washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook > Articles Inside Outlook

Our Man's in Miami. Patriot or Terrorist?

By Ann Louise Bardach
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page B03

In 1988, the late, great Cuban exile director Nestor Almendros released his critically acclaimed film about political prisoners in his homeland -- a documentary that shattered whatever was left of the utopian view of Cuba. It was called "Nobody Listened." The title would work well for a sequel, this time set in Miami to shatter any lingering illusions about the nature of Cuban exile politics.

The anti-hero could be Luis Posada Carriles, the fugitive militant, would-be assassin of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and prison escapee who is wanted by Venezuela for the 1976 shootdown of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 civilians. Late last month, a South Florida television station offered a startling exclusive: Posada, last seen in Honduras, had slipped into Miami. Then last Tuesday, Posada's newly retained attorney had the temerity to request asylum for him.


The Cuba clause? President Bush has condemned countries that harbor terrorists, yet Luis Posada Carriles, below and in photo held by Fidel Castro hopes that his past anti-Castro violence won't hurt his chances for U.S. asylum. (Jose Goitia -- AP)

Outlook
The Post's opinion and commentary section runs every Sunday.

Outlook Section


Posada must have thought nobody would be listening. How was it possible that a self-described "warrior" and "militante" -- long a fixture on the U.S. immigration authorities' watch list -- had crossed into the United States with a bogus passport and visa? And is it remotely conceivable that the Bush administration, notwithstanding its purported commitment to the war on terrorism (Rule 1 of U.S. counterterrorism policy: "make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals"), would consider residency for a notorious paramilitary commando? He has even boasted of orchestrating numerous attacks on both civilian and military targets (including the 1997 bombings of Cuban tourist facilities that killed an Italian vacationer and wounded 11 others) during his 50-year war to topple Castro.

In any other American city, Posada, who is now 77, might have been met by a SWAT team, arrested and deported. But in the peculiar ecosystem of Miami, where hardline anti-Castro politicians control both the radio stations and the ballot boxes, the definition of terrorism is a pliable one: One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. His lawyer made the tortured argument that those who planted bombs in Havana could not be held responsible for innocent victims unless it could be proven that those victims were, in fact, targets. Other supporters have underscored that Posada was once a CIA asset who fought in its ill-fated excursion at the Bay of Pigs, and who played a crucial role in the Iran-contra operations during the Reagan-Bush years.

It is a story of keen interest to me as Posada had granted me an exclusive interview in June 1998. At a safe house and other locations in Aruba, I spent three days tape-recording him for a series of articles that ran in the New York Times. The urbane and chatty Posada said that he had decided to speak with me in order to generate publicity for his bombing campaign of Cuba's tourist industry -- and frighten away tourists. "Castro will never change, never," Posada said. "Our job is to provide inspiration and explosives to the Cuban people."

Instead of undermining Castro, such comments have enabled the Cuban leader to argue that his foes are lawless at best and killers at worst. And so Castro remains in power, and Posada is looking for a new home.

Posada and his Miami strategists are hoping that he can follow in the footsteps of his fellow conspirator, one-time cellmate and convicted terrorist, Orlando Bosch. In 1976, Bosch, Posada and two Venezuelans, were charged and imprisoned for the bombing of the Cuban civilian airliner -- the first act of airline terrorism in the hemisphere -- killing all aboard, including the members of Cuba's national fencing team, many of them teenagers.

The powerful exile leadership in Miami financed a legal crusade to free the two, challenging the trial process in Caracas, where bribery is widespread. Bosch would serve 11 years and Posada nine before their lawyers won acquittals. But both remained jailed pending prosecutors' appeals and new trials, in accordance with Venezuela's labyrinthine judicial system.

Their indictment was the result of the collective data and wisdom of three intelligence organizations: American, Venezuelan and Cuban. "Bosch and Posada were the primary suspects," a retired high-level CIA official familiar with the case confirmed in an interview, adding "there were no other suspects." A close confidante of the two militants told me, "It was a screw-up. It was supposed to be an empty plane." Others contend that the men believed the airliner to be a military craft, though neither man has ever expressed remorse for the civilian death toll. An unrepentant Bosch still calls the plane "a legitimate target," recently telling a Miami reporter, "there were no innocents on that plane."

