Bush administration officials denied any role yesterday in the politically fortuitous pardon of four Cuban exiles by the outgoing Panamanian government. Three of the exiles -- who were convicted in connection with a plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro at a summit of Latin American leaders in 2000 -- were immediately flown to Miami.
President Bush, whose Cuba policies have stirred anger among Cuban Americans in Florida, will hold a campaign rally in Miami today. The Cuban American vote was crucial to Bush's 537-vote margin in Florida in 2000, and his political advisers have worried that poor turnout among Cuban Americans could swing the state to Democrat John F. Kerry.
In Panama, speculation was rampant that the Bush administration, indirectly or not, had pressured Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso to pardon the exiles in her waning days in office. Panama's next president, Martin Torrijos, a social democrat who will take office on Sept. 1, said he disagrees with the pardons. Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Panama in response.
But U.S. officials said they were not involved. "This was a decision made by the government of Panama," said State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli. "We never lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon anyone involved in this case, and I'd leave it to the government of Panama to discuss the action."
In Panama, Moscoso -- who has been close to the Bush administration -- also denied that she had been influenced by the United States. "No foreign government has pressured me to take the decision," she told reporters. "I knew that if these men stayed here, they would be extradited to Cuba and Venezuela, and there they were surely going to kill them there."
Reflecting the political sensitivities of the case, U.S. officials declined to condemn the actions of the four men -- who authorities said had planned to use 33 pounds of explosives to kill Castro -- even though Bush has said the war on global terrorism is his top priority.
"These are bad guys. The absence of a statement says a lot," said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is the most preposterous violation of what this administration stands for."
Sweig said direct White House involvement in the pardons was perhaps unnecessary. She noted that Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), is influential in Cuban American circles, and that there is a complex web of business and personal connections between Panama and the Cuban American exile community. "My gut is this reeks of political and diplomatic cronyism," Sweig said.
The men were arrested in 2000 in Panama City on the assassination charges. Earlier this year, they were convicted of endangering public safety and sentenced to seven to eight years in prison.
Venezuela had sought one of the activists -- Luis Posada Carriles -- because he had escaped from a Venezuelan jail where he had faced charges of planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people. Posada, 74, is not a U.S. citizen, and it is not clear whether he left Panama. Posada has also claimed credit for having planned and directed six Havana hotel bombings in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 other people.
The other three men -- Gaspar Jimenez, Pedro Remon and Guillermo Novo Sampol -- have U.S. passports and arrived in Miami yesterday.
New Times, a Miami newspaper, said U.S. law enforcement records say that Jimenez, 69, helped kidnap Cuba's consul to Mexico in 1977 and killed a consular official, and that Remon, 60, was identified as the triggerman in the slaying of a pro-Castro activist and a Cuban diplomat. Novo, 65, was convicted in the United States in the late 1970s of taking part in the 1976 assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier. He was acquitted on appeal but served four years in prison for lying to a grand jury.