Cuban Exile Leader Among 7 Accused of Plot
By Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rother
A member of the board of the principal Cuban exile organization in the United States was indicted here today with six other men on charges that they conspired to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was on an official visit to Venezuela last year.
The indictment said Jose Antonio Llama, one of the 28-man inner circle that runs the organization, the Cuban-American National Foundation, "obtained a .50-caliber rifle" and bought a boat for his fellow conspirators and "other persons known and unknown." Their purpose, the document charged, was "to kill, with malice aforethought, Fidel Castro at a place outside the United States."
Besides Mr. Llama, those indicted were Jose Rodriguez Sosa, Alfredo Otero, Angel Alfonso Aleman, Angel Hernandez Rojo, Juan Bautista Marquez and Francisco Secundino Cordova. A former officer of the Cuban-American National Foundation said most of the other men had been affiliated with the organization at one time or another.
The indictment did not mention the foundation, but the foundation took the indictment as an attack on itself, denouncing the charges as a witch hunt.
According to the indictment, the would-be assassins traveled last October to Isla Margarita, Venezuela, where Mr. Castro was to attend a meeting, to scout a location for the killing and picked a hilltop overlooking the airport there. In October, four Cuban exiles were arrested on a cabin cruiser by the United States Coast Guard after one of them said they were heading to kill Mr. Castro.
Federal investigators soon discovered that Mr. Llama owned the boat, which had left from a private dock in Coral Gables, Fla., that was owned by the business partner of another foundation official.
One of the sniper rifles found on the boat, later confiscated by law enforcement officials here, was registered to Jose Francisco Hernandez, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation. Last week, a lawyer for Mr. Hernandez held a news conference to say Mr. Hernandez expected to be indicted in the case and denounced the prosecution as a politically motivated attack on a group that has tax-exempt status and has said since its founding in 1981 that it espouses stricly peaceful means of effecting change in Cuba.
Mr. Hernandez was not indicted today. A Justice Department official called him "not a minor player" in the affair and said he was still under investigation. Mr. Hernandez was notified late last year that he was a "target" of the investigation, a legal term that signifies that he could face indictment, officials said at the time.
"This investigation is by no means over," said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. In addition to Mr. Hernandez, he said, "there are others" associated with the organization who are also under investigation.
Last week, lawyers for foundation leaders predicted that their clients would be indicted on the relatively minor offense of infringing the neutrality act, whose ambiguous language makes obtaining a conviction difficult. But the charges announced today are far more serious, based on a Federal statute that covers the murder of an "internationally protected person" such as a head of state and carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Mr. Llama and Mr. Hernandez did not respond to requests for comment made to the foundation headquarters in Miami today. But the group issued a statement saying its policy was "that violence is not the answer to the Cuban crisis" and "that is what distinguishes us from Castro and his ruthless dictatorship."
In a statement late last week, the foundation maintained that "the current crisis in the Clinton White House" may have emboldened "those in the Administration who look favorably upon the Castro regime" to try to "advance an immoral policy of rapprochement."
At a news conference in Miami last Thursday, lawyers for Mr. Llama and Mr. Hernandez echoed that contention. "It seems to me that the enemies of the embargo in this country are behind this action," said Manuel Vazquez, a lawyer for Mr. Llama. "It seems to me that when Castro snaps his fingers, our Government jumps."
The indictments announced today stem from an incident last October in which four Cuban exiles on a 46-foot cabin cruiser were stopped by the United States Coast Guard for routine questioning in international waters off Aguadilla, P.R. When a stash of weapons and ammunition was found in a hidden compartment, one of the men, Angel Alfonso Aleman, blurted out "those weapons are to kill Fidel Castro," according to Federal documents. "My sole mission in life is to kill Fidel Castro," he was quoted as saying.
Federal investigators soon discovered that Mr. Llama owned the boat and that a high-powered sniper rifle found on board was registered in Mr. Hernandez's name. They also learned that the vessel had left from a private dock in Coral Gables, Fla., and that its course had been set for Margarita Island in Venezuela, where Mr. Castro was to attend a summit of Latin American leaders.
Mr. Alfonso, leader of the failed expedition, is a former Cuban political prisoner who works as a salesman at a clothing store in Union City, N.J. that is owned by the former president of the Cuban-American National Foundation's local chapter.
"I was, am and consider myself a revolutionary," Mr. Alfonso said in an interview this spring. "We do whatever we can. The main thing is to take Castro out, by any means necessary." He added: "All the people who know me know that I only do things I believe in. I am prepared to accept the consequences."
A lawyer for Mr. Alfonso, Ricardo Pesquera, said he would seek a change of venue to Miami and challenge the Government's decision to regard Mr. Castro as a protected person. Juries in Miami have in the past proved far more sympathetic to anti-Castro activities than those elsewhere, and Mr. Pesquera made it clear he planned to mount a defense based at least in part on politics.
"They're opening a Pandora's box they're going to regret," he said in a telephone interview, vowing to demand access to every Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation document on nearly 40 years of plots, some of them Government-organized, to kill Mr. Castro. "We're going to put their whole foreign policy on trial."