Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker
New York Times
The Posada Files
|by Ann Louise Bardach|
An Assassin’s Tale in Three Acts
Bicho malo nunca muere. A bad bug never dies. Cuban Proverb
Two years after the Bay of Pigs invasion ended in ignominious failure on the beaches of Cuba, two young Cuban exiles stood next to each other in the spring sun at Fort Benning, Georgia, training for the next march on Havana. The year was 1963, a time of feverish American plotting against Fidel Castro's rule. The two men had survived the bungled Bay of Pigs operation in which 1,500 anti-Castro exiles trained by the CIA invaded Cuba. More than 100 were killed; the rest were taken prisoner and later swapped for $53 million in medical and food assistance. The two men, Jorge Mas Canosa and Luis Posada, had enlisted in the United States Army, confident that President Kennedy would mount another attack to banish communism from the hemisphere, and they vowed that this time they would succeed. They could not have been more wrong.
In April 1959, Castro and his inner circle traveled to Washington and New York for an unofficial visit - having been invited to address the Association of Newspaper Editors in Washington D.C. He was accorded an inhospitable and inauspicious welcome: President Eisenhower opted to play golf rather than meet with him. Vice president Richard Nixon did meet with him for about three hours and took an instant and famous dislike for the bearded revolutionary. A month earlier, Castro had seized control of the U.S. owned Cuban Telephone Company, a gesture of nationalism which played splendidly in Cuba and disastrously in Washington. By the time Castro finished his U.S. tour - with no pledges or offers of assistance or loans - the Eisenhower administration had decided he had to go.
On March 17, 1960, Eisenhower ordered CIA Director Allen Dulles to begin training Cuban exiles for a planned invasion of Cuba. Seven months later in October, he imposed the original trade embargo against Cuba, initially with exemptions for food and medicine. The rarely used sanction of an embargo was slapped on the island in retaliation for Castro having nationalized all U.S. properties during the summer of 1960. In January 1961, just prior to leaving office, Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. The former World War II hero would leave office, champing at the bit to invade Cuba, a sentiment that he conveyed in no uncertain terms to Kennedy at his hand-off briefing. “In his last hours as president,” writes James Bamford in Body of Secrets, the seminal work on the National Security Agency, “Eisenhower issued what sounded to his successor like an order. ‘The United States cannot allow the Castro Government to continue to exist in Cuba,’” he bluntly told the new president.
Faced with Kennedy’s disdain for a boilerplate coup d’etat, the CIA and Pentagon began its long, colorful and often loony campaign to topple Fidel Castro: assassination attempts, covert raids and all manner of sabotage. Castro, who had an excellent intelligence service from the beginning, was rarely caught unaware. Ever mindful of the fate of Guatemala’s Arbenz, Fidel Castro sought to hedge his bets from his earliest days in power. In February 1960, he met with high level Soviet officials and signed a five year trade deal for sugar and a $100 million extension of credit. Six months later, he threw down the gauntlet and nationalized all American and foreign properties, prompting the U.S. to demand Cuba’s expulsion from the Organization of American States.
Other scenarios, worthy of Dr. Strangelove, submitted to Kennedy included accusing the Cubans of using electronic interference to sabotage the February 1962 mission of astronaut John Glenn if his launch were to fail; downing a remote controlled unmanned plane over Cuba and blaming Castro; and persuading anti-communist islanders to stage riots and attacks on the U.S. base in Guantanamo. Later the Joint Chiefs suggested attacking Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago and making it look as if the Cubans were responsible, hoping this might incite Britain into a war with Castro. Another plan called for using biological warfare against Cuba – in the belief that it would lessen US casualties during an invasion. Despite estimates that biological agents would incapacitate Cuban defenders with illness, killing roughly one percent of those affected, the Pentagon urged its implementation.
Two weeks later, I was checking my messages on my phone machine when I came across a gravelly voiced male speaking somewhat slurred Spanish who identified himself as Ramon Medina. He left a phone number and asked that I call him back. His tone was friendly, almost jocular. I knew that Ramon Medina was the nom de guerre of Luis Posada and I knew that I was onto one of the biggest interviews of my career. At the time, I was working for The New York Times on an investigative series on exile terrorism. I phoned my editor Steve Engleberg, played Posada’s message and offered a translation. Engleberg sighed in amazement. “Call him back, get on a plane and go,” he said.
And he admitted frankly that he was motivated in large part to generate publicity for his bombing campaigns in Cuba. His 1997 operations had targeted hotels and tourist areas, wreaking havoc and alarm throughout the island and in the highest levels of the government. His intention was to soldier on, he said, hoping to garner the maximum attention afforded by a New York Times profile. That would frighten tourists away from visiting Cuba, he reasoned aloud.
During our conversations, Posada often joked about his outlaw activities and lamented that he had devoted his entire adult life to an un-realized goal. His lifelong nemesis, Fidel Castro, remained in power, with no sign of losing his grip. He acknowledged that no anti-communist opposition in the world has been more fervent or well financed than the Cuban exiles living in the States. And yet, as Posada conceded, they have little to show for their efforts. He said that he was especially troubled by the vacuum of leadership and disarray within the exile world since the death of Mas Canosa.
Once, he said, he used it to gain refuge in the American Embassy when he was caught in the middle of a revolution in the West African country of Sierra Leone. A friend of Posada’s said he had purchased the passport from a corrupt passport officer in Miami which bore “a gringo name from Atlanta, Georgia.” "I have a lot of passports," Posada said with a laugh. "If I want to go to Miami, I have different ways to go. No problem.” But, he was cagey about the operational details of his raids and deflected my queries with a joke: "I take the Fifth Amendment.”
At one point, he handed me three sheets of yellow note paper with his credo written out – printed in block letters in Spanish . The oppression, suffering and poverty Castro has propagated, he wrote, has caused 5000 deaths, 1,500,000 political exiles, 150,000 political prisoners and 4,000 Cubans who have “disappeared in the waters of the Caribbean while trying to flee in flimsy boats, ” which he argued, ''gives the right to all free Cubans to rebel in arms against the tyrant, using violence and any method within our reach that contributes to the toppling of the nefarious system and leads to the freedom of our fatherland.''
During the summer of 1965, Posada was ''involved in passing silencers, C-4 explosives, detonators'' and hand grenades to Rosenthal, according to a Defense Department intelligence report. A year later, he supplied 150 small bombs and some fuses to Rosenthal ''under threat of bodily harm.'' The 1967 report dryly states that ''station was only recently advised of this transaction,'' adding that its timing ''suggests Posada may have been moonlighting for Rosenthal and only reported transactions to Agency when it got hotter.'' Rosenthal left Miami for Las Vegas soon after being questioned by police about a series of unsolved bombings.
Even so, on February 13, 1976 the Agency decided to formally break their ties with Posada in what the documents cryptically described as concerns about ''outstanding tax matters.'' Jack Devine, who ran CIA operations in Latin America for 20 years, said that by the time Posada was terminated “he was not in good odor.” Matters deteriorated even more for him in the wake of the Church Hearings in 1975 which were triggered by a fear in Congress that the CIA was running too many rogue operations. The Hearings led to a ban on CIA assassinations. Devine said that the CIA told Posada in that his quest to assassinate Fidel Castro was now strictly his own.
On October 1, 1976, Maria Gonzalez, a graceful 12 year old, unusually tall for her age, fidgeted with excitement in the waiting lounge of the Jose Marti Airport in Havana. With her were nineteen team mates and their coaches, all members of Cuba’s national fencing team. Outside on the tarmac, their bags were being loaded into the hull of a Cubana de Aviacion DC-8 jet, bound for Venezuela. It would be Maria’s first time on an airplane, her first time leaving Cuba, and her first international competition at the prestigious Caribbean Games in Caracas, Venezuela.
As the noisy jet engines revved to a thunderous din, the group was led outside to board the plane. Suddenly, Maria saw one of her coaches running breathlessly towards her. “He came over to me and told me, ‘Maria, I am sorry, but you cannot come with us. We just saw in your passport that you are not yet 13 and all competing members must be at least 13. I am so sorry.’” He explained how they had always assumed that Maria - owing to her height and physical maturity - was well into her teen years. Maria was struck speechless. Her teammates huddled around her and murmured consolation. “I told him that I’d be 13 soon - in February,” she recalled emotionally, 25 years later in the beauty salon she runs on Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue. “He was trying to be very nice to me, but he said no. He said soon I would compete with the team at the Olympics.”
Maria burst into sobs as she was led inside the terminal. Her teammates grasped her arm in solidarity as she walked by. Another team mate, Nancy Uranga, who was 22, was being summoned to the airport to replace her. Uranga was a tall, slender blonde-haired girl well liked by her teammates. Maria and Nancy were good friends, but Maria felt she was the better fencer. “It isn’t fair, “ she complained bitterly to her coach. She ran home to her family’s small apartment in La Vibora in central Havana where she curled up on her narrow bed and wept. “For three days,” she said, “I cried all day and all night.”
