Why Posada Carriles Should Still Be Tried For Terrorism

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Now that an El Paso, Texas, jury has acquitted Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles of perjury, the buzz back in Miami is that at least he got the fair trial that people in communist Cuba are usually denied. Now, say Cuban exile leaders, it’s time to put the whole ugly Posada drama to rest. But Friday’s verdict only throws into sharper relief the fact that the U.S. has never really engaged the accusation against Posada that matters: his alleged involvement in terrorist acts, especially the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed all 73 people aboard. While Posada may have gotten a fair perjury trial, not trying him for terrorism will always make the U.S. look hypocritical in the eyes of Latin America if not the rest of the world.

Memo to Washington: if you’re going to keep Cuba on your list of states that sponsor terrorism, and if you want the world to think you’re doing it for legitimate rather than political reasons, it would seem advisable to go after a suspect whom even the FBI has implicated in terrorist acts against Cuba. Aside from the 1976 jetliner attack, the 83-year-old Posada is also fingered for the 1997 bombings of two Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist. Cuba as a result has long clamored for Posada’s extradition, yet the closest the U.S. has ever come to holding Posada accountable is the trial that just ended in El Paso – which was merely about whether he lied to immigration authorities when he denied his involvement in the crimes while trying to sneak into the U.S. in 2005.

Still, even the 11-count perjury indictment Posada faced, when the Obama Administration handed it down in 2009, had been welcomed in Cuba and Latin America – where Posada symbolized Washington’s unwillingness to crack down on terrorism if it involved a member of the politically powerful Cuban exile community. As Daniel Erikson, who is author of The Cuba Wars and who joined the State Department last summer as a Latin America analyst, told me at the time, “The region sees the Posada case as one of the worst examples of a U.S. double standard regarding the rule of law, a subject we often lecture Latin America about.”

But in the end, U.S. prosecutors couldn’t get a conviction on the perjury charges, even though Posada had told the New York Times that he’d taken part in the attacks. And it was just the latest in a long series of breaks that Posada, a Cold War relic, has gotten over the past 35 years.

After Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Posada left the island and became a CIA operative in the 1960s, working unsuccessfully to overthrow Castro’s communist revolution. In the 1970s he was working for Venezuela’s secret police when the Cubana Airlines flight blew up enroute from Barbardos to Jamaica. Two Venezuelans arrested in the crime identified Posada as one of the masterminds. Despite abundant evidence against him, a Venezuelan military tribunal acquitted him. That verdict was overturned – but in 1985, while on trial in a civilian criminal court for the bombing, Posada escaped Venezuela disguised as a priest. (Venezuela has also called for Posada’s extradition.)

Then came the 1997 Havana hotel bombings – and emerging evidence of Posada’s alleged involvement prompted FBI agents to visit Cuba in 2006 to conduct their own investigation. The U.S. did initiate a federal grand jury probe in New Jersey, which has a large Cuban exile community and where funds for the hotel attacks may have been raised. But nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile, Posada and three other Cuban exiles – busted with a carload of dynamite and plastic explosives – were convicted in Panama for conspiring to assassinate Fidel Castro during a presidential summit there in 2000. But in 2004, then Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso inexplicably pardoned them – a pardon Panama’s Supreme Court has since reversed – and the Bush Administration had to deny charges that it had pressured her as a favor to Miami’s exile community.

The next year, Posada drifted to the U.S. During his application for political asylum and U.S. citizenship, U.S. immigration authorities determined Posada lied not just about how he’d entered the country, but about the terrorist acts as well: Though he told them he’d had nothing to do with the hotel bombings that killed Italian businessman Fabio di Celmo, for example, that didn’t square with what he told the Times in 1998. “The Italian was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Posada bragged then. “But I sleep like a baby.”

Now Cuban exile leaders tell us to let the Posada matter sleep as well. They want us to focus instead on injustice in Cuba. Of course we should be aware of human rights abuses in Cuba – but that’s not what this is about. What exile leaders have never understood – as they so glaringly demonstrated during the Elián González debacle a decade ago – is that you don’t condemn injustice in Cuba by trivializing justice in the U.S. Yes, Posada was tried fairly for perjury in El Paso. But until Washington tries him for terrorism, our lectures about rule of law won’t sound so fair to people inside or outside this hemisphere.