Luis Posada Carriles snuck into the US in March 2005. Ever since, speculation has been rampant regarding how and why the anti-Castro militant showed up on US shores.
Posada was described in the New York Times as both a "prime suspect in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976," and as the person who "admitted to plotting attacks that damaged tourist spots in Havana and killed an Italian visitor there in 1997." (1) He is usually portrayed in the US media as posing a nasty dilemma to the Bush administration.
According to this view, President Bush and the US State Department are compromised by the presence of Posada on US soil. The US can't offer him asylum. To do so would jeopardize Bush's doctrine: no nation should harbor terrorists. Yet, if the US turns him away or sends him to Venezuela, Posada would be extradited to Cuba. There he would be tried and probably executed. This would deeply enrage the pro-Bush, right wing, Cuban-American community in Florida.
While the US media tows this line, newspapers in Panama and Cuba say the opposite. The US actually wanted Posada released from a Panamanian jail where he was serving an eight-year sentence. (Posada had been accused of planning a violent attack at an international conference in Panama in 2000, which President Fidel Castro was attending.)
These reports, declare representatives of the US government, put pressure on then Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso to pardon Posada. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Linda Max, US Ambassador to Panama, and Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, visited President Moscoso in 2003 and 2004. All urged Posada's release. (2)
"Sources with direct access to President Moscoso" said in December 2003 that Powell told the Panamanian president Bush wanted Posada's case dismissed. (3) In addition, a Panamanian Chancellor, Harmodio Arias, reported that Otto Reich also pressured the Panamanian president to release Posada. (4)
These claims might seem absurd to US readers. Why would the US want Posada sprung from a jail in Panama and at large in the US?
One long-time expert on Cuba, Wayne S. Smith in a recent phone interview commented, "The Bush family has a history of protecting these guys. Orlando Bosch was freed by George H. W. Bush against the advice of his own Department of Justice." (Along with Posada, Bosch was also a key suspect in the 1976 bombing of the Cubana airline.)
Smith, a Senior Fellow at the DC-based Center for International Policy and formerly chief of the US Interests Section in Havana (1979-1982), also notes these people are "heroes of right-wing, Cuban exiles in Florida who have tremendous influence on the President through Jeb Bush."
So here's one motive: free Posada from a Panamanian jail as a favor to the Cuban-American community in Florida, which vigorously got out the pro-Bush vote both in 2000 and 2004 -- and could help a Jeb-Bush-for-President campaign in 2008.
Is there another, darker motive?
Key elements in Posada's checkered past provide additional clues as to why the US government might want him on US soil. One is Posada's seemingly miraculous ability to escape from jail. First, there was his getaway from a Venezuelan jail back in 1985, where he was held after the 1976 Cubana airline bombing.
A second inter-related topic also offers a clue: Posada's time working for Oliver North's illegal contra operation against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. The Washington Post reported that Posada, after his 1985 escape from a Venezuelan prison, "turned up" at an airfield in El Salvador that was key to the contras. (5)
The New York Times said Posada "found work in El Salvador as a quartermaster for the contras." (6) "Found work" suggests that Posada, like any other job candidate, was out pounding the pavements, circulating his resume, and showing up for interviews.
These bland descriptions ignore the fast trajectory of Posada from jailbird in Venezuela to a high-level, top-secret job -- working for Oliver North. In this case fast trajectory meant exactly three weeks.
Posada's Venezuelan James Bond-like jailbreak was carefully orchestrated. The ex-jailbird spent two weeks in Caracas. Then he was ferried by shrimp boat from Caracas to Aruba and by private plane from Aruba to Costa Rica. Next? Another private plane hop to El Salvador. (7)
For an escaped prisoner on the lam, Posada had amazing contacts and lots of ready cash.
In El Salvador, Felix Rodriguez met Posada at the airport. Rodriguez was not just some ordinary guy. He was an agent with the CIA and field manager for the contra operation. Subsequently, Congressional hearings on the contras revealed that Rodriguez spoke by phone with Donald Gregg, one of the then Vice President George Bush's closest advisers -- at least once a day. Rodriguez even had some meetings with Bush at his office in Washington.
Thus, Posada, fresh from jail, immediately started working in a high-level position under a CIA agent. He coordinated the efforts of the contras, US pilots and the Salvadoran military. He oversaw the safe houses for some 30 US pilots in El Salvador, paid utilities, bought military supplies, dispensed cash, and arranged for drops of military equipment inside Nicaragua.
So Posada has a murky past with the CIA and the contras. Why focus on these details 25 years later?
Back in 1985 someone very powerful wanted -- and obtained -- Posada's freedom. Did somebody equally powerful want Posada free for a specific job in 2005?
Is Posada wanted for another top-secret, contra-like job?
Posada has extensive contacts in DISIP, the Venezuelan intelligence service, which he headed between 1969 and 1974. He's also loaded with contacts throughout rightwing, extremist, military elements in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Some US observers impatiently decry the importance of these contacts. Anne Bardach, author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana, told this writer that Posada's intelligence is 25 years old and "completely useless."
Wayne Smith, however, cautiously comments, "there are lots of rumors of CIA-efforts to destabilize Venezuela." When queried if Posada's contacts with the Venezuelan secret police might be useful to such an effort, Smith answered, "There is no evidence that that's the case -- but it's logical."
Other Posada watchers think Posada could have a very important role in a coup against Fidel Castro and/or the current US anathema, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Says Rafael Rodriguez Cruz, a Massachusetts-based, civil rights and immigration lawyer, "Posada has lots of information about the secret police in Venezuela."
Mr. Cruz, a board member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a foundation providing help to children of political prisoners, comments, "Posada's a guy who knows a lot of people, people who might help to execute an action versus Hugo Chavez." If Posada, while awaiting a decision from INS, is debriefed about his contacts, plenty of information would be generated.
Mr. Cruz sums up: "This guy is very valuable to the US government."
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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