For Maria, it was a crushing disappointment in so many ways. Athletes in Cuba are accorded the respect and treatment of movie stars. Modeled on the former Soviet sports prototype of early selection, Olympic champion trainers and unstinting budgets, Cuban athletes rival the finest in the world. Their school, the Escuela Superior Atletas, enrolled more than 3,000 students and was located in the central Havana neighborhood of El Cerro. Although fencing hardly had the cachet of baseball, the national obsession of Cuba, it was highly esteemed by the Soviets. To further ingratiate himself with his patron, Fidel Castro, a dedicated sportsman, had also added judo, volleyball, fencing, sports cherished by the Russians, into Cuba’s curriculum.
Word soon traveled back to Havana that the fencing team had trounced the Venezuelans. Maria heard the news with mixed feelings. She could not help but feel cheated. Now the team would be coming home to a triumphant reception at the Sports School. There would be medals and speeches to honor – all of which only augmented her disappointment.
The jet took off again at 1:15 in the afternoon. They are not in the air more than ten minutes - and only 28 miles south of Barbados - when an explosion thundered through the plane. At 1:24 p.m., the pilot of the plane, 36 year old Wilfredo Perez, frantically contacted the air traffic control tower in Sewell, Barbados. “We have an explosion aboard, we are descending immediately!” Perez hollered into radio speaker system. “Seawell, CU-455, we are requesting immediate landing... We have a total emergency!'' Moments later, a second explosion sundered the plane as it dove into the deep dark waters of the Caribbean, its hulk splintering apart upon impact, then floating downwards 600 meters to the ocean floor.
Late the same day, the students at the National Sports School were hastily called to a school wide assembly in the plaza outside the school where announcements and assemblies were often held. The school’s director walked silently past the students to the front of the outdoor plaza. Her tightly knit features and dour expression betrayed that there would be bad news - maybe another invasion of the island. No one knew. “There’s been a terrible accident,” she said haltingly. “The fencing team’s airplane has crashed. Everyone is dead.”
When a plane tumbles from the sky it is always horrific and incomprehensible, but compounding this tragedy was the fact that the plane had crashed not because of engine failure, pilot error, or any form of mechanical break down. The plane had been blown out of the sky by two time-released bombs packed into its baggage compartment and a restroom. The Cubana downing would be the first time a civilian airline was targeted by terrorists - and up until September 11, 2001, it was the single worst act of air terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.
Among those on board was the fiance of Moraima Secada of the famed singing Cuban group, The Quartet Aida, and the aunt of a future young pop star, Jon Secada. Lazaro Serrano was 32 and suavely handsome. He juggled two careers, one as a Cubana de Aviacion flight attendant, and the second, the passion of his life, as a songwriter and singer. His stage name was Channy Selassie and he wrote songs for Moraima and the Quartet Aida. Omara Portuondo, who sang with the Quartet, and who would have a stunning comeback with the Buena Vista Social Club twenty five years later, remembered her friend’s grief and despair. Moraima Secada would never recover from her fiance's death, said Rosario Moreno, a performer at The Tropicana nightclub and a friend of the couple, who said she watched the virtuoso singer spiral downward into depression and booze.
Nine days later, a memorial was held in Havana for those who had lost their lives in the bombing. On October 15, 1976 more than a million Cubans massed in the Plaza of the Revolution in tribute. The students from the Sports School were asked to participate in the memorial. “Each of us represented a student who had been killed,” said Maria. “I represented my friend Nancy Uranga because she had gone in my place.” Fidel Castro gave a thunderous speech of fury and outrage: “We can say that the pain is not divided among us. It is multiplied among us,” Castro intoned, then warned. “When an energized and virile people weep, injustice trembles before us.”
And each subsequent October 6, Castro would mark the day - railing accusingly at the U.S., and repeat his charge, unsubstantiated, that the CIA had had a hand in bombing. On the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, in 2001, just weeks after the World Trade Center airplane bombings, Castro invoked the air terrorism precedent set by the Cubana downing. He also read off a litany of “terrorist acts” against Cuba including 51 hijackings of Cuban airplanes since 1959. "On a day like today, we have the right to ask what will be done about Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, the perpetrators of that monstrous terrorist act,” railed Castro, “ and about those who planned and financed the bombs that were placed in the hotels in [Cuba], and the assassination attempts against Cuban leaders, which haven't stopped for a minute in more than 40 years."
Based on the pooled intelligence of Venezuela, Cuba and the United States, investigators in Venezuela traced the bombs to the plane's luggage compartment and a restroom. The two Venezuelans, Hernan Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, who had boarded in Trinidad and disembarked in Barbados. Ricardo had a checked bag through to Havana and Lugo had brought a bag aboard. The duo were picked up immediately. It was not long before one of the men confessed to planting the explosives. Both men were employed by Posada at his detective agency and frequently did operations with Bosch and Posada. The police also found what they regarded as incriminating evidence at Posada’s home, including a schedule of Cubana flights. A week later, Venezuelan authorities arrested Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carilles in Caracas and charged them with masterminding the tragedy.
The bombing of the Cubana plane torpedoed Posada's career and fortunes. The day following the downing, the CIA made what its records termed ''unsuccessful attempts'' to reach Posada. Posada proclaimed his innocence and would later blame a Cuban colleague known as Ricardo Morales, aka El Mono, or The Monkey, calling the action ''stupid.'' Morales was killed, rather conveniently, in a brawl in a Key Biscayne bar in 1982.
CIA memoranda, however, tell a different story. One page stamped SECRET, replete with numerous typos and whited out portions, notes Posada’s arrest for the bombing. “Posada suspected of working with Orlando Bosch and others in plot,” it reads. “Also mentioned: Ricardo Morales Navarette, Hernand (sic) Ricardo Lozano, etc. Persons suspected in Letelier killing also mentioned. CIA did trace on them for FBI.” A later notation reports, however, that “as of yet, no hard evidence linking Ricardo Morales in bombing.”
On April 2, 1985, Ricardo Mas Canosa and another Church & Tower employee Agustin Rey went to a bank in Panama and withdrew $50,000. Dividing the cash in half, each man put $25,000 in their briefcases and flew back to Miami. “I gave it to Jorge,” Ricardo said, adding he covered the withdrawal with a deposit of “three checks that amounted to close to $246,000…We would never make the check the same amount because it would be obvious, it would be easy to track.” Ricardo produced the Panamanian bank statement itemizing the three checks that he deposited and the withdrawal. After Ricardo handed his brother the cash, he said that “Felix Rodriguez came into his office and they went behind close doors…They were going to try to spring [Posada] out. Jorge made some comments about some glitches in the operation that it didn’t take place right away.” It would take four more months before Posada would “escape” from prison. This time for good.
In our conversations, Posada underscored that he had yet to be convicted of the Cubana bombing except in Cuba, as he had escaped just prior to his trial in Caracas. Only Freddy Lugo and Hernan Ricardo were convicted of placing the actual bombs. [The two were sentenced to twenty years and were released in 1993.] Posada blamed corruption and political influence-peddling in the Venezuelan justice system for his and Bosch’s long prison stints. Their critics argue the opposite: that because of Venezuelan corruption, Posada and Bosch’s supporters were able to buy them superb accommodations in prison, a courtroom acquittal for Bosch and, ultimately, Posada’s escape.
Posada acknowledged that he might well still be in jail if friends, such as Jorge Mas Canosa, had not come to his rescue. But his version of how the money was raised for escape was somewhat different. He said that a $28,000 bribe for the warden had come from the sale of his house in Venezuela and that the money from Mas and other friends in Miami had paid for other expenses. A third version, from Jose Luis Rodriguez, a former CANF board member, has it that each board member was asked to contribute $2000 in cash per person to facilitate Posada’s escape. It is probable that all three versions are true: that all three sources of cash were needed to cover the expenses of bribing the requisite officials to facilitate such a high profile escape.
Perfect except that Posada’s two accomplices plus the warden, Andres Arana Mendez, went to prison for three years. “He made a hole in the wall and put the money right there,” Posada related with amusement. “And then he painted the wall like no one would see it.” Worse, the warden went on a shopping spree, and took to sporting a new fancy watch and new shoes. He confessed the day after the escape. “It was stupid,” said Posada who said he had warned the warden about what not to do, reminding him that he knew what he was talking about. “I was the police,” said Posada, “I knew the way they investigate. But he didn’t listen to me.”
Posada was delighted. He was not only back in favor - he was on the payroll.
