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Jose Posada Carriles: Hero or Hardened Killer?

Aired May 19, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: Hero, hardened killer, or just a headache for the United States? Will the Bush administration protect an aging ideologue who tried to assassinate Fidel Castro and stands accused of deadly attacks as well? A tough call in Washington's war on terror.
Hello and welcome.

Old soldiers aren't supposed to die, but they are supposed to fade away. At age 77, Luis Posada Carriles didn't do either. Instead, after fighting a lifelong crusade against Communism, he showed up in the United States and asked for asylum, protection from the governments of Venezuela and Cuba who consider him a terrorist.

Posada is under arrest right now, but what happens next? The United States says no country should harbor terrorists, but what happens when the United States is the country in question?

On our program today, the commando who came in from the cold. CNN's Susan Candiotti has this look.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To some Cuban exiles, Luis Posada Carriles is a legend, making a career of crisscrossing Central America since the 1960s, devoted to bringing down Cuba's Communist president, Fidel Castro.

SANTIAGO ALVAREZ, POSADA SUPPORTER: He has been a social guiding light for everybody that is fighting Castro.

CANDIOTTI: But Posada's critics, including Castro himself, call Posada a terrorist.

"No, I am not a terrorist," he says.

After helping to organize the failed Bay of Pigs operation to oust Castro in 1961, Posada received explosives and sabotage training from the CIA. He says he stopped working for the CIA in 1968 but in the 1980s helped the U.S.-backed secret contra-supplying network in Central America. A senior official familiar with Posada's career says the CIA considers him, quote, "radioactive," and that he is no longer linked to the agency, and now, after four decades of his self-styled crusade against Castro, Posada has asked for political asylum to live among supporters in Miami rather than be forced back to Cuba.

EDUARDO SOTO, POSADA'S ATTORNEY: It is my utmost and absolute belief that should Mr. Posada Carriles be extradited from the United States, that he would be found dead.

CANDIOTTI: "Miami Herald" columnist Jim Defede opposes asylum for Posada.

JIM DEFEDE, "MIAMI HERALD": If Posada would be granted asylum, it would portray a double standard that the United States would be ridiculed for around the world.

CANDIOTTI: Why a double standard? Critics point to Posada's past. He was accused of but always denied committing multiple terrorist acts. Venezuela, 1976, charged with blowing up a Cuban airliner. The attack killed 73 people. Posada denied involvement and was never convicted, but was jailed for nine years in a Venezuelan prison until he escaped.

"I had nothing to do with it," Posada said, again denying any part I the terrorist attack, yet recently declassified material from the National Security Archives raised doubts about Posada's denial.

"Some plans regarding the bombing of a Cubana Airlines were discussed in Caracas, Venezuela," says one FBI document. "Posada Carriles was present."

Then there is Cuba, 1997. Havana hotels are bombed. One Italian tourist was killed. Posada later claimed responsibility in interviews with two American newspapers. Still later, he put on a disguise to declare that confession a lie and denied he was involved.

Panama, 2000, Posada and three Cuban exiles are accused of plotting to assassinate Castro during a visit to that country. Posada was convicted in Panama, but later received a presidential pardon. Regardless of the consequences, Posada defends his ongoing battle against Castro.

"Never," Posada says, "have we taken terrorist actions against civilians," but his statements have not convinced his critics.

DEFEDE: No matter who you are trying to unseat, no matter what your end result is, the tactics do have to matter.

CANDIOTTI: Cuba's Communist leader also wants the United States to hand over Posada.

"The monster is there," says Fidel Castro. A terrorist he says should be turned over to the Cuban authorities to pay for his crimes.

ALVAREZ: Posada really is not a terrorist. Posada really is a freedom fighter and he's been singled out by Castro's regime.


MANN: The first concern in the United States was a somewhat smaller one. Posada entered the country secretly through Mexico in March, he surfaced publicly only this week and was quickly arrested. Now the U.S. government has decided to prosecute him for an immigration violation. One more complication to throw into the already tangled case.

CNN's Susan Candiotti, following all of this, joins us now -- Susan.

CANDIOTTI: Hello, Jonathan.

