Cuban Terror Case Erodes US Credibility, Critics Say

The decision Tuesday by a U.S. immigration judge in Texas to deny Venezuela’s request to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, whom Caracas has dubbed “the Osama bin Laden of Latin America,” was greeted with surprise and disappointment by Latin America activists and even some former U.S. officials.

Venezuela wants Posada to stand trial for the October 1976 bombing of a civilian Cubana Airlines flight that killed all 73 people aboard shortly after it took off from Barbados.

Venezuela’s ambassador here, Bernardo Alvarez, accused the George W. Bush administration of using a “double standard” on terrorism. He said the White House and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which represented the administration before the court, “virtually” collaborated with Posada by failing to contest statements by one defense witness that Posada would be tortured if he were returned to Caracas.

“There isn’t a shred of evidence that Posada would be tortured in Venezuela,” said Alvarez, adding that “if we examine our respective records on torture, a prisoner is more likely to be tortured in the custody of the U.S. government than in the custody of Venezuelan officials.”

Some U.S. officials, who declined to speak on the record, also deplored the decision by immigration judge William Abbott not to extradite Posada on the grounds that he could face torture in Venezuela.

“It’s bad enough when the world knows that we’re rendering suspected Islamic terrorists to countries that routinely use terror,” said one State Department official. “But here we have someone who we know is a terrorist, and it’s clear that we’re actively protecting him from facing justice. We have zero credibility.”

“The long and short of it is that we are harboring a terrorist,” agreed Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “This is really a total farce.”

Posada, now 77 years old, entered the U.S. illegally last spring after he was unexpectedly freed by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso from an eight-year prison term that followed his 2004 conviction for conspiring to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro during the latter’s visit to Panama in 2000. Among those who successfully lobbied Moscoso to release Posada were several Cuban-American lawmakers from south Florida.

Even as reports of his presence in Miami mushroomed, and his lawyer announced that he intended to request political asylum, during April and early May, neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) nor DHS, which controls the U.S. immigration service, made any effort to apprehend him.

Posada was finally arrested – on immigration-related charges only – after appearing at a well-attended press conference in Miami, and was quickly transferred to a jail in El Paso, Texas. Even before extradition papers had been received, however, DHS announced that it would not deport him to Cuba or to “a country acting on behalf of Cuba” – an apparent reference to Chavez’s close relationship to Castro.

Nonetheless, Caracas formally requested his extradition in mid-June and has since submitted reams of documents in support of its request, including assurances that he would not be mistreated if he were returned.

According to the independent National Security Archive (NSA) here, the Cuban-born Posada joined the U.S. military in 1963 and was recruited by the CIA, which trained him in demolitions. CIA documents posted on the NSA’s website show that he was terminated as an asset in July 1967 only to be reinstated four months later.

A series of 1965 FBI memos obtained by NSA describe Posada’s participation in a number of plots involving sabotage and explosives, as well as his financial ties to Jorge Mas Canosa, another anti-Castro activist who would later go on to found and lead the Cuban American National Foundation.

Plots included efforts to blow up Cuban or Soviet ships in Veracruz, Mexico, and the bombing of the Soviet library in Mexico City. One memo links him to a major plot to overthrow the Guatemalan government, an effort halted by the discovery by U.S. Customs agents of a cache of weapons that included napalm and explosives. During this period, Posada was working with the CIA.

His relationship with the CIA lasted until 1974, although he retained contact with the agency at least until June 1976, three months before the plane bombing, according to CIA documents. During that period, he worked in Caracas as a senior official in the Venezuelan intelligence agency, DISIP.

A 1972 CIA document described Posada as a high-level official in charge of demolitions at DISIP. The report noted that Posada had apparently taken CIA explosives supplies to Venezuela and was associated with a Miami Mafia figure named Lefty Rosenthal.

In one of the very first reports on the Oct. 6, 1976, bombing of the Cubana Air flight, a cable from the FBI Venezuelan bureau cites an informant who identified Posada and Orlando Bosch as responsible and notes that the two Venezuelan suspects – who both worked for a Caracas private security firm set up by Posada in 1974 – had been arrested by police in Barbados.

Bosch, another anti-Castro radical, was pardoned by former President George H. W. Bush in 1990 despite a recommendation by the U.S. Justice Department that he be deported. He currently lives in Miami and has repeatedly called for Posada to be granted asylum

Another CIA document released last June cited a report several days after the plane was blown up by a former Venezuelan government official characterized as “usually a reliable reporter” that Posada had bragged a few days before the bombing that he and Orlando Bosch were planning to “hit” a Cuban airplane.

A Nov. 2, 1976, CIA cable cites information from another Cuban-exile informant for DISIP, Ricardo Morales Navarrete, also known as “Monkey” Morales, about Posada’s participation in planning meetings before the bombing.

Posada was arrested by Venezuelan authorities shortly after the bombing in what one former FBI counterintelligence official described to the New York Times last spring as a “preventative measure – to prevent him from talking or being killed.”

Posada then spent the next eight years in jail, punctuated by two inconclusive trials, before escaping Venezuela in 1985 and making his way to Central America, where he quickly found employment with the “Contra” resupply operation run out of the National Security Council under former President Ronald Reagan until it was exposed in late 1986, when he went underground again.

In a 1998 Times interview in Central America, Posada admitted to organizing a wave of bombings in Cuba in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 others.

None of this was deemed relevant to the immigration judge, however, who wrote that “the most heinous terrorist or mass murderer would qualify for deferral of [extradition] if he or she could establish … the probability of torture in the future.”

In fact, the only testimony before the judge that Posada could face torture if returned to Venezuela came from a single witness, Joaquin Chaffardet, a close friend of Posada’s, and his attorney, Matthew Archambeault.

To the amazement of Venezuela’s attorney, Jose Pertierra, U.S. government lawyers offered no rebuttal to Chaffardet’s testimony and went on to voice reservations about Venezuela’s judicial system and its “increasingly tight” relations with Cuba.

“DHS gave this decision to the judge on a silver platter,” Pertierra told reporters. “We feel very deceived with the conduct of the prosecutors and DHS, which didn’t litigate this case in good faith.”

“All the government lawyers had to do was to point to the State Department’s annual human rights report on Venezuela that says there is no recent history of people being tortured in Venezuela,” said Smith, who added that the result “may work very well for the Bush administration which can now hide behind the judge’s dubious finding. This is really shameful.”

Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba expert at the NSA who has played a key role in getting secrets documents on Posada’s activities declassified, said the government’s handling of the case was a “travesty that compromises its fight against terrorism.”

“How the Bush administration expects to be taken seriously on the war on terrorism given the way it has handled every stage of Luis Posada’s return to the United States that will haunt U.S. security interests for a very long time,” he said.

For its part, the administration stressed that Posada may still be subject to deportation to another country, although their efforts thus far to persuade several Latin American countries have proved fruitless.

But Archambeault said he planned to make a new effort at securing Posada’s release in the United States. “We are pleased. This is what we envisioned was going to happen from the beginning.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.