During Bush’s vice-presidency, reports began to surface that his ties to the CIA and to Cuban exiles went back then 1975, when his appointment to head the agency by President Gerald Ford took many insiders by surprise. In 1988, The Nation magazine published two articles by Joseph McBride, along with a reproduction of an FBI memo written on November 29, 1963 from J. Edgar Hoover to the State Department. The memo reported that the FBI had briefed “Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency” soon after the assassination of President Kennedy on the reactions of exiles in Miami, many of whom were deeply resentful of Kennedy, pointing out that “even among those who did not entirely agree with the President’s policy concerning Cuba.” Hoover’s memo stated that George Bush and an officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency had been briefed the day after the assassination because of fears of the State Department that “some misguided anti-Castro group might capitalize on the present situation and undertake an unauthorized raid against Cuba, believing that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy might herald a change in US policy, which not true.”
The article was picked up by a good deal of the media including the AP, CNN and the New York Times. A Bush spokesman suggested that the person named in the memo “must be another George Bush.” But McBride had built a detailed and compelling case that he had the right Bush, and that Bush’s career with the agency went back at least to 1960. Other chroniclers of this period, have gone further, stating that Bush’s ties with the intelligence agency go back to the OSS (the CIA predecessor) during World War II. If so, he was continuing in the family business. His father, Prescott Bush, was in army intelligence in World War I.
According to McBride’s intelligence sources, Bush began work at the CIA in 1960, using his Houston based oil business, with its business dealings in the Caribbean and Latin America, as a "part time purchasing front" and cover for intelligence activities. If so, he was well placed to play a helpful role in the Bay of Pigs invasion and during the Cuban Missile Crisis and would have made some useful contacts who later became players in Iran-Contra.
The Reagan-Bush presidencies (1981-1993) were the glory years for Luis Posada. The administration had all but extinguished diplomacy with Cuba – and, in the unlikely event that Castro did not hear the new message, the 1988 invasion of Grenada, a Cuban ally, sent an unmistakable signal. Indeed, several in the Reagan administration were not shy about seeking a direct confrontation with Cuba. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, according to Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon, gave Reagan’s inner circle a fright one day when he declared, “Give me the word and I’ll make that island a fucking parking lot.”
On another occasion, Cannon learned from former National Security adviser Robert (Bud) McFarlane that Haig had commanded him to “get a bunch of brothers from CIA, Defense, and the White House and you put together a strategy for toppling Castro. And in the meantime, we’re going to eliminate this lodgement in Nicaragua from the mainland.” When word came back that such a venture was simply not going to fly, Haig went ballistic. “This is just trash, limp-wristed, traditional cookie-pushing bullshit,” he boomed. But Haig, along with CIA chief Bill Casey, was undeterred. Haig wanted a naval blockade of Cuba and persisted in advocating it, according to Cannon, until the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense chief Caspar Weinberger finally put the brakes on him.
Even after that, Haig would make two public threats against Cuba, declaring his plans “to go to the source” of the Nicaraguan problem, meaning Cuba. Leslie Gelb, then a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, recalled the effect that Haig’s pronouncements had on the Cuba’s military brass. “They were really worried about what he was saying,” said Gelb, who met with Haig to discuss the matter, and later one of Cuba’s top generals. Haig give no indication that he was bluffing or that he had no support behind him. “He didn’t say he wouldn’t intervene in Cuba,” he said. Five years later, Gelb met with Rosales del Toro, the chief of staff of the Cuban Military. “He began the session with this impassioned speech about how if the United States attacks Cuba,” recalled Gelb. “He went on about ‘how we’ll fight, and we’ll lose, but we’ll spill a lot of American blood. And he was thumping the table, but in a way that you could see that he assigned some real probability. Then I said to him, ‘I don’t think that there is any chance we’ll invade Cuba, I’ve been in and out of government and I just don’t think it will happen, I don’t think there is any support in the United States for it. He got up from his seat at the table, with tears coming out of his eyes, and embraced me and thanked me for this.”
But the Administration was certainly ready to intervene in Central America and seemed unruffled by Posada’s checkered past. Indeed, they were well aware of the fact that Posada had been given a Salvadoran passport and drivers license in the name of Ramon Medina Rodriguez. Almost immediately he was put in charge of organizing the flights that ferried supplies for the Contras from the Salvadoran air base at Ilopango to the battlefront in Nicaragua. Among his duties was coordinating the efforts of the Contras and the secret American advisers, pilots and soldiers with their allies in the Salvadoran military. Posada had cultivated numerous friendships within the right wing Salvadoran government, its military and with members of its notorious death squads. With their mutual loathing of communism and Fidel Castro, it was a marriage which served both parties well. Posada, working closely with Rodriguez, directed the drops of military supplies to the Contras in the Nicaraguan jungle. With his good command of English, he served as the primary translator for the operation.
In a six and a half hour interview on behalf of the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC) with two FBI special agents conducted at the American Embassy in Honduras, Posada was both revealing and cagey. The interview, conducted on February 7, 1992, was declassified three years later although large portions were deleted or blacked out. It described Posada as the “field manager” of Iran-Contra and the liaison between Juan Rafael Bustillo, the Salvadoran general with close ties with his country’s paramilitary death squads, and American pilots. Posada said he set up the various safe houses in El Salvador where American personnel worked and lived and kept their sophisticated surveillance and communication encryption systems.
He was also entrusted with a great deal of money. Iran-Contra proved to be a cash cow for the newly released prisoner. Posada told the FBI agents that he was “paid $3,000 a month plus housing, a car, maid service, food and all other expenses.” He also earned $750 for every flight he took as part as the re-supply operation, often averaging another $7,000 a month in addition to his salary.
“Posada took care of all the matters concerning housing arrangements,” the report states. “He paid the leases, the maids and all utilities and phone bills for each house…including keeping [them] stocked with food and beer….Posada recalls that the re-supply project was always looking for people to carry cash from the United States into El Salvador for Posada to dispense…always worried about the restriction on only taking $10,000 out of the U.S. at one time.” The primary source of money was Richard Secord, who was directing the operation for Oliver North. Southern Air Transport (SAT) flew weekly into Ilopango with supplies, personnel and cash as needed.
When questioned about visitors from Miami, Posada was evasive with investigators saying he “didn’t meet these Cuban visitors because he didn’t want to meet any Cubans,” according to the report. “He made it a point not to let the Miami Cuban community know he was there…because it would get out.” He also sought to protect his friend Jorge Mas Canosa, saying that he “knew about the operation but was not involved….Mas is too busy with his lobbying activity, that’s why Posada doesn’t try to contact him.”
But this was hardly the case. Posada told me that he had hosted Mas Canosa, who was spearheading aid for the Contras in Miami, and the late Miami congressman Claude Pepper in El Salvador. “Jorge said to me, ‘Do me a favor. Take him on a tour to see the guerrillas.’ This man must have been 100 years old and he could barely sit up in the helicopter,” he related with laughter. “We had to put him on top of a box and he was sleeping. Felix was flying and I manned the gun turret and Jorge and this man sat in the middle. It took six hours to get inside [the jungle] and six hours to get out.” Pedro Reboredo, a Miami city commissioner, also came to visit Ilopango although Posada claimed not to have met with him.
Posada wrote in his autobiography that in April 1986, Oliver North, Air Force Major General Richard Secord and Dick Gadd, a senior American military officer flew by Lear Jet from Washington to Ilopango to meet with him, Contra Commander Enrique Bermudez, El Salvador’s Air Force commander, Gen. Juan Rafael Bastillo, and Felix Rodriguez. In the FBI report, Posada said “the Contras wanted better aircraft,” but that “North said don’t worry about it because Americans will fly the planes.” During the meeting, it was decided that all future flights to re-supply the Contras with military hardware would be flown by American pilots, not Salvadoran soldiers. Following their meeting, Posada said he gave Gadd a full tour of the Contra operation.
Posada also told the OIC investigators that Oliver North “had pressured the U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs to help,” with the re-supply operation. “Tambs then went to see [Costa Rica’s] President Monge and threatened him to allow the re-supply activity to take place,” using Costa Rica’s airbases. He also confirmed that Edwin Corr, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, was fully in the loop of the secret operation.
The flights ended abruptly on October 8, 1986 when the Sandinista forces shot down one of the C-123 transport planes used to make drops to the Contras. Two American soldiers were killed while a third, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted safely to the ground. Posada said he had forever teased Hasenfus, whose job was to kick the supplies out of the plane to the Contras waiting below, about his habit of wearing his parachute all the time. Posada had himself been scheduled to fly aboard the downed aircraft but had narrowly missed the flight, he said, “by minutes.” He said he was especially close to Matthew Cooper who was killed in the crash, along with the other American soldier. Captured by the Nicaraguan Government, Hasenfus soon spilled the beans about the covert Contra operation. He also disclosed that the operation in the field was being directed by a Cuban exile known as Max Gomez whose real name was Felix Rodriguez. It was not long before the world learned that Ramon Medina, as described by Hasenfus, was actually Luis Posada Carriles, the international terrorist fugitive.
