U.S. fugitives hide in Cuba

;Nine and a half of his fingers are gone, blown to bits by a bomb he was making in New York in 1978, but he manages to open a packet of sugar and stir it into his coffee. On the lam for 23 years, he has cleverly learned how to live with what remains of his hands and his life.

The convicted felon was facing 89 years in prison for illegal possession of firearms when he escaped from a New York hospital in 1979 while under police custody. A member of a militant Puerto Rican separatist movement that was planting bombs all over New York, he was in jail at Rikers Island when he was sent to Bellevue Hospital to be outfitted with artificial hands.

His escape, on a rope made from elastic bandages dangled down three stories, was one of the most publicized in U.S. history. After life underground in the United States and five dark years in a Mexican prison, he eventually came ashore on this communist island, where he lives a comfortable seaside life as President Fidel Castro’s guest.

Cuba has long protected fugitives from U.S. authorities, and it now protects more than 70. While Washington has always wanted them returned, the Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about the issue, tying it to its global offensive against terrorism.

The State Department includes Cuba on its list of countries supporting terrorism, partly because the United States says Cuba harbors people involved in rebel groups from Colombia, Spain and elsewhere. Washington calls Castro a terrorist for harboring Morales and other outlaws from the United States.

Officials here also say the only Americans they protect are those who deserve protection. Earlier this year, they point out, they turned over to the FBI two people: Jessie James Bell, wanted in the District of Columbia on narcotics charges, and William Joseph Harris, wanted in Georgia on child-molestation charges.

Cuban officials say those on their soil are not terrorists. Cuba welcomes those it contends were unfairly prosecuted in the United States, officials said. They include people it considers freedom fighters – such as Morales.

A spokesman for the Cuban government, who asked not to be identified, said Cuba would be willing to consider a mutual extradition of fugitives.

“Cuba would be willing to negotiate on this issue as an issue of equity,” the official said. “There are many people who have committed crimes in Cuba who are living in the United States.”