In fact, some people would say he was not so quickly arrested. He had been living here for several weeks before authorities picked him up. But, you know, it's no surprise that Luis Posada Carriles was charged with illegally entering the United States. After all, he admitted publicly to reporters at a news conference just the other day that in fact he paid someone to take him across the border from Mexico into the United States, where he boarded a bus to Florida, and he had been in hiding since March.

It is really hard to explain why to this day he decided to come out of hiding, although he did explain to reporters at that time that he was planning to withdraw his claim for political asylum and quietly leave the United States. That's when law enforcement agents pounced on him.

Now, Posada's lawyer talked about the charges.


SOTO: The charging document contains allegations of being unlawfully present in the United States and that is it. There are no charges of anything else, whether it be terrorism or other allegations.


CANDIOTTI: Now, officials say the United States could bring up evidence of suspected terrorism if Posada asks for a bond hearing, and his lawyer says that he will. His lawyer also says that Posada intends to refile his claim for political asylum based in part on his work for the CIA back in the 1960s.

Now, just the other day, when Posada was taken into custody, Fidel Castro in Havana staged one of those famous massive demonstrations through the streets of Havana outside the United States embassy to claim that the United States is being a hypocrite for not being Posada to justice and for not turning him over, for example, to Venezuela, who has already filed extradition for him.

Now, Homeland Security here in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, says that Posada never would be sent back to Cuba, nor to any country considered to be acting on Castro's behalf, meaning Venezuela.

So if he is deported, the question is where would he go. The United States clearly would have to find a country willing to take him in and then, Jonathan, there is always the prospect that Italy could possibly file extradition for Posada because one of its residents was the person who was killed in Havana back in 1997 during that string of bomb attacks on tourist hotels.

We've been checking with Italy. So far there seems to be no move afoot along those lines, but we'll be staying on top of that.

MANN: Susan, a judge is going to have to hear his case, first about bail and then the substance of the charges against him, so presumably that will take a while. Will it be the judge who might ultimately decide where he is going to go? Or will it be the Bush administration that will choose another country or the United States as his next home?

CANDIOTTI: It would have to be the Bush administration, because certainly the judge could order, if there is evidence there, that he entered the country illegally and he were ordered to be deported.

The United States would have to figure out where is he going to go. So, for example, go back to the country where he came from, Mexico, or Guatemala, or some other Central American country where he had been living. It would be up to the United States to find some place who would take him in. We can't just drive him to the border and pitch him out.

So the Bush administration does have that to work through.

MANN: It's a quandary.

Susan Candiotti, thanks very much for this.

CANDIOTTI: You're welcome.

MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, the lives and deaths caught up in the struggle over Castro's Cuba.

Stay with us.


MANN: Fidel Castro is 78 years old and still recovering from a broken leg, but he found the strength this week to lead one of Havana's biggest marches in years. It brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators past the U.S. diplomatic mission and gave Castro an opportunity to embarrass the United States.

"It is a march against terrorism, in favor of life and peace for our people," he said. "Down with terrorism."

Welcome back.

Castro is 78. Posada is 77. The president, a revolutionary still in uniform. The prisoner, a counter-revolutionary who says he is still a soldier too. For the diehard Communists and anti-Communists of Cuba and Florida, the war isn't over.

Joining us now to talk about the case and the characters is Ann Louise Bardach, who first wrote a series of groundbreaking articles for the "New York Times" that eventually led to a much larger look in "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Depending on who you talk to, Posada sounds like James Bond or like Osama bin Laden or like Don Quixote. You've met him. What was your sense of him?

ANN LOUISE BARDACH, AUTHOR: Well, I found him to be an interesting man, a complex man, urbane, somewhat witty. He had a good sense of humor. And he was proud of his career as an anti-Castro militant. He was proud of his operations. He was unhappy with his failures and he was pretty clear that, you know, he had devoted 45 years of his life as almost a want-to-be Castro assassin. He hadn't quite achieved his goal, but he was not going to be deterred.

MANN: OK. Well, he isn't on trial right now here on this program, and it's not up to us to convict him, but I wonder if you could tell us what he told you about the attacks that he might have planned, considered or carrier out.