Hasenfus’ capture was an international front page story and a nightmare for the White House. The key players flew into a frantic damage control mode with Oliver North instructing his secretary to shred his memoranda. Posada told the FBI in 1992 that when Hasenfus’ flight did not return, he immediately called Felix Rodriguez who was in Miami. “Rodriguez told him that Radio Havana had already announced the downing of an aircraft,” according to the OIC report. “Rodriguez told Posada that he would call people in Washington about the missing flight. Posada then went to the re-supply houses and told everyone what had happened.”
Days later, as reporters converged on Ilopango, a fortuitous earthquake struck El Salvador diverting all attention from Iran-Contra for several days. During the earthquake diversion, Posada said some daring-do on his part may have saved Reagan and Bush from impeachment. While El Salvador attended to a full scale rescue, Posada raced into San Salvador and picked up some 30 American military personnel and advisers who were hiding out from reporters in safe houses. In his memoir, Posada recounted how he arrived with a truck and cleaned out all the safe houses in the country’s capitol, ferrying everyone to Ilopango and to Bustillo’s to dispose of damaging documents and communication equipment.
Soon after Hasenfus’ disappearance, Posada’s point man for the operation, Robert Dutton, told him that they had been debriefed by the FBI on the debacle and had informed them about Posada’s work for the operation. He was told that “the FBI wanted to talk to him at 8:00 a.m. the next day,” the report notes. “However, the FBI never called Posada. Later Dutton told Posada that it was okay, that the FBI wouldn't investigate. Dutton said that Washington had ‘stopped the investigation.’”
It is clear from the OIC report, that a rift had grown between Posada and his former comrade in arms, Felix Rodriguez. Posada described his relationship with Rodriguez after Iran-Contra as frosty. “Felix was always on the phone talking with Donald Gregg, (national security advisor to Vice President George Bush),” Posada said to me. “He talked too much.'' In the OIC report, FBI agents wrote that “Posada recalls that Rodriguez was always calling Gregg. Posada knows this because he is the one who paid Rodriguez’s phone bill. Posada was present at times when Rodriguez talked to Gregg.”
“In Posada’s opinion, Rodriguez is talkative, immature and has ego problems,” the report states. “Given what Posada knows about Rodriguez’ personality, Posada assumes that Rodriguez told Gregg and other friends about the re-supply project. Posada feels this way because to talk like this is “in his nature.” Posada illustrates his point by telling the story of a scorpion who wanted to cross a stream, however, the scorpion couldn’t swim. The scorpion asked a frog to take him across, but the frog is afraid the scorpion will sting and kill him. The scorpion reassures the frog by saying, ‘I wouldn’t sting you because if I did, you would drown and I would fall in the water and also drown.’ The frog agrees to take the scorpion and gets half way across the stream when the scorpion stings him. As the frog is drowning he asks the scorpion, ‘Why did you do it? Now we’ll both drown.’ The scorpion replied, ‘I couldn’t help myself, it’s in my nature.’”
Matters came to a head during a contentious meeting between Donald Gregg and Rodriguez on August 12, 1986. When Rodriguez came back, said Posada, he went and saw Bustillo, the Salvadoran general handling the operation, informing him that he had been called “a security risk and had to get off the project.” The Salvadoran general responded genially, telling him, “Okay, then you can be the liaison between me and the re-supply operation.” Posada pointed out another pitfall of the illegal re-supply operation, in the OIC report. Filed in February 1992. In reference to General Bustillo, Posada said “it’s a sensitive situation because Bustillo has been linked to the Jesuit murders" [Bustillo was named as one of the generals responsible for the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.]
On July 14, 1988, Felix Rodriguez was summoned to testify at the Senate’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations chaired by Sen. John Kerry. Not only had Hasenfus blown the whistle on him and Posada, Rodriguez had been implicated by a notation in Oliver North’s notebook, which had escaped the shredder: “Felix Rodriguez still had not got the 50G from Mas.”
To the chagrin of a number of people in the Reagan Administration, Rodriguez was not a “good soldier” willing to fall on his sword. He could, after all, have disappeared for a period in Central America and dodged a subpoena or he could simply have taken the Fifth Amendment. Instead, he did testify under oath in a closed session for several hours. Rodriguez confirmed that he had spoken with Mas Canosa about giving him the $50,000 noted in North’s notebook, but then refused to provide further details. “I will not discuss that, Senator,” Rodriguez told the Committee. “It would create speculation, whatever it is, and I will not talk about it.” Pressed by Kerry, Rodriguez responded almost haughtily. “Ask Oliver North, Senator,” he said. But Rodriguez made one notably startling admission. He told the committee that he had met with George Bush, adding that he had proudly shown the Vice President a photograph of himself with his captive Che Guevara hours prior to the famous guerilla’s execution.
Rodriguez’s testimony foreclosed the possibility of “plausible deniability” for George Bush who subsequently refused to answer questions about the scandal. Incensed, Senator Tom Harkin observed that the American people "deserve a full accounting of Vice president Bush and the vice president's office and its knowledge of Luis Posada's role in the secret Contra re-supply operation." He mused aloud as to "why Bush never bothered to use his good offices to investigate charges of Posada's links with the supply operation and Felix Rodriguez even after the press reported them in late 1986." The Office of the Independent Counsel thought it was a question well worth pursuing.
Four years later, Posada confirmed the connection with Vice President George Bush with the OIC investigators. “Posada was aware of Rodriguez’s contacts with the office of the Vice President (OVP),” the report states. “Rodriguez told Posada that he wanted to talk to then Vice President George Bush and that he arranged a meeting through his friend Donald Gregg,” Bush’s liaison on Iran-Contra and who is described in the report as “good and old friend” of Feliz Rodriguez going back to when the two served in Vietnam together. Rodriguez related his 1986 meeting with Bush to Posada, saying that he told “Bush that ‘Salvador is very good,’ and updated the vice president on “the situation in El Salvador…However what got Rodriguez very mad was that Bush said nothing at all in response,” Posada told the investigators. “Bush just thanked Rodriguez…This really hurt Rodriguez’s ego.” Posada dismissed Rodriguez’s importance to me saying that Rodriguez had one meeting alone with Bush in Washington, where they discussed “the Salvador situation and the guerrillas. Felix met Bush for five minutes.”
Posada portrayed himself to me as the good soldier, the Iran-Contra warrior who kept his mouth shut. ''They wanted me to come to Washington to testify against Oliver North. I refused to go,'' he told me proudly, adding disparagingly that ''Felix went and testified. You see, he's like a boy, like a child. Felix was an enemy of Oliver North.”
But the OIC report makes clear that Posada also was prepared to come to Washington and testify – albeit four years after Rodriguez and after hearings had concluded. “Posada would be willing to come to Washington, D.C. to meet with the OIC,” the report says towards the end. Of course, Posada had his own motives: another operation for his wounds from the assassination attempt on him and some peace and tranquility in the States. “Posada would like to come to the United States eventually,” continued the report. “He is tired and wants to move on in his life. He also misses his family in Miami.”
Posada said that he himself never met Bush but that he was certain that the Administration was well aware of his involvement in Iran-Contra. “Who could deny that this operation was not controlled, sanctioned and run from Washington?” Posada wrote in his memoir. “Our orders in El Salvador came from the White House… Coding and decoding machines - restricted to the NSA [National Security Agency] - were provided for each of our safe houses.” When I pressed Posada on who in the Administration knew about the operation, Posada made a incredulous face. “It would be very difficult for Reagan not to [have] known what was going on,” he said. Then his gravelly voice rumbled with a deep laugh. “Everybody knew.”
A 1987 bi-partisan U.S. Comptroller General office report entitled “White Propaganda” concluded that Reich’s office “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” and that it had used tax payer revenue for illegal public relations and lobbying. As a result, the office was shut down but Reich escaped prosecution. Instead, he was dispatched to Venezuela where he served as ambassador from 1986 to 1989. However, he was not welcomed by the Venezuelan government who felt he was an ideologue who had been tainted by the Iran-Contra scandal. Despite their efforts to derail the nomination, Reich was confirmed.
On the other hand, Reich’s presence in Venezuela did much to hearten his fellow exiles Posada and Rodriguez, who viewed him as an ally. No sooner had the new ambassador been installed, he distinguished himself in his efforts to facilitate the release of Orlando Bosch from prison. A half dozen declassified CIA and State Department cables leave little doubt that Reich used his position to lobby for Orlando Bosch, a man whom the Bush Justice Department had concluded, had participated in more than 30 terrorist actions.
When Reich began his term as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela in June 1986,
The Justice Department had reviewed a 1987 letter from FBI special agent George Davis to Secretary of State George Schultz in which he warned against Bosch being allowed re-entry to the U.S. “My colleagues and I conducted exhaustive investigations of Bosch from the time of his arrival….He was regarded by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as Miami’s number one terrorist.” Bush’s own Attorney General, Richard Thornburgh, described Bosch as an "unreformed terrorist." Six months later, the Justice Department concluded that Bosch should be deported from the U.S.
