Death of a Terrorist: Orlando Bosch Outclassed by Cuban Dissidents

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Something quite unusual happened in Cuba last week. Dissident lawyer Wilfredo Vallín, who last year filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the island’s communist government, was told by its highest court that the suit can proceed. Coincidentally, the news reached veteran Cuba reporter Juan Tamayo in Miami yesterday, April 27 – the same day that anti-Fidel Castro militant and reputed terrorist Orlando Bosch died. I say “coincidentally” because there’s a stark contrast between the kind of violent counter-Castro methods Bosch championed, which left innocent people dead and only served to bolster Cuba’s communist regime, and the kind that is slowly beginning to yield small but important democratic victories like Vallín’s.

Bosch, 84, who died in Miami, originally backed the Castro-led revolution that toppled Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But, like many Cuban insurrectionists at the time, Bosch renounced the Castro dictatorship that soon followed; he became an exile militant and in the 1960s began targeting any Cuban or communist target he could find. In 1968 he was collared for a small artillery attack on a Polish freighter docked in Florida and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1974, after being paroled, he fled to South America, where he took part in Cuban embassy bombings.

Bosch’s most infamous year was 1976, when he was accused, along with fellow exile militant Luis Posada Carriles, of participating in the bombing of a Cuban jetliner, which killed all 73 people aboard, and in the car-bomb assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. A military tribunal in Venezuela later acquitted Bosch of the airliner bombing for lack of evidence – even though he later coldbloodedly argued, “All of Castro’s planes are warplanes.” In the 1980s, after returning to the U.S., Bosch was arrested for his parole violation; but he was pardoned by then President George H.W. Bush in 1990 after pleading from Miami’s politically powerful Cuban exile leaders. Bush did so despite warnings from his own national security officials that Bosch was, as then Attorney General Richard Thornburgh has since said, “an unrepentant terrorist.”

The bottom line is that Bosch also set back his own cause – just as violent left-wing militants have so often done in their fights against right-wing dictatorships. Chile is one example. In the 1980s, communist insurgents opposing the brutal rule of General Augusto Pinochet killed and wounded innocent civilians in a bombing of the U.S. embassy in Santiago, among other deadly acts. But far from rallying Chileans or the rest of the world to their side, they only gave Pinochet (who escaped their assassination attempt in 1986) a pretext for tightening his grip and his supporters a reason to rally around him. The communists “were basically telling Pinochet he was right about them,” says Juan Antonio Blanco, a history professor at the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University in Miami.

And that, Cuba experts like Blanco fear, is exactly the favor right-wing militants like Bosch and Posada did for Castro. What finally felled Pinochet, in a 1988 referendum that led to him stepping down in 1990, wasn’t a violent communist insurgency but a nonviolent democratic coalition. Castro and his younger brother Raúl, who became Cuba’s president in 2008, have certainly been more successful at suppressing dissident movements. But up until the 2000s, Cuban dissidents also got little backing from exiles, many of whom disparaged the idea of democratic players inside Cuba because they so blindly insisted that the Castros could, and should, be brought down only by a conflagration lit by the “heroic” likes of Bosch – and not by “sell-outs” like Wilfredo Vallín.

Or Oswaldo Payá, the Cuban dissident who in 1998 started the Varela Project, a petition drive to collect the required 10,000 signatures which, under Cuba’s 1976 Constitution, would force a referendum on democratic reforms. Within five years Payá had almost four times the necessary number. Fidel of course dismissed the petitions – and in his pique jailed 75 dissidents in 2003 – but the Varela Project helped plant a seed in Cuba’s civic soil that the regime has since had to engage.

Human rights and free speech still have a long road to hoe in Cuba. But in recent years, pro-democracy bloggers have sprouted up; even Raúl has called for more open debate on policy, especially broader private enterprise; last month he completed releasing the dissidents Fidel locked up eight years ago; Cuba’s once moribund Roman Catholic Church is suddenly an effective mediator between the government, dissidents and the international community; and now Vallín has gotten the People’s Supreme Tribunal to consider his demand that Cuba’s Justice Minister officially recognize his independent attorneys association. “The context has changed dramatically,” says Blanco, who while still living in Havana in 1993 founded the Varela Center (not associated with the Varela Project), which promotes Cuban policy reform and is still operating. “The idea of peaceful change within the system has won legitimacy.”

Bosch supporters argue that if the U.S. had given the Cuban exiles who invaded the island’s Bay of Pigs 50 years ago the same support Libyan rebels are getting now, communism in Cuba could have been upended before it took root. But the reality is that the insurrection circumstances in Libya today don’t exist in Cuba. What does exist is a sense that gutsy nonconformists like Payá and Vallín are planting seeds that might produce what planting bombs never could.