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P. Rican Militant Has Few Regrets

November 7, 1999 GMT

HAVANA (AP) _ Guillermo Morales has few regrets about his armed struggle for an independent Puerto Rico, his bold flight from U.S. justice and his life in exile in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

But that exile carries its price: a diminished role that Morales, a key figure in the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, has come to accept grudgingly.

``I can give my opinion, but I can’t give orders,″ Morales, 49, said in his New York-accented English during an interview in Havana’s Old City. ``Things cannot be done from a distance. And it’s somewhat frustrating. A lot of people say I should be there.″

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Morales is among several dozen U.S. fugitives living in Cuba, which has no diplomatic relations or extradition treaty with the United States. Others include Joanne Chesimard, a Black Panther Movement member convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, and Michael Finney and Charles Hill, wanted in the 1971 slaying of a New Mexico state policeman and a jet hijacking to Cuba.

Morales was convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to 89 years in prison after a bomb he was making in Queens blew up and destroyed his hands in 1978. He escaped from New York’s Bellevue Hospital in 1979.

U.S. officials have implicated the FALN in more than 50 bombings that killed six people and wounded dozens in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Morales watched from afar as several FALN colleagues who served an average 20 years in U.S. prisons were recently freed under a clemency offered by President Clinton. One was Dylcia Pagan, with whom Morales has a son.

``You get involved in something, you have to accept the consequences. Not everything turns out the way you want,″ he said matter-of-factly.

His son, Guillermo, has visited him several times. But he hasn’t seen his mother, Lucy, who lives in New York, since 1983. They exchange letters but phone calls are too expensive on the small stipend he receives from Cuba.

Inquisitive, low-key and eager for news, Morales is trim, graying slightly. A scar runs down his chin _ powder burns from the explosion.

Morales, whose family is from Puerto Rico, got involved with the independence movement as a New York City College student in the 1960s. His clandestine work ended when the bomb exploded.

``I was losing all this blood. I just tried to get rid of all the communiques that were there, you know? Destroy evidence,″ he said.

Morales said he was willing to serve a 10-year federal sentence but began plotting his escape when he was tried a second time on state charges.

``I said, This is too much. It became abusive,″ he said. ``I don’t care if they catch me five feet from the hospital, I just have to do it. It’s too much already.″

Morales fled to Mexico, where he said he did translations and other jobs for a revolutionary movement in Puebla state. He was imprisoned in 1983 following a shootout that killed a policeman.

Morales insisted he was wrongly accused _ ``I can’t use a gun,″ he said, indicating his ruined hands _ and said he was beaten and tortured in Mexican custody.

His fortunes turned in 1988, when Mexico’s foreign ministry ruled that he was a victim of political persecution in the United States and refused to extradite him. He was put on a plane to Cuba _ angering the Reagan administration, which temporarily recalled its ambassador to Mexico.

Communist Cuba ``was the only government that had the courage to accept me,″ Morales said. ``Cubans always had a long history of supporting Puerto Rican independence, and vice versa.″

Cuba and Puerto Rico were wrested from Spain by the United States in 1898. The Cubans, who already were fighting for independence, gained it in 1902 _ though Washington insisted on the right to intervene for decades.

Since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cuba has supported Puerto Rico’s independence movement, including calls in the U.N. Decolonization Committee to recognize Puerto Rico as a colony.

In Havana, Morales received medical treatment, studied economics, has met visiting Puerto Rican groups and married a Cuban, Rosa. They have a 2-year-old boy, Rodrigo.

``They have treated me with a lot of respect and a lot of dignity,″ he said of his Cuban hosts.

This year, he joined efforts to persuade leftist Colombian rebels to release Rosa de la Cruz, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, who was kidnapped for 110 days.

``She called me last week to say thank you,″ he said. ``That was really nice.″

Throughout, Morales has closely followed events in Puerto Rico, including the FALN releases. Republican critics dubbed it a ``terrorists-for-votes deal″ to help Hillary Rodham Clinton gain Hispanic support as she seeks a U.S. Senate seat.

Morales said U.S. election politics have overshadowed a core issue: Puerto Rico’s unresolved status. He also objected to the label ``terrorist,″ arguing the cause, and its methods, were just.

``The colonial situation is an act of violence itself,″ he said.

``We’re not anti-American. We’re anti-imperialist,″ he added. ``That includes Puerto Ricans who support the American government.″

Morales insisted that Puerto Rico was a ``rip-off″ for U.S. taxpayers who send $10 billion a year to the island, whose 4 million residents don’t pay federal taxes.

He suggested that the independence movement _ which received a scant 3 percent of votes in a December island plebiscite _ suffers from ``historical″ divisions among its leaders.

``I don’t think we should just speak about independence in lofty terms. Independence means working every day around the social issues that affect us _ health issues, ecological issues, educational issues, crime, drugs, corruption,″ he said.

In his Cuban haven, Morales doesn’t fear extradition: ``That depends on the government changing. I don’t think the government is going to change.″

And he insisted he has no regrets.

``If you’re convinced of something, if you really believe in something, why should you be regretting things?″ he said. ``I haven’t cried about this. Since I lost my hands, I haven’t cried. I never cried or anything.″