In an unusual, perhaps unprecedented twist, President Bush rejected his own Justice Department’s recommendation. In a stunning presidential intercession on behalf of a convicted terrorist, Bush expedited the release of Bosch in 1990. In 1992, he even granted Bosch U.S. residency. In exchange, Bosch agreed to renounce violence. The New York Times opined that the Bush Administration had “squander(ed) American credibility on issues of terrorism.” Bosch was promptly hired to work for Alberto Hernandez, who would succeed Mas Canosa as chairman of CANF, at his Pan American Hospital for a salary of $1500 a month.
One high level State Department official complained of seeing Bosch on Flagler Avenue rallying support and funds for commando operations against Cuba. “I would call the Justice Department and tell them Bosch is violating his parole again,” said the official. “And they would tell me, ‘fine, we’ll pick him up. But you know Jeb is going to get on the horn with his father and he’ll be right back on the street again.’”
Orlando Bosch certainly was confident that he was not going to be held accountable for what he said or did. Upon his release, he was defiantly unrepentant. He defended the bombing, asserting that “all of Castro’s airplanes are warplanes.”
In 1991, Bosch told columnist Andres Oppenheimer that the bombing of the Cubana plane was “a legitimate action of war” because “Castro’s aviation has always been military.” He also questioned the innocence of the deceased athletes whom he referred to as “fencers serving the regime.” Bosch argued that the young team had taken “a risk” by flying in a Cubana plane “because we are at war.” In 1993, Bosch held a showing of his paintings in Miami in which the proceeds would buy what he termed “the ingredients for The Mix.” Queried by Herald reporter Gerardo Reyes as to the exact meaning of the Mix, Bosch responded that “we’re not talking about flowers or meat pies.” Reyes wrote, “the Mix is Bosch’s euphemism for the elements that will underwrite an insurrection in Cuba.”
Certainly, Bosch never went into retirement. In 1997, the Cuban government charged that he had been assisting Luis Posada’s bombing campaign by having sent “explosive materials” to Cuba. Bosch initially denied the charge, slyly adding, “Besides, even if we had, we would deny it because it’s illegal.” More recently, however, he admitted that the charge was true. And in late 2001, he reaffirmed his support for the Cubana bombing, telling a Miami reporter, “There were no innocents on that plane.”
A New Life
While Orlando Bosch was being reincarnated in Miami as a “freedom fighter,” Luis Posada found himself being pushed further underground by the Iran-Contra hearings. Well aware that he was radioactive during the hearings, Posada stayed out of the States ensuring that he could not be subpoenaed to appear before Congress. His home base, since his prison escape, had been El Salvador, where he was held in high regard by both the military and well placed officials in the government. Long estranged from his wife Nieves, who had re-settled with his children in Miami, Posada set up housekeeping with a young Salvadoran widow named Angela Bosch (no relation to Orlando Bosch), known as Titi.
At loose ends, Posada signed on as a security consultant to Vinicio Cerezo, Guatemala's first elected civilian President in a generation. Cerezo's biggest challenge was to curb the power of the Guatemalan military. Posada's reputation for loyalty and tenacity made him the ideal choice to keep an eye on restive officers who might be planning a coup. Posada took a dim view of the Guatemalans. ”It’s the worst military in Latin America and the most corrupt,” he said contemptuously. “They cannot be trusted. They’ll kill anyone because they have no ideology.” To illustrate the scope of their depravity, Posada brought up the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death in April 1998, days after the release of a report blaming the military for most of the 200,000 deaths in their civil war. “The Army killed the Bishop – because he talked about [human] rights and those that disappeared. Of course they did it,” he said, with an incredulous grimace. “The Guatemalan Army are bandits.”
While freelancing in Venezuela and Guatemala, Posada continued his campaign against the Cuban Government, keeping in close touch with friends in Miami. His most crucial contact at this point was Gaspar Jimenez, jailed for six years for the 1976 murder of a Cuban diplomat in Mexico and later identified by investigators as the principal suspect in the bombing attack of Emilio Millian, a popular exile radio show host who had condemned exile violence. Jimenez, known as El Gordo because of his 300 pound heft, spent much of the 1990’s working for Alberto Hernandez, Mas Canosa‘s right hand at CANF. For years, Jimenez had ferried money and messages to Posada. A knowledgeable source who has known Jimenez for 40 years, said the money came from contributions from exiles in Miami and that Jimenez gave Posada $15,000 ''for every act of sabotage.''
Posada's activities were brought to an abrupt halt on February 28, 1990 when three gunmen, whom he described as Cuban intelligence operatives, approached his car as it was stopped in traffic in Guatemala City and opened fire. He was hit by a dozen bullets and survived, he said, only because he was able to drive himself to a gasoline station and scratch out a note that mentioned his relationship with Cerezo and ask for an ambulance. ''It took two years and three surgeries to recover,'' Posada said. ''My last surgery was a year ago. A doctor friend from Houston came down and operated on me at an army base in El Salvador.'' In his memoir, Posada said his medical bills, some $22,000, were paid by friends in Miami, notably Alberto Hernandez and Feliciano Foyo of CANF. He also received a helpful check from his old colleague Richard Secord for $1000, according to the OIC report, after he sent him one of his paintings.
Posada was certain that his attackers were Cuban operatives, citing information provided to him by an unidentified friend in the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. ''They were supposed to kidnap me and take me back to Cuba, interrogate me and have me confess on television,'' he maintained, although he acknowledged that his enemies were many and did not begin and end with Fidel Castro. Guerrilla groups in Venezuela, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador had all been victims of his anti-communist zeal. Posada’s longtime friend and patron Miguel, who actively assisted his escape from prison, recalled the vengeance with which Posada hunted leftist guerrillas in Venezuela. “He would dress as a peasant and would tell a campesino, ‘Oh I’ve lost my way,’ and they would direct him to the guerillas and he would go there and wipe them all out,” Miguel explained. “Once he hunted down a guerilla and tied a grenade to his chest, then tied it around himself and told him, ‘Show me your hiding place and if you trick me into an ambush, we die together.’”
Posada did some of his recuperation in Honduras, a country which had been a base of Iran-Contra operations and whose right wing military had always been hospitable to him. In fact, the FBI suspect that he was behind 41 bombings in Tegucialga, the capital, cases that remain unsolved but open. By 1993, he was back in action. Ever more determined to bring down Fidel Castro’s government, he found a sea captain in Honduras willing to advise him of the comings and goings of Cuban ships, which Posada could then attack. Posada said he only intended to use a “small mine” to destroy one freighter not to sink it but the opportunity never came. Another plot involved Col. Guillermo Pinel Calix, then head of Honduran military intelligence, whom he said had offered a clandestine base of operations in Honduras to a half dozen Miami exiles from which they could run operations and attacks on Cuba. The deal unraveled when Posada and his cohorts decided that they could not trust the famously corrupt Honduran military - even with more than a quarter million dollars of bribes in play.
"That was an inside operation in Cuba," Posada said, referring to Cruz Leon’s bombing spree. "It is the only way to create an uprising there.” He reflected a moment and added, "There are several ways to make a revolution, and I have been working on some. We didn't want to hurt anybody, we just wanted to make a big scandal so that the tourists don't come anymore," he said. "We don't want any more foreign investment in Cuba.” The bombs were also intended, Posada said, to sow doubts abroad about the stability of Castro's regime and to encourage internal opposition. "People are not afraid anymore, they talk openly in the street," he said. "But they need something to start the fire, and that's my goal.”
“Very soon there will be exciting news," he added, with a measure of glee. Posada said that it “took maybe a month or two” to arrange the 1997 bombings, which he organized from El Salvador and Guatemala, using explosives obtained through his contacts there. Couriers, like Cruz Leon, ferried the explosives into Cuba and detonated them at targets carefully selected by Posada.
"Everything is compartmentalized," he explained. "I know everybody but they
Posada's remarks suggested that the Foundation's public advocacy of purely non-violent opposition to Castro was a carefully crafted fiction. I asked whether he functioned in reality as the Foundation's military wing, much as the Irish Republican Army served the Sinn Fein party. "It looks like that," he replied, and laughed again.
Posada bemoaned the fact that Cuba was not the burning issue to the Clinton White House that it had been to earlier administrations. ''It's been a long time since I've done anything for them,'' he said, referring to the CIA. ''The problem is that they think the money which helped me in the operation came from the States,'' a violation of American law. When it was suggested that that was indeed the case, he replied. ''Yes, it's obvious.'' Still, he fretted about how seriously the Clinton Justice Department and the CIA were going to pursue the matter. Posada said he had received an another important assist from his friends at the Foundation in August 1997 when CANF issued a statement saying they did not condemn the bombing campaign in Cuba.
