At Trial of Cuban Exile, a Rebuffed Venezuela Sits Quietly on the Sidelines
by James C. McKinley Jr.
Jan. 29, 2011
Reprinted from New York Times
EL PASO — Perhaps the most frustrated person in the courtroom the last two weeks at the perjury trial of Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban militant and former C.I.A. operative, was the sad-eyed lawyer who represents Venezuela.
For five years, the lawyer, José Pertierra, has been seeking the extradition of Mr. Posada to stand trial in Venezuela in the bombing of a Cuban passenger jet in 1976, which killed everyone on board. But the State Department and the Justice Department have never presented the request to a federal judge.
Instead, the Justice Department is prosecuting Mr. Posada for having lied during two immigration hearings more than five years ago.
“It’s odd to be sitting in a federal court building and listening to testimony not about the extradition of Posada to face murder charges, but instead to listen to testimony about him lying on immigration forms,” Mr. Pertierra said.
To prove that Mr. Posada committed perjury, prosecutors plan to bring up evidence about bombings at Havana tourist spots in 1997. They say Mr. Posada took credit for those attacks in 1998, then later, under oath, denied that he had organized them.
But the trial is unlikely to shed light on his alleged role in the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 on Oct. 6, 1976. The midair explosion killed 73 people, including teenagers from Cuba’s national fencing team.
A government informer, Carlos Abascal, testifying over five days last week, said he had traveled with Mr. Posada on a shrimp boat from the Yucatán Peninsula to Miami in 2005, where it landed at a waterfront restaurant, letting the old Cuban exile sneak into the United States. One part of the indictment charges Mr. Posada with lying under oath when he said he crossed through Mexico and entered the country in Brownsville, Tex.
A defense lawyer, Arturo V. Hernandez, attacked Mr. Abascal’s credibility, interrogating him about his history of mental problems and showing records that documented schizophrenic episodes and hallucinations.
Venezuela has been demanding the extradition of Mr. Posada since he popped up in Miami, but the United States has so far rebuffed the request. Last June, the United States said in a diplomatic note that Venezuela had not presented enough evidence to show that the police had “probable cause” to arrest Mr. Posada for the bombing, Mr. Pertierra said.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on why the United States had not acted on the extradition request. A spokesman for the State Department, Charles Luoma-Overstreet, declined to comment on the diplomatic note.
The United States’ position on Mr. Posada’s extradition was complicated in 2006, when an immigration judge in El Paso ruled that Mr. Posada should be deported but could not be sent back to Venezuela because he would probably face torture there.
American officials say that the immigration judge’s ruling and the perjury trial have tied their hands, but Venezuela has argued that neither should keep a federal judge from hearing the extradition case.
No other country has offered to take Mr. Posada, who is 82, and he has lived in legal limbo in Miami for years. His movements are tracked by federal immigration agents; he wears an ankle monitor.
Mr. Posada was never convicted in the airplane bombing. He escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 just a few months before a judge reached a verdict for the other three men accused in the plot. He has long insisted that he had nothing to do with it.
But the police in Trinidad and Venezuela said they found evidence tying Mr. Posada to the plot. That evidence is buttressed by declassified documents from the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. showing that American agents received information that Mr. Posada was involved in the bombing, along with a known anti-Castro terrorist, Orlando Bosch Ávila.
“U.S. intelligence consistently pointed to Bosch and Posada as the masterminds,” said Peter Kornbluh, an analyst with the National Security Archive who has assembled most of the declassified documents regarding Mr. Posada’s career.
Both Mr. Bosch and Mr. Posada were arrested in Venezuela after the airplane went down. Mr. Posada escaped disguised as a priest. Mr. Bosch was acquitted in 1987 and, though he had no visa, migrated to the United States. Like Mr. Posada, he was held by immigration authorities until President George Bush gave him an administrative pardon in 1990.
The case against Mr. Posada in Venezuela rests largely on the statements of the two men arrested in Trinidad a day after the bombing, Hernán Ricardo Lozano and Freddy Lugo. Both were employed by Mr. Posada at his private security company in Caracas, an office through which many anti-Castro Cubans passed, according to F.B.I. records.
After nearly two weeks of questioning, Mr. Ricardo confessed to the police in Trinidad that he and Mr. Lugo had planted the bomb, disguising it as a tube of toothpaste. The two men had boarded the plane in Port of Spain, checked their luggage and then got off on a stop in Barbados. After the plane went down, 16 minutes after takeoff, they took another flight back to Trinidad, where they were arrested the next day on a tip from the Venezuelan police.
Both implicated Mr. Posada in the plot in their statements to the police, though they did not plainly say he had planned it. Mr. Ricardo admitted that he worked for Mr. Posada. Mr. Lugo said that after the bombing, Mr. Ricardo tried to call Mr. Posada at his office and left a message with a secretary, giving the number of the hotel where they were staying.
In his confession, Mr. Ricardo said he had actually spoken to Orlando Bosch. He said Mr. Bosch was upset and told him: “Friend, we have problems here in Caracas. You never blow up a plane while it is in the air.”
The Venezuelan police also raided Mr. Posada’s offices and discovered, among other things, a scouting list of sites for terrorist attacks in his desk. The list was in Mr. Ricardo’s handwriting and included targets that had been hit by anti-Castro terrorists that summer.
None of this surprised American intelligence agents, according to declassified C.I.A. and F.B.I. documents. Mr. Posada was well known to both agencies. In the 1960s, he had been trained in explosives by the C.I.A. and had worked for the agency from 1965 until 1974, with a single year’s hiatus, the documents show. He continued to peddle unsolicited information to American agents in return for help with visas until his arrest in Venezuela two years later.
The most damning report the American intelligence services had about Mr. Posada came from a Miami-Dade County police officer, Raul Diaz, who had traveled to Venezuela in late October, according to a declassified November 1976 F.B.I. report.
Seeking information about bombings in Miami, Mr. Diaz had met with a Venezuelan counterintelligence agent, Ricardo Morales Navarrete, and asked him to testify.
Mr. Morales said no, but he told Mr. Diaz that he had information about the bombing of the Cuban airliner. He said he had been present at two meetings in Caracas during which the bombing had been planned, one in the Hotel Anauco and another in his own apartment. Mr. Posada had attended both meetings.
There were other less concrete but still tantalizing connections drawn between Mr. Posada and the airplane bombing in American intelligence cables.
In mid-September, when Mr. Bosch arrived in Caracas, Mr. Posada met him at the airport, according to a declassified C.I.A. report from October 1976. Shortly after Mr. Bosch’s arrival, a $1,100-a-plate fund-raiser for him was held in the home of an exiled Cuban physician. Mr. Posada attended. The C.I.A. source said Mr. Bosch had mentioned boastfully that his organization was planning a new attack.
The report continued: “A few days following the fund-raising dinner, Posada was overheard to say that, ‘We are going to hit a Cuban airplane’ and that ‘Orlando has the details.’ ”