Militant’s case poses dilemma for US
Tug between terror war, opposition to Castro
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff
An exiled Cuban militant accused of planning the fatal bombing of a passenger jetliner goes before a Texas immigration judge today on charges of illegally entering the United States, posing a major test for the Bush administration on which comes first: the war on terrorism or the fight with Fidel Castro.
The case of Luis Posada Carriles, a violent anti-Castro activist who was involved with the CIA and covert US operations from the 1960s through the ‘80s and who has said he will apply for asylum in the United States, puts Washington in a sticky situation.
Posada Carriles, a naturalized Venezuelan, escaped from prison in Venezuela in 1985 during a protracted trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane in Barbados that killed 73 people. He supposedly had boasted that he would carry out the attack days before it occurred, according to recently declassified CIA documents.
The Venezuelan government refiled papers Friday with the State Department to establish probable cause for Posada Carriles’s preventive detention for murder, and says it will soon file a formal request to extradite Posada Carriles to resume his interrupted trial.
But the idea of his extradition makes the Bush administration queasy. After his escape from a Venezuelan prison, Posada Carriles was hired by US covert operatives to direct the resupply operation for the Nicaraguan contras from El Salvador. Extraditing him for trial could send a worrisome signal to covert foreign agents that they cannot count on unconditional protection from the US government, and it could expose the CIA to embarrassing public disclosures from a former operative. It also would infuriate some members of Florida’s Cuban exile community who gave George W. Bush crucial support in both his presidential election victories.
Yet not extraditing him would expose the United States to charges that it has a double standard on terrorism, many analysts say. In a 1998 New York Times interview, Posada Carriles claimed responsibility for several bombings at Cuban resorts that killed an Italian tourist and injured six other people. And according to declassified documents, the CIA severed ties with Posada Carriles on suspicion he was smuggling cocaine into Miami.
Critics, including President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, say the United States tolerates terrorism aimed at its enemies, particularly Castro, while coming down hard on those using terror tactics against America or its allies.
In his weekly television show yesterday, Chavez said that if the United States does not extradite Posada Carriles, ‘‘the emperor will have no clothes,” a reference to what Chavez sees as Bush’s hypocrisy on the issue.
Posada Carriles was arrested in 2000 in Panama with 40 tons of explosives and was later convicted of plotting to assassinate Castro at a regional summit. He was pardoned last year by the outgoing Panamanian president.
‘‘This guy is the Osama bin Laden of Latin America, responsible for killing 73 innocent people, including a pregnant woman on a civilian airplane and bombing tourists on the beach, not some little old man who wants to play golf in Tucson,” said Jose Pertierra, a Cuban-American lawyer who is consulting for the Venezuelan government on the case.
Posada Carriles recently denied involvement in terrorism and said he wants to paint and live peacefully in the United States, safe from Cuban government agents who he says want to kill him.
Some observers see the quandary that Washington faces as reminiscent of the Elian Gonzalez case, in which a boy whose mother died at sea during their escape from Cuba was the focus of a politicized battle over whether to keep him in Florida with relatives, or return him to his father in Cuba. The Clinton administration sent the boy home, infuriating some Cuban-Americans.
The Posada Carriles case threatens already-strained relations with Venezuela, which is the fourth-biggest exporter of oil to the United States. Chavez said last month he would be forced to ‘‘examine” relations if Washington refuses the extradition request.
Bush is openly leery of leftist-populist Chavez, perhaps most of all for his close friendship and cooperation with Castro. Last month, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a statement that the United States will not extradite anyone to Cuba or to a state acting on behalf of Cuba.
Chavez has vowed he would not send Posada Carriles to Cuba, insisting he wants the naturalized Venezuelan to face trial here. Venezuelan law does not permit extradition to another country of one of its citizens. And Castro has said he is not seeking the extradition.
At least one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington trusts neither the independence of the Venezuelan courts nor Chavez’s promise to keep Posada Carriles in Venezuela.
Yet Washington’s evident qualms about handing over Posada Carriles have given Chavez and Castro an opening to accuse Bush of hypocrisy in the war on terror, a charge echoed by some Congressional Democrats. Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, asserted in a published letter that ‘‘our sudden timidity with regard to a particular terrorist threatens the fundamental credibility of our global effort” against terrorism.
It will be up to a US district court judge, who will have 60 days from the filing of the extradition request to determine if there are sufficient legal grounds to extradite Posada Carriles. Typically, a judge’s recommendation is forwarded to the secretary of state, who makes the final decision to extradite a suspect or not, lawyers said.
From the start, this has been an embarrassing imbroglio for Washington. For several weeks after reports surfaced that Posada Carriles was in Miami seeking asylum, US authorities denied knowing his whereabouts. After the Miami Herald published an interview with him in mid-May, federal agents arrested and transferred him to El Paso, where he was charged with illegal entry into the United States. The United States dismissed a first arrest request from Venezuela filed last month, saying it was incomplete and improperly documented.
Meanwhile, a portrait has emerged of Posada Carriles worthy of a spy novel.
Posada Carriles left Cuba two years after Castro took power and in 1963 enrolled in officer training school at Fort Benning, where he was trained in demolition, propaganda, and intelligence, serving in the US Army until 1965. He established a training camp in Florida for anti-Castro guerrilla operations and established close ties with the CIA. In 1967, he moved to Venezuela and joined its secret police agency, where he directed the fight against pro-Castro guerrillas.
The following year, a CIA report complained of his ‘‘association with gangster elements,” ‘‘clandestine sabotage activities,” and ‘‘thefts from the CIA.” It wasn’t until nine years later, however, that the CIA cut ties with him following reports he might have been involved in smuggling cocaine from Colombia to Florida, via Venezuela.
That same year, a ‘‘usually reliable” former Venezuelan government source told the CIA that Posada Carriles had spoken of plans to ‘‘hit” a Cuban airliner days before Cubana flight 455 exploded Oct. 6, 1976, after takeoff in Barbados, killing everyone aboard, according to a declassified CIA document.
Two men were arrested in Trinidad, where they had disembarked from the plane before it flew on to Barbados, and were later convicted in Venezuela of planting the bomb in the airplane lavatory. Two others—Posada Carriles and prominent Cuban exile Orlando Bosch, founder of a group the CIA described as ‘‘an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization”—were charged as the intellectual authors of the crime.
Charged with treason, Posada Carriles was initially tried by a military tribunal. After a protracted trial conducted through written argumentation—Venezuela did not have oral trials at the time, Pertierra said—he was acquitted. The prosecution appealed, and a higher military court determined the men, all of whom were civilians, should have been tried in civilian court. The acquittal was nullified March 24, 1983, Pertierra said, citing court records and a report in the next day’s El Nacional newspaper.
The case was transferred, and was still being tried when Posada Carriles escaped from prison in Venezuela’s Guarico state Aug. 18, 1985, according to court documents. Bosch was eventually acquitted.
Media reports over the last two months have consistently said that Posada Carriles was twice acquitted by military and civil courts, a scenario that US officials have used to argue privately that he should not be subjected to a double-jeopardy retrial by a government hell-bent on a guilty verdict.
But Pertierra says court records submitted Friday to the State Department prove the first verdict was nullified and a second verdict was never issued.