Augmenting Posada’s sadness over the death of Mas Canosa, who had died six months prior to our meeting, was the knowledge that Cuba today is a very different country from the one he left four decades ago. And no matter who takes power next, it will never be the country of his youth. “When I left Cuba, it was 20% black,” Posada said, citing one example. “Now it’s 70% black. ” There was also the nagging thought that his nemesis, Fidel Castro, might outlive him, as did proved to be case for Mas Canosa. ''Maybe I pass away before Castro,'' he said. ''Nobody knows.'' I reminded him that the Castro family tends to be long lived and that one relative had celebrated her 105th birthday. Posada groaned, ''Oh my God.'' Then wagging his finger, Cuban style in front of his face, he quoted a popular proverb, derived from the Cuban tradition of slaughtering a hog for a holiday meal: ''A cada lechon se le llega su Nochebuena,'' or ''Every pig gets its Christmas Eve.''
George Kiszinski, phoned Alvarez back and said a colleague would call soon to arrange to speak with him. In the meantime, Kiszinski urged Alvarez to leave Guatemala immediately. ''He told me my life was in danger, that these were dangerous people, and urged me to get out of Guatemala,'' said Alvarez, then a 62-year-old engineer. ''But I never heard from him again.''
Plainly embarrassed, a spokesman for the FBI explained that a friendship between the two men was implausible. “Agent Kiszinski has had two contacts with him in his entire life, the last of which was a number of years ago.'' Posada told a different story. He expressed confidence that the FBI was not examining his operations in Guatemala, because ''the first person they would want to talk to is me, and nobody called.'' Nor, he said, did anyone try to interview his collaborators. ''I would know,'' he said smoothly, adding that it was Kiszinski who interrogated him in Honduras about his role in the Iran-Contra affair for the Office of the Independent Counsel in 1992. He said that the agent had also confirmed to him a year earlier that an informant in Guatemala had notified the FBI about the bombing plots. Posada added that he had a second contact in the FBI. “I know a very high up person there,” Posada said, noting that his source had protected him in 1995 when the State Department asked for his whereabouts. “They wanted to know where I was,” he said, “and the FBI said, ‘No, we have no helpful information in this case.’”
When FBI agents finally did meet with Alvarez, they heard a remarkable tale about the anti-Castro underworld and its links between the plotters in Guatemala City and Cuban exiles living in Union City, New Jersey.
At first, Alvarez said, things seemed to be running smoothly. But he soon noticed that his partners were spending much of their time with a strange visitor, a Cuban with and a strangled voice ''like that of a deaf-mute,'' giving their guest free rein to make phone calls from the office to El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Spain and the United States. Eventually, Alvarez’s partners confided to him that the visitor was the infamous Luis Posada Carriles, known to his friends by the ironic nickname Bambi or Lupo, Italian for wolf.
One day, early in 1997, as Alvarez recalled, Posada came by the office and disbursed ''a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills'' to his partners. They, in turn, ''were going to an electronics store and buying detonators and small calculators with timers.” That was suspicious enough, Alvarez said. But his biggest surprise came when he found explosives in an office closet. ''In a plastic bag,'' he said, ''they had 23 tubes of stuff made by the Mexican military industry, supposedly the latest in explosive materials in the world. I saw it.'' In addition to Posada, two Guatemalans, whom Alvarez identified as Marlon Gonzalez and Jorge Rodriguez, frequented the office. Both men were introduced to him as friends and former army buddies of Burgos. Posada said that the two worked for him as bomb makers not out of any conviction but motivated by greed, he said, because ''that was how to make the big bucks.''
In April 1997, the first reports of an explosion in the discotheque of Havana's most fashionable hotel, the Melia Cohiba, were published in Miami. Those accounts were promptly denied by the Cuban Government, which relies on tourism as its principal source of hard currency. Over the next five months, however, more than a half dozen explosions occurred at hotels, restaurants and discotheques in Havana and the chic beach resort of Varadero. Cuba was forced to acknowledge the attacks. Asked how the explosives had been smuggled in, Posada laughed and replied: ''You know what a circus is? Inside an elephant.'' It was a cryptic remark, but probably, in fact, true. Cruz Leon, the Salvadoran charged in several of the bombings, had worked for a private security agency in El Salvador. According to his mother, one of his assignments was protecting a Mexican circus that toured Central America and later traveled to Cuba.
Posada was vexed by the Cuban government’s reluctance to acknowledge much of his handiwork. It was not until three years later that the Cubans, not wanting to negatively impact their tourism industry, finally admitted the extent of it. “On October 19, we discovered an explosive device hidden in a van owned by a Cuban tourist agency. On the 30th of that month, a similar device was found under a kiosk at a coffee shop in José Martí Airport,'' said a Cuban official in late 2000. He added that between April and October 1997, at least nine bombs exploded in several hotels and one restaurant, leaving one person dead and at least eleven injured, all of them foreign tourists.
Then, in August ’97, at the height of the bombing campaign in Cuba, Tony Alvarez intercepted a fax that Posada had sent from El Salvador and signed with another of his noms de guerre, Solo, after Napoleon Solo, hero of the 1960’s television spy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Posada admitted that he had written the document, a copy of which was given to me by a Venezuelan official. The fax referred to the reluctance of American news organizations to take seriously the claims of Miami exile groups that bombs were going off in Cuba. ''If there is no publicity, the job is useless,'' Posada’s message read. ''The American newspapers will publish nothing that has not been confirmed. I need all the data from the discotheque in order to try to confirm it. If there is no publicity, there is no payment.'' The fax also discussed payments for bombings, saying that money would be ''sent by Western Union from New Jersey'' to ''liquidate the account for the hotel.'' But Posada was cagey as to who was sending the money. “Somebody, a friend of a friend, “ provided him with the names,” he said with a wink. “A priest.” Then he darkened, and added with a tone of resignation. “They are going to put the finger on me.”
The document instructed Pepe Alvarez to collect electronic transfers of $800 each from four Cuban exiles living in Union City. One of the men identified in the fax was Abel Hernandez, the owner of Mi Bandera (My Flag), a supermarket, restaurant and a Western union office in Union City, a heavily Cuban-American town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. At the restaurant's entrance, one of Posada's paintings was hung facing a photograph of Hernandez arm-in-arm with Jorge Mas Canosa. Hernandez denied knowing Posada and sending him money. Curiously, when I returned to the restaurant days after the series on Posada ran in the New York Times, the painting had disappeared from the wall.
Tony Alvarez recounted that Posada’s fax so alarmed him that he wrote a letter to Guatemalan intelligence, apprising them of ''this horrendous matter.'' Alvarez also recalled overhearing plans for an attack on Castro during a scheduled visit to Guatemala in December 1996 and again at the Ibero-American Summit on Margarita Island in November 1997. Prior to Castro’s arrival, more than 250 Venezuelan and Cuban agents combed the exclusive Isla Bonita Hotel, where the gathering was to be held. Cuban exiles who had flocked to the island to protest Castro’s visit were expelled before his arrival. Still, Castro took precautions and flew to the island with a protective convoy of three jets.
Four Men In A Boat
On October 27, 1997, four men were stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard in a 46 foot long cabin cruiser off Puerto Rico. Almost immediately, one of the men, Angel Alfonso Aleman, blurted out that he was on a mission to kill Castro. American law enforcement quickly determined that the boat was registered and owned by a member of the executive board of the Cuban-American National Foundation, Jose Antonio Llama, while one of the sniper rifles aboard was traced back to CANF’s president, Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez.
Llama and six other men were indicted in August 1998 on charges of conspiring to assassinate Fidel Castro during his visit to Margarita Island. According to the indictment, Llama ''obtained a .50-caliber rifle'' and bought a boat for his fellow conspirators and ''other persons known and unknown…'to kill, with malice aforethought, Fidel Castro at a place outside the United States.'' Investigators soon discovered that Llama’s boat, aptly named La Esperanza (Hope), had left from a private dock in Coral Gables, Fla. owned by the business partner of Feliciano Foyo, another Foundation official. A second rifle was registered to Juan Evelio Pou, another CANF member and old comrade of Posada’s.
Although the indictment did not mention CANF, the Foundation took it as an attack on itself, denouncing the charges as a witch hunt. According to lawyers for Pepe Hernandez and Tony Llama, both were notified that they were targets of a federal investigation, a formal step prosecutors take when they are seriously considering an indictment. Indeed, Hernandez’s attorney held a news conference saying he expected his client to be indicted and denouncing the prosecution as a politically motivated attack on CANF. But, to the surprise of many, Hernandez was never indicted. A Justice Department official had called him ''not a minor player'' in the affair, but the rumor mill in Miami had it that Senator Joe Lieberman, a staunch Democratic ally of CANF, had lobbied Attorney General Janet Reno to drop Hernandez’s indictment.
