The case of Luis Posada Carriles is a prime example of the tentacle-like reach of Miami’s exile community into both the Washington foreign policy establishment and the U.S. judicial system. What is so instructive about the Posada case is how little secrecy actually surrounds it: few details are shrouded, and his dastardly crimes are not only publicly known, but even celebrated in select circles. This apathy and lack of moral rectitude is appalling, even under the Bush administration’s Olympic record for duplicity. Such openness has been fostered by a deep rooted culture of impunity that affects Washington – one that has existed for so long that it no longer sparks adequate debate or investigation.
A Killer Hailed as a Patriot
The facts of Luis Posada Carriles’ life are hardly disputed and can be traced through both declassified government documents and his own boasting. According to both CIA and FBI memos, Posada was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1928, and resided on the island until 1961 when he emigrated to Miami, two years after Castro came to power. Thirty-three years old at the time, Posada quickly became involved in anti-Castro activities and was recruited to take part in the Bay of Pigs invasion. While he trained in both Florida and Guatemala for the landing, according to a CIA report, he did not actually participate in the attempted exercise.
Following the Bay of Pigs disaster, Posada received U.S. army training from 1963 to 1964 at Fort Benning, where he graduated as a Second Lieutenant and commanding officer of a Ranger Battalion. Posada, now armed with special training demolition skills, went on to become involved in an array of anti-Castro and other anti-communist activities, including clandestine training in guerrilla warfare at Polk City, Florida in 1964. By 1965, he was most likely on the CIA payroll as an asset if not as an operator, and was reportedly involved in schemes to overthrow the then Guatemalan government as well as blow up a Soviet and a Cuban ship in Veracruz, Mexico.
By 1967, Posada had become a naturalized citizen of Venezuela and was a member of its Cuban-exile dominated secret service, to which, according to Posada’s biography, the CIA had recommended him. Posada participated in Venezuela’s anti-guerrilla conflict as head of counterintelligence until 1974 when his politics and connections came into conflict with the incoming government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. For a few years, Posada and a handful of associates ran a private investigation service in Caracas, an experience which he notes was profitable, but without “glory.”
Posada seems to have been involved in such commercial endeavors until 1976 when he became involved with Orlando Bosch, who was well established by then as a virulent anti-Castro and anti-communist terrorist. Bosch had been released from prison in 1972 after serving a five out of a ten-year-sentence for a bazooka attack on a Polish ship en route to Cuba. Imprisonment did little to deter Bosch, who admitted in 1974 that he had sent mail bombs to a number of Cuban embassies. On June 11, 1976, both Posada and Bosch attended a meeting in Santo Domingo, where five anti-Castro exile organizations merged into an “umbrella” group known as the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU). It is believed that among CORU’s first projects was its participation in the September 21, 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean human rights activist Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C.
By the end of September, 1976, Bosch had joined Posada in Caracas where they began to piece together the details of a major operation aimed at Cuba, a project for which they especially fundraised by staging a $1,000-a-plate dinner. Reports from this period suggest that the two were inspired by the Letelier murder, with Bosch allegedly remarking that “now that our organization has come out of the Letelier job looking good, we are going to try something else.” That “something else” was soon to be revealed as a bombing of a Cuban airliner and the loss of all 73 on board.
On October 6, 1976, shortly after taking off from Barbados, two bombs exploded in the lavatories of Cubana Airlines flight 455. A few minutes later, the plane crashed into the Caribbean as it attempted to limp back to the airport, killing all on board. Two suspects were arrested almost immediately and identified as having planted the explosives. It was not long before Bosch and Posada were implicated as being the masterminds of the attack. The two men who placed the devices, Hernan Ricardo Lozano and Freddy Lugo, were both photographers employed by Posada’s investigation company.
The four men were detained for a year in Caracas before their case was referred to a military tribunal in 1977. The trial that followed saw the men absolved of the charges of treason that had been filed against them. At this point, the ruling was annulled by the Military Court of Appeals, which noted that the lower court did not have jurisdiction in the matter, and that the four should have been tried in a civil, rather than military court. As far as Posada was concerned, this essentially wiped the legal slate clean, and he spent several years in a sort of limbo as civilian prosecutors first declined to pursue the case, and then later decided to seek a verdict.