Posada "escaped" from prison in 1985 after his Miami cohorts paid a $28,000 bribe to the warden. Three weeks later, he was in El Salvador, where Felix Rodriguez, a comrade from his early CIA days, was waiting for him with a very special job offer: to be his deputy in the covert Contra resupply operation directed by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. In our conversations, Posada blamed a fellow commando (conveniently dead) for the airline bombing and cited political influence-peddling in the Venezuelan justice system for his and Bosch's long prison stints. Their critics argue the opposite: that Venezuela's endemic corruption enabled Posada and Bosch's supporters to buy them superb accommodations in prison and, ultimately, Posada's escape.

Bosch was allowed to leave Venezuela not long after then-U.S. ambassador Otto Reich voiced concerns about his safety in a series of cables to the State Department. He flew to Miami in December 1987 without a visa and was promptly arrested. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh described Bosch as an "unreformed terrorist," who should be deported. But Bosch had a powerful advocate in Jeb Bush, who at that time was managing the campaign of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban exile to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In an unusual presidential intercession on behalf of a convicted terrorist, President George H.W. Bush overruled the FBI and the Justice Department and in 1990 approved the release of Bosch, who won U.S. residency two years later.

Posada is gambling that he will have Bosch's luck and is banking on the same supporters. But Bosch's presence in Miami has often proved to be an embarrassment to the Bush family. When Bill Clinton was questioned by a Newsweek reporter about his pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, he snapped, "I swore I wouldn't answer questions about Marc Rich until Bush answered about Orlando Bosch." Few Republicans raised the issue again.

In November 2000, Posada was arrested again, along with three other anti-Castro militants for plotting to assassinate Castro during the Ibero-American summit in Panama. All of the arrested men had impressive rap sheets and had been charter members of the terrorist groups CORU or Omega 7. In April 2004, Panama's Supreme Court sentenced Posada and his associates to up to eight years in prison, but in August the quartet was sprung by a surprise pardon from departing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, who maintains good relations with Miami's political leadership. Her pardon outraged U.S and Latin American law enforcement officials.

Three of the men were flown to Miami and met by their jubilant supporters just days before the 2004 presidential election. But Posada disappeared -- until his emergence here last month.

The quartet are not the only unsavory characters to be given the red carpet in Miami. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, with the backing of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, wrote letters on behalf of several exile militants held in U.S. prisons for acts of political violence. Some were released in 2001, including Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel and Virgilio Paz Romero, both convicted for the notorious 1976 car bomb-murder of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffitt, in Washington. Once released, instead of being deported like other non-citizen criminals, they have been allowed to settle into the good life in Miami.

South Florida's politicians have also tried, unsuccessfully so far, to convince the Justice Department to release Cuban-born Valentin Hernandez, who gunned down fellow exile Luciano Nieves in 1975. Nieves' crime was speaking out in support of negotiations with the Cuban government. Nieves was ambushed in a Miami hospital parking lot after visiting his 11-year-old son. A year later, Hernandez and an accomplice murdered a former president of the Bay of Pigs Association in an internecine power struggle. Hernandez was finally captured in July 1977 and sentenced to life in prison for the Nieves murder. Exile hardliners, though, continue to refer to him as a freedom fighter.

Polls show that Miami's political leadership and its radio no longer speak for most exiles. The majority of Cuban exiles, like other Americans, abhor terrorism, whether in Cuba or Miami, left or right. But as one convicted killer after another is allowed to resettle in Miami, the political climate there has chilled and few dare to speak out. And when they do, it seems that nobody is listening.

Since 9/11, the administration's double standard on terrorism, with its Cuban exception, is even more glaring. Just before the Justice Department announced a post-9/11 sweep of those "suspected" of terrorism, it had quietly released men who had been convicted of terrorism. Last Thursday, the administration congratulated itself on a sweep that netted 10,000 fugitive criminals, yet somehow Posada eluded it.

I remember Posada's sly smile when he told me that he had at least four different passports from different countries in bogus names, including an American one. When I asked when he last visited the United States, he chortled with amusement. "Officially or unofficially? I have a lot of passports," Posada said. "If I want to go to Miami, I have different ways to go. No problem." Evidently not.

Author's e-mail: havana2001@aol.com

Ann Louise Bardach, the director of the Media Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" (Vintage) and the editor of "Cuba: A Traveler's Literary Companion."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company