The others named in the indictment were Jose Rodriguez Sosa, Alfredo Otero, Angel Alfonso Aleman, Angel Hernandez Rojo, Juan Bautista Marquez and Francisco Secundino Cordova. According to the charges, the would-be assassins traveled to Isla Margarita, Venezuela to scout a location for killing Castro and picked a hilltop overlooking the airport there.
Angel Alfonso Aleman, the ostensible leader of the failed expedition, is an intense, wiry, voluble Cuban with a childlike smile. A man of courtly manners, Alfonso was a former Cuban political prisoner of twenty years for anti-Castro activities, and an unabashed supporter of Posada Carriles. He told me that he deeply resented his forced release from a Cuban prison in 1980, the result of the Carter initiated Dialogue which freed 3600 political prisoners. Had he had his druthers, he said he would still be a prisoner of conscience locked up in his prison cell in Cuba. Since his release, Alfonso had married, divorced, sired two children and worked as a salesman at Mi Tienda, a clothing store in Union City, N.J., owned by Arnaldo Monzon, the former president of CANF's local chapter.
I had first met Alfonso at his cramped basement apartment off Bergenline Avenue in Union City, the gritty mecca of Cuban exiles in the Northeast. Later, I connected with him at Newark airport and flew to San Juan with him where he was to be arraigned. ''I was, am and consider myself a revolutionary,'' Alfonso told me. ''We do whatever we can. The main thing is to take Castro out, by any means necessary.'' He had fought as a teenager against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. ''I was a revolutionary, and I am a revolutionary,” he explained. “But I was not a fidelista. I am a Cuban patriot. All the people who know me know that I only do things I believe in and I am prepared to accept the consequences.'' Alfonso held up a copy of Posada’s memoir, The Ways of the Warrior, which he intended to re-read during the flight.
Alfonso is a past president of the Union of Former Political Prisoners, a fraternity of some 300 veterans of Cuban jails which meets weekly in Union City. Their clubhouse is the ground floor of a modest building off Bergenline Ave. Covering its walls like wallpaper are photographs of the faces of “los martires” - the men and women who have died fighting against Fidel Castro and those who still languish in Cuba’s prisons. Two members of the Union told me that Alfonso was a friend of the four men whose names were listed on Posada’s fax and that Alfonso had told them that ''Pepe Alvarez is one of the names we use to get money to Posada.''
Alfonso, who was 57 at the time of his arrest, said he had visited the White House on four occasions, ''once with Reagan, once with Bush, and twice with Clinton.'' With pride, he produced a photograph of himself alone with Clinton, as well as other pictures of him with Senator Robert G. Torricelli, Mas Canosa and Felix Rodriguez. A photograph of him with Clinton taken at a White House ceremony for the signing of the Helms-Burton Act, two years before his arrest.
Shortly after the boat's seizure, news organizations in Miami received anonymous telephone calls and letters asserting that the assassination plot against Castro had been an attempt to grant Mas Canosa a deathbed wish. But Alfonso scoffed at the notion that he was acting on behalf of Mas Canosa or anyone else. ''Nobody can use me,'' Alfonso said. ''I think for myself.'' He said that he first met Mas in Miami in 1980, just before CANF was founded, and last saw him about six months before his death, when Mas Canosa visited his group in Union City. He described Mas as ''a true leader who dedicated his life to the struggle.” He averred that his $50,000 bail and a $50,000 retainer for a lawyer ''was paid by Cuban exile groups and individuals,'' though he declined to be more specific.
The case of La Esperanza began with a fluke arrest: A Coast Guard cutter was making a routine patrol off northwestern Puerto Rico, near Aguadilla, when it spotted the craft. Only after the captain gave an incorrect registration number and asserted that the boat had sailed from Miami in a single day was it decided to board the vessel. Initially, the captain, Hernandez Rojo, said that their intention ''was to go fishing,'' but that they had run into bad weather and were turning back because a pump had failed and they were taking on water. But the only fishing gear on the boat was still in plastic wrappers and the men said they had sailed the 900 miles from Miami that day -- a nautical impossibility.
Investigators then contacted Llama, the boat's owner, in Miami, who told them the four men were on their way to Venezuela to sell the vessel. ''They were looking for drugs, frankly,'' one Coast Guard official said at the time. ''When four men on a boat in trouble tell you a funky story, we look for drugs.'' Their suspicions aroused, the Coast Guard escorted the boat to shore, searched it, and discovered, hidden beneath a throw rug, a secret compartment built into the stairs leading to the cabin. Inside was an arsenal of weapons, including seven boxes of ammunition, military fatigues, six portable radios, a satellite telephone, night vision goggles, nightscopes and two high-powered sniper rifles which sell for about $7,000 apiece and can hit a target more than a mile away. Extra fuel tanks holding an additional 2,000 gallons of fuel had also been built into the vessel. The ship’s navigation system had been set for Isla Margarita off the northern coast of Venezuela.
Once the arms cache was found, Alfonso became suddenly agitated and launched into a frantic confession. ''I have a contact on Margarita,'' Federal agents said he yelled aloud. “Look at all the entries in my passport going to Venezuela! Do you think I went there on vacation? These weapons are mine. The others know nothing about them. I placed them there myself. They are weapons for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro. My sole mission in life is to kill Fidel Castro.'' Dumbfounded, Coast Guard officials realized they had meandered into something far more promising than their usual suspects.
The men were promptly arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, weapons smuggling and making false statements. ''You don't go out on a fishing expedition with .50 caliber weapons,'' said Hector Pesquera, then chief of the FBI's office in San Juan and later the head of the Miami office. ''It doesn't compute. Most likely, additional defendants and counts will be added. There could be foreign policy implications. We are not ruling anything out.''
Posada claimed to have nothing to do with the Puerto Rico plot, which he described as amateurish. But he acknowledged a longtime friendship with Alfonso, whom he referred to by his nom de guerre, La Cota, which means the parrot. He warmly described Alfonso as a ''very good and dedicated person…but hyper-excited,'' whom he had first met in Miami in 1991. He expressed surprise that the men had used weapons registered to CANF’s Pepe Hernandez. “It doesn't look too professional to do that. I was surprised that he said, 'I want to kill Castro.' '' Holding an imaginary rifle aloft, Posada said that if he had been aboard the boat, he would have told American officials that ''those guns were for shooting birds.'' And then he laughed.
But no one at the FBI believed that Posada was not involved with the Margarita Island caper. "It would have been impossible for Angel Alfonso and his friends to have organized that attempt on Castro, without Posada," said one agent who worked closely on the case. "There is no doubt that the safe house they rented on Margarita Island was
FBI investigators said they were "1000% certain" that Posada was the ringmaster of the attempted assassination, having summoned his loyal followers from Union City and Miami, to execute his plan. Indeed, the Bureau urged the Department of Justice to issue a RICO indictment naming prominent players in the exile world in both communities. Clinton's DOJ denied the request and pursued a far more limited prosecution.
Eager to be of assistance, Miami’s exile radio stations went on the offensive. Over the next week, listeners in Miami heard The New York Times described as “a communist front organization,” and Larry Rohter as “a spy and a traitor.” There was some confusion regarding myself: I was alternately described as “the lover of Fidel Castro” as well as “una tortillera” - a Cuban epithet for a lesbian.
The Foundation denied having any involvement whatsoever with Luis Posada, whom they vilified at length. They also denied that its leaders assisted him in any way, or even had contact with him. A day later, events appeared to contradict their claim. On July 13th, Rafael Orizondo, a reporter for Miami’s Univision station, Channel 23, flew to El Salvador where he conducted a taped interview with Posada. In the unusually brief interview, Posada - who was shown in shadow - made two denials which neatly coincided with the Foundation’s talking points: that members of the Foundation had never sent him money and that he had not spoken with Mas Canosa in many years. “I have never received from the Foundation nor its members any economic assistance for my living expenses,” he said. He then made an even more implausible claim - one that was denied in his own autobiography. “I live off my work. I paint. I sell my books.”
Curiously the tape was flown directly to CANF’s offices in Miami for a pre-arranged press conference. The following day, the Bloomberg News Service reported that a Univision spokesperson had confirmed that “a member of the Cuban American National Foundation was present during the television network’s high profile interview with Cuban exile Luis Posada Carilles.” According to the spokeswoman, Anne Corley, “They taped the same interview we were taping…I spoke with our news operations executives at Channel 23 [Univision]in Miami and they explained that somebody from the Foundation was there. We don't know why or how.” She referred to the man present as “an unidentified Foundation member.” Word quickly leaked into Miami’s whirlpool that the “unidentified Foundation member” was Diego Suarez, a CANF board member and close friend of the late Mas Canosa. It was also soon revealed that Orizondo was a relative of a CANF board member. CANF now had a bigger credibility problem: If they had no contact with Luis Posada, how then were they able to arrange an interview with him?