In 1985, as the civil case was coming to a close, Posada was able to bribe his way out of prison, and fled Venezuela, flying first to Aruba and then eventually ending up in El Salvador. Bosch would be released two years later, and with the assistance of the then U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Cuban-American militant Otto Reich, he was able to make his way to Miami. Posada’s arrival in El Salvador was not coincidental, the fierce civil war in that country became the next battlefield in his terrorist campaign against communism and he was welcomed there by fellow Bay of Pigs veteran and CIA operative Felix Rodriguez.
The Salvadoran Years
Posada quickly integrated himself into the supply operation for the Nicaraguan contra war, where he ran safe houses in San Salvador and assisted in flights out of the Ilopango airstrip. According to an FBI report, Posada was receiving $3,000 a month at this point, and over the course of his involvement there was able to have saved up a reported $40,000. When a supply flight on which Eugene Hasenfus – a U.S. contra operative was on board – was shot down in 1986, the roles of Posada and Rodriguez became public, with the situation becoming somewhat hairy for the entire enterprise. Posada then briefly worked in San Salvador as an advisor to the Salvadoran police force, a job which was facilitated through his Venezuelan connections. In his new post, he was closely tied to the upper tiers of the government and was able to infiltrate extremist rightwing circles and work with them in opposing the moderates within the government, according to a 1990 Miami Herald article. After three years of such activity, however, he felt his profile was becoming too elevated, and he subsequently made the decision to relocate to Guatemala in 1989.
In Guatemala, Posada drifted into his usual modus operandi, effectively becoming the leader of a secret intelligence force at the service of the president. It has been speculated that in his new capacity he ran a spy operation that included “the most sophisticated surveillance equipment in the government,” according to a 1990 Miami Herald report. This new role, however, also grew personally dangerous for him, and on February 26, 1990, Posada was shot and nearly killed. After a brief hospitalization, he disappeared, probably spending time recuperating in El Salvador.
Posada would resurface once again near the end of the decade in 1977 when a series of bombs exploded at various hotels around Havana. The campaign was clearly targeted at damaging the island’s vital tourist industry and included bombings of a Mexico City travel agency and a Nassau tourism office. After three bombs exploded on September 4, including a blast at the Copacabana hotel which killed an Italian tourist, a Salvadoran suspect was arrested, who quickly confessed to the attacks. Posada then stepped forward to take credit in a highly publicized, highly controversial 1998 interview with the New York Times, in which he famously remarked that the Italian’s death had been an accident which didn’t trouble his conscience, and that “I sleep like a baby.”
The Teflon Terrorist
Whatever public outrage that the last series of incidents provoked, Posada saw little reason to alter his strategies, and in November of 2000, he and three other exiles were arrested for plotting a bombing during the 10th Ibero-American Summit in Panama City. The attack, which Posada claimed was later aborted over fears of excessive civilian casualties, would have targeted either Fidel Castro’s motorcade or an auditorium where the Cuban leader would be speaking. Posada – along with his accomplices, all of whom were in exile with similarly criminal backgrounds – was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to eight years in prison. Yet, he served only a year of that term before being pardoned by outgoing Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso in the fall of that year. Most found her move highly questionable, and could only explain it as evidence of a complicit intervention from the U.S., with large bribes inevitably involved.
Following his release, Posada, now 76 years old, smuggled himself into the U.S., although how he arrived was not certain. Posada claims to have surreptitiously crossed the Mexican-Texas border, while others, including Castro, believe he arrived in Florida via a shrimp boat owned by a prominent Miami exile. Once in the U.S., Posada resided in Miami until May 17, 2005 when he was detained by INS officials. While his presence in the U.S. was widely known, a month prior to his detention, Venezuelan officials were preparing extradition documents to return him to Caracas. If you can believe him, one of those who did not know about Posada’s presence in Miami was then Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who remarked that “I don’t even know if he is in the United States.” But according to the Center for International Policy, Posada had met secretly with Miami Herald journalists prior to his capture and his presence was widely commented upon in the community.
