In 30-Year-Old Terror Case, a Test for the U.S.

Franco Cordovi memorialized a relative at a service last year in Havana for victims of the Cubana Airlines bombing.
Franco Cordovi memorialized a relative at a service last year in Havana for victims of the Cubana Airlines bombing. (By Jorge Rey -- Associated Press)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 5, 2006

HAVANA -- A quarter-century before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a bomb ripped a gash in a civilian jetliner in the skies off Barbados.

The Cubana Airlines plane plummeted into the Caribbean Sea just before noon on Oct. 6, 1976. All 73 people on board died, including teenage members of Cuba's national fencing team who were returning to Havana after winning gold and silver medals at a tournament in Venezuela.

The attack marked a new era of fear. It was the first act of midair airline terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

The 30th anniversary of the bombing is Friday, and it coincides with a critical juncture in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a main suspect in the bombing who has been held on immigration charges in the United States for the past 16 months.

Posada Carriles's legal odyssey has turned into a diplomatic quandary for the Bush administration and a test of the president's post-Sept. 11 credo that nations that harbor terrorists are guilty of terrorism. While the United States does not want to free a terrorism suspect, it is also reluctant to send him to Cuba or Venezuela, countries that not only remain hostile to the Bush administration but that, according to court testimony of a Posada Carriles ally, also might torture him.

Attorneys for the Justice Department must respond by Thursday to a Texas magistrate's recommendation that Posada Carriles be freed by a federal judge because he has not been officially designated a terrorist in the United States and cannot be held indefinitely on immigration charges.

"This is the moment of truth for the Bush administration," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior Cuba analyst with the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research library at George Washington University.

The prospect of freeing Posada Carriles, who is also a suspect in a series of 1997 hotel bombings in Havana that left one Italian tourist dead, has outraged Cuban leaders. Havana is papered with Cuban government posters and billboards invoking President Bush's position on harboring terrorists.

"It's as if you were to say to the American people that country X has found Osama bin Laden, who arrived without a passport or a visa, and that he is being held as an illegal immigrant but will not be sent back to the U.S.," Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's general assembly, said in an interview.

Posada Carriles, 78, sneaked into the United States in March 2005. He did little to hide his presence in Miami's exile community and joked about being recognized at doctors' appointments. He wasn't arrested until he gave a newspaper interview and appeared at a news conference in May 2005, moves that seemed to taunt law enforcement officials.

At the time of his arrest, Posada Carriles, who was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, had spent more than four decades engaged in fruitless schemes to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro and topple his government. The immigration judge who oversaw Posada Carriles's case said his history "reads like one of Robert Ludlum's espionage thrillers, with all the plot twists and turns Ludlum is famous for."

Posada Carriles was trained by the CIA, along with other Cuban exiles, for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He eventually made his way to Venezuela, where he became head of the secret police surveillance division.

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