded a full range of passport services.”
Cuba has granted political refugee status, along with free housing, health care and other benefits, to dozens of fugitives like Potts, many black militants and other leftists who fled here from the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s. Many are believed to remain in Cuba, including several who are among the U.S. most-wanted fugitives.
The U.S. and Cuba signed a 1971 agreement under which each government agreed to prosecute hijackers or return them to the other country. Periodic tensions with Washington have pushed Cuba to suspend the deal several times, but the communist government stopped giving new arrivals sanctuary in 2006, returning a handful Americans who fled to avoid prosecution in recent years. The U.S. still labels Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, largely because of its sheltering fugitives.
“They accuse Cuba of harboring terrorists,” Potts said. “I happen to be a terrorist who wants to go back to face the charges pending against me.”
Potts, 56, said he was buoyed by the case of a fellow hijacker who returned to the U.S. and saw a long sentence reduced because of time served in Cuba.
It’s far from clear that Potts has correctly assessed his legal options.
Other fugitives returning from Cuba have been aggressively prosecuted. U.S. citizen Luis Armando Pena Soltren returned to the United States from Cuba in October 2009 to face charges of conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping in a case linked to Puerto Rican independence militants.
Pena Soltren pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Potts lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment with a neatly kept front garden in a Cold War-era apartment block on the outskirts of Havana. He’s divorced from the mother of his two children, a math professor, but they still live together and consider themselves married.
The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba gave passports to their daughters, 12 and 9, last year and Potts sent them to live with his family in the Atlanta area. His older daughter is named after Assata Shakur, aunt of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, and a member of the Black Liberation Army who was serving life in prison when she was broken out by armed friends, surfacing in Cuba in 1984. She is believed to remain a free woman here and Potts has reported seeing her at events in Havana.
He said he’s still hopeful about changing the world, even though his previous attempts went wrong. He’s now hoping to raise money in the U.S. to start a Muslim community farm in Cuba.
“I’m not the same person I was,” Potts said. “The time has come to bring this thing to an end. I know it’s a risk (to go back to the US), but it’s a necessary risk. I’m hoping that something good can come of this.”
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