BARDACH: Well, he was emphatic that he was not responsible for the Cubana Airline downing in '76. He said that was another man who he identified as Mono Morales (ph) -- Mono meaning monkey in Spanish -- who was a comrade of his.

What he did say he was responsible for, in fact he said the reason for the interview and also contacting the "New York Times," et cetera, was that he wanted the publicity for the bombing campaign in Havana in 1997. The reason why he wanted publicity was he said that unless the word got out, tourists would continue to go to Cuba, businessmen would continue to invest in Cuba, and the whole point was to disrupt tourism and cut off tourist dollars to Fidel Castro.

MANN: So he literally wanted to terrorize people.

BARDACH: Well, he said that he felt bad. At one point he said in both Spanish and English, he said he felt sad when I pointed out that an Italian tourist had been killed, and he said he felt sad about that, but that something -- words to the effect that the man was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was unintentional. He explained to me how the man was killed by a slice of shrapnel to his throat and how that was the most fatal wound one could have, and he said something like, "The poor man,, and then he added, "however, we cannot stop." You know, he had several catchy lines such as that.

His job was to supply explosives and inspiration to the Cuban people.

MANN: Let me ask you about the most famous, or infamous, use of explosives, of course, that plane that went down. He told you he wasn't responsible, and he was tried in Venezuela twice for that crime. Why do so many people connect him with it?

BARDACH: The reason is, is that the Venezuelan judiciary is sort of the opposite of ours. You're guilty until proven innocent. And the other thing that some people might find difficult to understand is that Venezuelan justice, especially in the 1970s, was very susceptible to bribery.

Now, what his critics say is that he won the acquittals with bribes, you know, and the opposite says the other way around, and he said to me that he was being detained and being held as guilty because of the corruption in the Venezuelan judiciary.

But I would add that American intelligence agreed with Venezuelan intelligence, Barbados intelligence and also Cuban intelligence as well, that they felt that Luis Posada and a man named Orlando Bosch and two Venezuelans were responsible. I did review the file, the CIA/FBI file on Posada, and there were numerous entries from informers saying that he had been at a meeting in the Dominican Republic and that this bombing had been planned.

So the reason he was kept there for nine years, despite these two technical acquittals, was the belief of prosecutors really in several countries that were convinced of his guilt.

MANN: Why did he think that he would get any kind of welcome here? Why would he turn up in the United States after so many years?

BARDACH: Well, I think he was hoping he would follow in the same footsteps with the same luck as his former comrade, Orlando Bosch, who also, again, served 11 years for the Cubana shoot down and was convicted of other terrorist acts. In 1988, Orlando Bosch was able to leave Venezuela in very strange circumstances. He arrived in Miami in 1988 and a woman named Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was campaigning for Congress. Her campaign manager happened to be Jeb Bush. It was his first political job.

And the corner stone of the Ileana Ros campaign was free Orlando Bosch, and the city politicians in Miami kind of wrapped themselves around Orlando Bosch -- they actually had Orlando Bosch Day -- and the Bush Justice Department, meaning the father back then, actually overruled the FBI and his own Justice Department, which asked that he be deported, and allowed Bosch to have residency.

So because Bosch got to lucky, Luis Posada thought, well, who knows, the same could happen to me, with the same supporters and similar politicians maybe helping him out. But I don't think he understood that this is the post-9/11 environment, and Bosch may have succeeded because it was pre-9/11.

MANN: Anne Louise Bardach, the book is "Cuba Confidential," thank you so much for talking with us.

BARDACH: My pleasure.

MANN: We take another break. When we come back, the dilemma Posada poses for the United States.

Stay with us.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: The case of Posada is under discussion by appropriate authorities. This is a case that the Department of Homeland Security now will handle in its normal course. The issues here concern understanding the record of Mr. Posada and then making judgments about what that means about his request.


MANN: The U.S. government routinely repatriates suspects held in places like Guantanamo Bay to Egypt, Jordan and other countries where Western legal norms are not entirely shared. Is the court system in Venezuela more suspect than in Syria or Saudi Arabia for that matter?