Orizondo was less than forthcoming with the details. “Did one or more people from the foundation facilitate the interview? Accompany Orizondo to the site? Remain in a room nearby? Did Orizondo travel to the interview aboard a foundation airplane?” asked the Herald. “No comment. ‘I really don't want to talk about this anymore,'’ Orizondo said… He referred questions to his news editor who did not return phone calls.” Following his brief remarks to the Herald, Orizondo declined comment on the subject and was said to have gone on an extended vacation.
CANF’s transparent and clumsy maneuverings at damage control only worsened matters. With growing desperation, Foundation lawyers appealed to the Times, arguing that some of the paper’s readers might assume that CANF leaders had footed the bill for Posada’s bombing campaign, although no such statements were published in the series. Seeking to take the high road and eliminate any potential misunderstanding, the Times published a brief Editor’s Note a week later: “A front-page article on July 12 reported a series of interviews with Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile who told of having waged a campaign of violence aimed at toppling Fidel Castro,” it read. “Mr. Posada was quoted as saying his operations had been financed for years by Jorge Mas Canosa and other leaders of the influential American lobbying group, the Cuban-American National Foundation….The wording was not intended to mean that Mr. Posada said the foundation leaders had paid specifically for the hotel bombings…As was made clear elsewhere in the article, Mr. Posada said Mr. Mas and other leaders for the foundation did not earmark money for specific operations, and asked not to be told how he used their funds.”
Instantly, CANF leapt upon this minor and subtle clarification and declared victory. Not surprisingly they won a small assist from the Herald which ran an unsigned story saying that the “New York Times admits error.” Compounding the fact that the story entirely misstated the Editor’s Note, no calls were made to the Times news room, lawyers or editors. El Nuevo Herald, continuing in their role as the pro-bono publicity arm of CANF and the right wing of “el exilio historico,” ran the item with a front page banner headline. Times’ managing editor, Bill Keller promptly faxed the Herald a two page letter of complaint, disputing their story. Herald editor Doug Clifton, known for being famously thin-skinned and for his rivalry with the Times, cut Keller’s letter to a third of its length and buried at the bottom of the letters column.
However, even on the far right perimeter of the exile world, some felt that the Foundation’s attempt to distance itself from Posada was mistaken and foolish. One of them was Tony Calatyud, a longtime militant and close friend of Mas Canosa and self proclaimed “freedom fighter” with a high profile in Miami. Calatyud declared on Miami television a week after the Times series ran that the Foundation was short sighted in denying Mas Canosa’s support of covert attacks. He explained at some length that he, in fact, had first hand knowledge that Mas had participated in militant attacks on Cuba with Posada. “Indeed,” he said, “Jorge Mas Canosa, Luis Posada Carriles and I for years worked together in the fight for the freedom of Cuba. We were and are close friends- Jorge, Luis and I…Jorge Mas Canosa was a comrade of mine in clandestine work within Cuba. We were fighting for years in direct actions that could be called violent actions but I call them direct actions. The New York Times wrote up that story and the exile press denied its association with Jorge Mas Canosa, but I affirm it. I affirm it. And I say that it detracts from the historical profile of Jorge Mas Canosa when all that is ascribed to him is of being a Washington lobbyist, traveling in a private jet to the air conditioned offices of presidents and foreign ministers…No, that is not the truth.”
No matter how they spun it, the Foundation was stuck with the fact that Posada’s interview had been tape recorded -and few people, if any, living outside of Calle Ocho believed that the New York Times had published anything other than an accurate transcription of Posada’s account. So another approach was pursued with a reporter named Maria Elvira Salazar for her program Polos Opuestos aired on CBS En Espanol. On Salazar’s program, Posada offered a third version of what had occurred. No longer was he claiming that the New York Times had made up its story. Now, he conceded that the Times story was accurate but that he had lied to the Times. He said that he had ascribed his funding to Mas Canosa but that it was actually someone else who gave him money, whose identity he needed to protect. He reasoned that as Mas Canosa was dead, no harm was done. The story, preposterous and transparent, only served to lend more credibility to the argument that Posada was a puppet of powerful exiles in Miami.
On November 17, 2000, Luis Posada and three other exiles were arrested for plotting yet another assassination of Fidel Castro while the Cuban strongman attended the 10th Ibero-American Summit in Panama. With operatic staging - sideswiping all attention from The Summit - Castro held a dramatic press conference in which he charged that Posada, whom he described as “a cowardly man totally without scruples,'' and his cohorts were planning an imminent assassination of him. Castro went further, alleging that “terrorist elements organized, financed and led from the United States by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) ... have been sent to Panama with the aim of eliminating me." Dressed in military fatigues, Castro dramatically intoned, "They are now in this city and have brought in arms and explosives intent on my physical elimination.'' Castro concluded his comments with a light-hearted jest, musing that there had been “about 600'' attempts on his life.
Within hours, the Panamanian police arrested Posada and his cohorts, all of whom had entered Panama with bogus passports days earlier. A Cuban intelligence and security team which had been in Panama for several months prior to the Summit, which marked Castro’s first visit to the country since 1959, had made the discovery. Panamanian authorities discovered 200 pounds of C-4 explosives and charged the exile quartet with conspiring to kill Castro. The four men had been charter members of the terrorist groups CORU or Omega 7, and all four had ties to the Foundation. Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a spokeswoman for CANF, responding almost flippantly, and suggested that Castro ``should get a new story….He is the terrorist. They are accusations without proof,” which she derided as “the ravings of an aged rock star that needs to attract attention somehow."
Among those captured with Posada was Gaspar Jimenez, whose day job was working at CANF Chairman Alberto Hernandez’s office at 2695 SW 42nd St. in Miami. Accompanying them was none other than Guillermo Novo of the Letelier murder case, and who had been arrested in Miami for possession of illegal weapons and cocaine in 1978. The fourth man Pedro Remon Rodriguez, the youngest of the group, was a suspect in the murder of 26 year old pro-Dialogue exile, Carlos Muniz Varela in 1977. Remon had been sentenced to ten years in prison for another failed assassination attempt for on Cuban diplomat Raul Roa in 1980.
Agents in the Miami office of the FBI rejoiced at the news. "It was a dream come true," said one agent. "All of them were arrested in one fell swoop." They were not the only ones cheering. “Viva Panama!” wailed an ecstatic Castro upon announcing Posada’s arrest. “The land where the most famous criminal in the hemisphere has been captured!” Not long after the arrests, Justino di Celmo, the father of the Italian tourist killed in Havana by one of Posada’s bombs, appeared on Cuban television to appeal to Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso not to allow Posada to go free. Castro asked for his extradition to Cuba which seemed entirely unlikely but in early 2002, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s head of state and close Castro ally, announced that he would seek Posada’s extradition from Panama to Venezuela for his role in the Cubana bombing.
The arrests sowed despair in the hearts of hard line exiles who had long cheered the efforts of militants. All four men were known as the most audacious and bravest of those operating in the exile paramilitary theater. Posada was said to be particularly disconsolate. The previous year, his consort of many years, Titi Bosch, died from cancer at 52, leaving Posada grief stricken. Eight months after his imprisonment, while Panamanian authorities amassed a compelling and voluminous case against them, Posada released a letter declaring his innocence and renouncing terrorism. He maintained that the four career terrorists had been the victims of an elaborate sting operation confected by Cuban intelligence. He added, as an afterthought, that he had “erred” by telling the New York Times that Mas Canosa had bankrolled him.
In the last week of November during the presidential recount, a childhood friend of Gaspar Jimenez from Camaguey told me that the only hope for the group’s release from prison lay in electing George W. Bush. “We must get Bush elected. He would help us,” he said, with palpable distress. His father, the former president, he noted, had been very good to the militants when he headed the CIA in the late ‘70’s at the height of exile violence, and had turned a helpful blind eye to the internecine warfare among exiles. He said he was confident that Bush would remember all the help given to Iran-Contra by Cuban exiles. His only concern, he said, was the close ties between Alberto Hernandez and Jimenez and the possible political fallout should federal authorities take a careful look at the relationship of the two men.
But he need not have worried. With George W. Bush’s election, won in part with the helpful assistance of exiles in Miami-Dade, there would be no further scrutiny of exile paramilitary adventures. For all intents and purposes, the FBI closed down its investigations of exile violence. Miami once again kicked back to the laissez faire atmosphere of the ‘80’s when everyone knew someone involved in the Contra re-supply effort.
By the summer of 2001, Santiago Alvarez, a Miami developer, charged by the Cuban government with being part of the plot, had raised more than $200,000 on Miami radio for Posada and his cronies’ legal defense fund. Things were looking up. With the backdoor diplomacy of the Bush Administration, Gaspar Jimenez’s friend was hopeful that the four would win release just as Orlando Bosch had. He recalled how Miami celebrated with “Orlando Bosch Day, ” and how some hard liners had roared their approval in Miami’s Orange Bowl in 2000, when Bosch was called to the podium. The team was in place once again. Any day now, he said, Posada and his friends would be walking the streets of Miami.
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