‘A high-profile terrorist, or a Cuban patriot – take your pick’
by Joe O'Connor
Feb. 19, 2011
Reprinted from National Post (Canada)
Livio Di Celmo holds a picture of his brother, Fabio, who was killed in a Havana hotel bomb blast allegedly orchestrated by Cuban anti-communist Luis Posada Carriles (Photo: Graham Hughes)
The thing he remembers most, the memory he clings to with all his might and makes him smile even on the darkest days, is his brother’s arrival in Montreal each summer.
The ritual never changed. Fabio Di Celmo would step off a flight from Italy with an empty stomach. One of the remarkable things about him, in addition to his good looks, soccer skills, gentle soul, generous spirit and uncanny ability to make beautiful women swoon, was his appetite.
He could eat like no other. His chief accomplice in his culinary conquests of Montreal restaurants was his older brother, Livio, who would scoop him up at the airport knowing exactly where to go: Chinatown, for lobster.
“He loved Chinese food,” Livio Di Celmo says, chuckling.
“It is emotionally disturbing for me to go back in the memories, and my brother — I have some problems accepting what happened to him.
“I have never really recuperated. And yes, there are thousands of examples I can bring up about him, and who he was, but the bomb that cut his throat in a bad way, that cut his body in a bad way, one part of me has cancelled out the memories — even the nice ones — because it is too painful.”
Fabio Di Celmo and his father Giustino ran an import/export company supplying Cuban hotels with everything from towels to furniture to place settings.
Italian-born, with Canadian residency, Fabio spoke four languages and had a foot in three countries: Italy, Canada and Cuba. When two friends decided to honeymoon in Havana, he insisted on playing tour guide.
They were staying at the Copacabana Hotel. On Sept. 4, 1997, a violent explosion ripped through the lobby, killing the 32-year-old in front of his friends.
“When someone loses a brother, a friend, a relative to terrorism, the first thing you do is mourn them,” Mr. Di Celmo says. “But after the mourning period you start asking yourself, ‘Who was behind this?’ ”
Luis Posada Carriles has had many names over the years. Bambi. Solo. Lupo. Comisario Basilio. He is a Cuban exile. And in Cuba, he is Public Enemy No. 1.
Mr. Posada has been involved in multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. He is suspected of orchestrating the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people and once boasted, in a lengthy interview with The New York Times in 1998, about masterminding the terror campaign targeting Havana hotels and hotspots that ended Fabio Di Celmo’s life.
A former operative of the Central Intelligence Agency, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, an escapee from a Venezuelan prison and a colleague of Oliver North from the Iran-Contra years, he is a cloak-and-dagger character come to life.
“Luis Posada Carriles ranks in the Top 10 list of the most prolific purveyors of violence over the last 40 years,” says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
“His case is nothing less than a test of Washington’s ability to hold terrorists accountable for their actions.”
Mr. Posada celebrated his 83rd birthday last week in El Paso, Tex., where he is on trial. Not for killing Fabio Di Celmo, or blowing a passenger jet out of the sky, but for perjury — for lying to immigration officials about his alleged role in the Havana bombings, among other things.
The case is the modern equivalent of Al Capone being tried for tax evasion. The road to the federal courthouse has been bumpy, characterized by Washington’s reluctance to prosecute a former ally.
Mr. Posada is a naughty reminder of a bygone time, when the United States was openly hostile to the Castro regime. A chemist by training, he was recruited by the CIA in the 1960s and became a master of the dark arts of espionage: A forger, a crack shot, a creator of exploding gizmos and concocter of clever schemes to assassinate Mr. Castro.
He sent two assassins posing as newsmen to Santiago, Chile, in 1971. Hidden inside their camera was a machine-gun. The plot failed — they always did. But the objective never changed: Mr. Castro was a mortal enemy.
Declassified CIA documents from 1965 describe Mr. Posada as “strongly anti-communist.” He was paid US$300 a month and was on the spy agency’s payroll in 1965-67 and 1968-74. His last contact was in 1993, when the agency tipped him off about a plot to kill him in Honduras.
In 2000, he surfaced in Panama and was arrested for scheming to blow up Mr. Castro at a summit meeting. The charge ended with a pardon in 2004 and a triumphant return to Miami in 2005.
In a post-9/11 world, he was a high-profile terrorist, or a Cuban patriot — take your pick — wanted in Venezuela and Cuba, pardoned in Panama and prowling U.S. streets, a free man and one feted by the hardcore segment of Miami exiles who regard him as a hero.
But times have changed. Although then-president George W. Bush periodically met the Cuban-American community to pledge Washington would help bring a change of government in Cuba, the Obama administration has backed away from such rhetoric.
Instead, it has been making symbolic gestures, such as allowing direct mail service to the island after a 49-year embargo and agreeing to welcome it back into the Organization of American States after a 50-year ban.
“Things are changing slowly,” says Abe Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “And in the context of these changes, taking some symbolic step, at least, to sanction Posada Carriles, probably fits in.”
For the U.S. government, the trial, which began in January, is as much about optics as about justice. It is about showing Latin America the U.S. is willing to go after its man — if only on perjury charges.
No matter what the outcome — a guilty verdict would likely put Mr. Posado behind bars for the rest of his life — the proceedings are peppered with hypocrisy.
The accused, with his watery, blue-grey eyes and bullet scars, is an alleged killer accused of lying. And yet, his presence in the court is a reminder of the Cold War, when would-be assassins stashed machine-guns in cameras, Cuban planes fell from the sky and bombs shook Havana hotels.
Through it all, he has remained unrepentant.
“I sleep like a baby,” he told The Times’ Ann Louise Bardach, despite confessing to the Havana bombing campaign (he later recanted). “That Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Judge Kathleen Cardone suspended the proceedings in El Paso last week to consider the defence’s contention that a key prosecution witness is a Cuban counterintelligence agent, a delay that could see her declare a mistrial.
Meanwhile, in Miami, a fund-raiser for Mr. Posada was held at the Big Five Club, the social hub for the city’s Cuban exiles, Friday night. At a similar gala in 2008, about 500 people turned out to support Cuba’s Public Enemy No. 1. Thousands of dollars were raised for his legal defence and fiery speeches
delivered, including one from the celebrity guest.
“We must not wait for Fidel Castro to die,” Mr. Posada told the crowd. “Liberty is not something that is begged for. It is conquered with the sharp edge of the machete.”
A shard of razor-sharp glass is what tore into Fabio Di Celmo’s throat, taking his life, and tearing a family apart. Giustino Di Celmo is 90 now, half-blind from diabetes and living out his days in Cuba because he “feels” his son’s spirit is there.
Ora, the dead man’s mother, has been lost in a fog of depression since the day he died, while his sister, Tiziana, has battled cancer, which the family believes was caused by the stress of his death.
Livio Di Celmo finds the act of remembering almost too much to bear. Bringing his little brother back to life means going to a dark place, and scratching away at a wound that has never healed.
And never will.
“It is emotionally painful to describe what I have gone through because of this,” he says.
“Especially knowing that the mastermind of this terrorist act is not being held accountable.”