Following his arrest, Posada was taken to a holding facility in El Paso, Texas, where he was charged with illegal entry. While being held, Posada renewed his asylum petition, and with his lawyers, began to argue that, if extradited to either Cuba or Venezuela, he would be tortured. He had no difficulty in making this point with the Justice and State Department, given that Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez were well-known hawks on the subject. Currently, Posada is a free man with his indictment having been dismissed by a cooperative Dallas federal judge, Kathleen Cardone. Given that the Bush administration had ex-cathedra authority and had insisted that he would be tortured if extradited, his release at this time signifies that there is no prospect that he will serve any hard jail time, let alone stand trial.
The Not-so Hidden Hand
That Posada’s chosen refuge after his 2004 release was Miami, illustrates the underlying fact of his case: even after the end of the Cold War and the modest decline of anti-Castro ardor in successive administrations of various ideological stripes, a relatively small community of zealous rightwing Cuban extremists mainly situated in South Florida, continue to play a conclusive role in the formulation of U.S. hemispheric policy. Indeed, Posada’s story can be traced not only through his actions, but through the far reaching influence of that group whose political power extends to the farthest corners of society. Going back years, it was the Miami exiles who first financed Posada, knowing that, together with the complicity of the U.S. government, he would operate with relative impunity. However vile were the charges against him, those who have consistently supported him, have, with a great deal of success, fought off any attempts to bring the terrorist to justice. The scenario just witnessed of the Posada case being dismissed by a Texas judge on what appears to amount to a technicality seems to underscore the ongoing political potency of these ultramontane political activists, and could position her, as was the case with Clarence Thomas, who during the presidency of the first George Bush, was described as having the finest legal mind of his generation, similarly to be nominated. That Judge Cardone claimed that the government prosecutors had bungled Posada’s case is both depressingly ironic and almost eerily sinister, but fully comprehensible given the ideological parameters of this administration.
Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, it appeared as though two groups of combat-honed exiles emerged. One, which included Bosch and Posada, remained dedicated to continuing the path of violence and armed terrorism. The other returned to their South Florida homes to pursue a number of commercial ventures, while simultaneously working to apply uninterrupted political and economic pressure on the Castro government through their political contacts. Yet these two branches never fully diverged. As early as 1965, an FBI memorandum disclosed that Jorge Mas Canosa, who would eventually become the most prominent Miami exile and Washington power broker, paid Posada $5,000 to carry out the Veracruz port attack. It was the beginning of what would be a 32-year association.
Jorge Mas Canosa: The Man with the Wallet
In 1965, Mas Canosa was working within a group known as RECE (Cuban Representation in Exile), which sponsored various sorties against the Cuban government, and was ultimately financed by wealthy exiles such as Bacardi rum magnate Jose Pepin Bosch and most likely by their CIA contacts. Another 1965 FBI report, which again refers to the Veracruz plot, also notes that “Jorge Mas Canosa, an official of RECE residing in Miami, proposed to the demolition expert [Posada] that he travel to Spain, Mexico, and other Latin American countries at RECE’s expense and place bombs in Communist installations such as embassies and information service libraries. Mas said that in May, 1965, one of RECE’s agents had placed such a device in the Soviet library in Mexico City, which later exploded, causing a furor.”
Over time, Mas accumulated power and wealth, and rose to prominence as the president of the Cuban American National Foundation. In 1971, he acquired a construction firm, Church and Towers, and probably as a result of Mas’ influence, the company was incredibly sure-fitted at winning contracts. While precisely tracing these paths to riches is difficult, there is reason to believe that a portion of them ended up financing Posada’s activities. When Posada was arrested in Venezuela, he was interviewed by The New York Times, saying “all the money that I received when I escaped from the jail, it was not that much, but it was through Jorge.” After Posada landed in El Salvador after his escape, however, the FBI report suggests that the two men were only infrequently in contact.
At the same time as Mas was backing Posada, he was cultivating powerful ties to the mainstream U.S., mainly Republican establishment. By 1974, Mas already had begun to make substantial campaign contributions to Florida legislators in exchange for their support of his anti-Castro agenda. Reagan’s election in 1980 provided the perfect opportunity for Mas to extend his growing influence all the way to the pinnacle of the U.S. government. In 1981, echoing the successful model of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Mas founded CANF.