Welcome back.

U.S. officials have already said they will not transfer any suspect to any country that would then turn them over to Cuba. Venezuela quickly agreed to comply. It argued that in fact the United States has no choice because of an extradition treaty dating back to 1922.

Joining us now to talk about what is at stake is Dennis Hays, who was once the United States State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs, and is now in private legal practice with the firm of Tew Cardenas.

Thanks so much for being with us.

What do you think Washington should do?

DENNIS HAYS, ATTORNEY: Well, I think they are doing some things. First off, they've arrested him now and as I understand today they've determined that he will not be eligible for BOT (ph), so he is going to remain in detention, which I think is appropriate under these circumstances, and hopefully it will be a time that will enable the government to determine if any United States laws other than the immigration ones have been broken here, or throughout his entire career, for that matter.

MANN: That having been said, he's wanted in Venezuela as a fugitive from Justice, 73 dead people on an airliner that he is accused of helping bring down. Those are very serious accusations and there is an extradition treaty. Isn't the United States honor bound because of the war on terror that it's leading and legally bound because of that treaty to send him there?

HAYS: You're right, this is very serious, and certainly any kind of terrorist attack, like bombing a civilian airliner, needs to be dealt with and the people responsible need to be punished. That's not in question.

There is very much in question, though, whether he or anyone can get a fair trial in Cuban or Venezuela under these circumstances. He's a very highly politically charged individual. He has a lot of -- he represents a lot of things other than just he himself. And I think it's very clear that he could not get due process in these countries.

MANN: Wouldn't that be a good reason to abrogate the extradition treaty rather than just unilaterally hold him back? And it raises a question about U.S. policy elsewhere, as we just alluded to. There are all kinds of people wanted in the war on terror who are going to places like Syria and Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. They aren't even democracies, and their legal systems are held in, the nicest thing you could say is disrepute.

HAYS: Well, again, you know, this is a tough question because there are a lot of unanswered issues out there.

MANN: Well, let me jump in and ask you maybe the key question here, which is why would you or why would the Bush administration feel honor bound to try to protect him?

HAYS: I don't think they're protecting him at all? I think what happened is he's been arrested. I would hope that there will, as I said, be a full investigation. There may well be U.S. laws that he has broken. I don't think he should be released. I don't think he should be given asylum. And if there is evidence that points to crimes overseas and there is a country that can provide due process -- I think earlier in your program you mentioned Italy is one -- then that would be entirely appropriate.

What would not be appropriate is to violate the very things that we believe in, which is that individuals are innocent until proven guilty.

MANN: Indeed, but, once again, you're an attorney. The United States has extradition treaties all over the world. It seems like this is a result-oriented judgment -- you basically don't want to send him to Venezuela -- and so the idea of extradition has been passed over, the idea that the United States is fighting terror has been passed over, and the protection of this one man seems to be paramount.

HAYS: Well, again, no final decision has been made, and, you know, part of this, which is unfortunate, as I know you know, tomorrow is a fairly important day in Cuba. It's a day when a lot of the dissidents to the Castro regime are meeting publicly to ask for a different vision of the future, a future that would be democratic and ensure human rights.

Unfortunately, this event is overshadowing it, and I think Castro is playing this, as he usually does, very well. You know, whatever Posada is accused of, it's a small fraction of the human rights violation that Castro has certainly committed over the years, and yet the focus is on his man rather than on Castro.

MANN: Well, the president has said that no cause, however worthy, justifies terrorism, and there is no way to balance the work of terrorists against the crimes of whatever government they feel they are fighting. Do you think he's wrong when you bring up a point like that?

HAYS: No, absolutely not, and please, I don't mean to excuse one evil as being lesser than the other. Evil is evil along the way here, and I think it is clear that the U.S. government does take this seriously, and they have acted decisively to get this guy into custody. And I do think that the unanswered questions need to be dealt with. The only thing is, is I think we can remain true to being anti-terrorists and we can also remain true to our ideas of having due process.

MANN: Dennis Hays, of Tew Cardenas, thank you so much for talking with us.

HAYS: Thank you, Jonathan.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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