In the 18 years between 1982 and 2000, CANF would channel $1,666,673 to politicians and their campaigns, and would come to effectively control all U.S. policy formulations towards Cuba through its influence in both chambers of Congress and ties to presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even Clinton, and of course the present incumbent. According to an Open Secrets report on Cuban exile donations, Mas “helped shape American policy toward Cuba to a degree that can hardly be overstated. His organizations were generous to their allies, especially in the realm of campaign contributions, and uncompromising towards opposing viewpoints.”
But even as Mas reached staggering heights within the U.S., he near never lost contact with Posada, and indeed may have been as generous with his terrorist comrade as he was with obliging politicians. In the New York Times interview, Posada estimated that over the years, Mas provided him over $200,000, to cover both living expenses and “operations.” Furthermore, Posada recounted how other prominent exiles also contributed, and, for example, paid for his recovery after the 1990 assassination attempt. Posada also alleged that CANF had directly sponsored the 1997 Havana bombings, charges which the foundation strenuously denies.
When Posada found himself in trouble again in 2000, it was the exile community – although this time Santiago Alvarez, a Miami developer – who raised funds for his legal defense. And it was pressure from the exile community that undoubtedly encouraged the rumored involvement of the U.S. government in his eventual pardon.
In a Sun Sentinel article, Cuba expert Wayne Smith noted that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), with fellow South Florida representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) and Mario Diaz Balart (R-FL), wrote to Moscoso requesting a pardon for the four conspirators. Ros-Lehtinen (a total zealot in the anti-Castro group), according to the Open Secrets report, is the top individual recipient of exile political donations, having accumulated a total of $289,009 during her time in office. Smith noted that such an intervention on her part was not out of place, as Ros-Lehtinen helped to ensure that Posada’s co-conspirator Bosch was not deported after he sought refuge in Miami following his release from a Venezuelan prison in 1987, a freedom he won with the assistance of US policymakers.
It is precisely this scenario that many observers now fear is once again playing out with Posada – the Cuban exile Teflon man. Throughout his incarceration, as well as the long-standing delays in the procedures for either extradition or deportation (perhaps a more logical solution), past history suggests that if anything, eventually he would be pardoned by the Bush White House. Such an outcome would be yet another concession to the Miami cabal which has demonstrated, in both the Posada case and that of the Cuban five, that its political influence not only has allowed itself to manipulate U.S. foreign policy, but also to contort the judicial system to follow desired political ends.
The precedent for such bizarre interpretations of legality and morality are well established. From Haiti’s major goon and mass killer, Emmanuel Constant, to the human rights pariahs from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and Colombia, the U.S. has long offered asylum to criminals and human rights violators who happened to have political and economic interests that coincided with Washington’s. Anti-Castro terrorists have perhaps benefited the most from this administration’s ethical flexibility in its definition of “terrorism.” Orlando Bosch, Posada’s co-conspirator in the 1976 attack, whose credentials for violence are equally staggering when it comes to terrorism, illegally entered the U.S. following his release from a Venezuelan prison in 1987 and was eventually arrested on immigration charges and was to be deported. However, following the direct intervention of Jeb Bush, then campaign manager for Ros-Lehtinen, President Bush granted Bosch a reprieve and permitted him to remain in the US. This occurred despite a Justice Department opinion that Bosch had been “resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence,” and should be deported.
With his recently granted freedom, it seems likely that the Bush administration will engineer a way for Posada to join the ranks of those criminals already finding refuge in the welcoming bosom of amnesiac America. But Posada’s history must not be forgotten: he is the Western Hemisphere’s terrorist exemplar, a man loyal only to himself who cannot even claim to have faithfully served Washington with any honor. Now a free man, this geriatric mercenary poses a thorny problem for the Bush administration. To pardon him, as they would no doubt quietly prefer to do, would be to risk a storm of outrage if the country recovers its conscience. Yet as flimsy as their political support now is, they are equally unwilling to invite the fury of the Miami exile cabal—their few staunch allies—by sending Posada to face justice in Venezuela. The Democratic Congress, which has already displayed a welcome interest in Latin American affairs, could take a principled stand on this matter and perhaps break with the legacies of Mas Canosa, Bosch and others. For too long, policy towards the rest of the hemisphere has been the hostage of moneyed hacks in Miami. It is time for that to change.This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Mike Lettieri