Twilight of the Assassins

It was the first act of airline terrorism in the Americas: thirty years ago, seventy-three people died in the bombing of a Cuban passenger plane. Now, one alleged mastermind lives freely in Miami, while another awaits trial on other charges in Texas. With Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez insisting the CIA was behind the bombing, why won’t the Bush administration at last resolve enduring suspicions? A tale of thwarted dreams, frustrated justice, and murder in the sky
Korean Soldiers
Outside the U.S. mission in Havana in February, protesters memorialize those who died in the Cubana bombing and the Bay of Pigs
Web exclusive:

Luis Posada was arrested and charged with illegal entry in May 2005. He is currently waiting for the Justice Department to decide whether to release, deport, or prosecute him. See two written notes that he sent to Ann Louise Bardach below:

A Note From Luis Posada
Militant Cuban exile Luis Posada discusses his actions, explains his motivations, and advises Ann Louise Bardach on what to write.

Life With Luis Posada
Read a recent letter to Bardach from Posada, along with his answers to her questions on everything from his favorite singers to his thoughts on Cuba after Castro.

On October 6, 1976, shortly after 11 a.m., two young Venezuelan men boarded a Cuban airliner in Port of Spain, the sleepy capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Though only twenty years old, Hernán Ricardo had been working on and off for five years for a Cuban exile based in Caracas named Luis Posada Carriles, doing all manner of odd jobs, including photography and surveillance. He had recently recruited his friend Freddy Lugo, twenty-seven, to assist him.

Ricardo was traveling on a Venezuelan passport in the name of José Vásquez García. Two other passports—a U.S. passport with a bogus name and his genuine Venezuelan passport—were in his shoulder bag. Lugo walked onto the plane carrying two cameras, one of which was stuffed with C-4 plastic explosive.

Twenty-four members of Cuba’s national fencing team, many of them teenagers, also boarded Cubana Airlines Flight 455 in Port of Spain, wearing the gold and silver medals they had just won at a tournament in Venezuela. The plane was to stop briefly in Barbados and Jamaica before taking them home to Havana.

Some twenty minutes after takeoff, Ricardo pushed the rigged camera under his seat and walked to the rear restroom, where he hid an explosives-packed toothpaste tube. He was nervous, sweating heavily, and somehow jammed the door, trapping himself inside. A stewardess tried to pry the door open. Unsuccessful, she recruited the plane’s copilot, who kicked it loose, according to a passenger who disembarked with the two young men in Barbados.

Nine minutes after leaving Barbados, the pilot radioed distress. “We have an explosion on board,’’ he told the control tower. “We’re descending fast. We have a fire on board.’’ He asked permission to return to the airport. Then came a second, deafening blast. “Hit the water, Felo! Hit the water!” the copilot cried, as the plane started plunging. We have a total emergency!” the pilot shouted, and then the signal went dead. Sunbathers at Barbados’s Paradise Hotel watched in horror as the DC-8 dived into the sea.

All seventy-three people on board were killed: fifty-seven Cubans, six exchange students and a young family from Guyana, and five North Koreans.

Ricardo hailed a taxi at the airport in Barbados, and he and Lugo took a meandering trip through Bridgetown, at one point asking the driver to pull over so they could watch a plane pass overhead. Around 1:15 p.m., they checked into the Bridgetown Holiday Inn, room 103, under false names. Ricardo immediately placed a call through the front desk and left a message with Luis Posada’s secretary in Caracas. He then called his girlfriend, who worked at Posada’s detective agency, and asked her to relay a message to her boss. “We’re in a desperate situation and need help,” he said. Then he added, using a predetermined code, “The bus was fully loaded with dogs.” His next call was to a “Señor Paniagua,” the nom de guerre of Orlando Bosch, the legendary anti-Castro militant, then living in Caracas. He didn’t get through.

Ricardo was convinced a Cuban agent had seen him in the lobby; after a heated discussion, he and Lugo changed hotels. They took a walk by the sea to calm their nerves, but as word of the bombing buzzed among the locals, a panic-stricken Ricardo tossed a small package, which may have contained the detonator, into the sea and declared that they had to leave Barbados immediately.

On the short hop back to Trinidad, Ricardo alternated between euphoria and tears as he downed shots of whiskey. Seventy-three! More than the Jackal!” he boasted, comparing himself to Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist then at the height of his fame. “Now I’m the one who has the record, because I’m the one who blew up that thing.” Later he broke down, saying: “Damn it, Lugo, I’m desperate and feel like crying. I’ve never killed anyone before.”

Back in Trinidad, they took a taxi to a Holiday Inn and checked in under assumed names. Ricardo continued to call Caracas and eventually reached Bosch. The taxi driver found the behavior of his high-strung passengers suspicious. So did the hotel’s reception clerk. Both notified the police, who swooped in and arrested the two Venezuelans as suspects in the Cubana bombing.

Dennis Ramdwar, Trinidad’s deputy police commissioner, quickly sized up the gravity of the situation and its political implications. Still, he told me recently, speaking with a faint Caribbean lilt, “I followed our normal procedures.” Ramdwar zeroed in first on Ricardo, who was more talkative. The next day, he turned to Lugo. Both men denied any involvement in the crash.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, a statement was released in Miami by CORU, an association of anti-Castro paramilitary groups, taking responsibility for the bombing. A follow-up statement claimed that the craft was a “military plane camouflaged as a civilian DC-8 aircraft,” and dismissed the passengers as “57 Cuban Communists [and] five North Korean Communists.”

Intense wire traffic shot back and forth between Washington and the American embassy in Caracas. The day after the bombing, the CIA made what its records termed “unsuccessful attempts’’ to reach Luis Posada, who had worked for the agency and remained an active informer. A memo stamped SECRET clearly indicates immediate concerns. “Posada suspected of working with Orlando Bosch and others in plot,” it reads. A flurry of internal memos followed, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded a clear account of America’s relationship with these men and others suspected of involvement in the plot.

Four days after the attack, Ramdwar visited Ricardo in his cell and showed him plane tickets, a notebook, and a diary, found in his attaché. Ramdwar asked about several names and numbers in the notebook. One notation read, “Orlando Telephone No. 713916.”

Ricardo later told Ramdwar that “Orlando” was Orlando Bosch, who headed an organization called “El CORU,” which he also called “El Condor.” He claimed that he himself was a member of the CIA (a charge he later recanted) and said he had been recruited “between 1970 and 1971” and trained in counterintelligence in Panama and Venezuela. Seeking to impress the police commissioner, he pointed out that his boss, Luis Posada, had been a powerful person in Venezuelan intelligence. Ricardo said he himself had been paid $25,000 for his services.

On October 13, Posada and Bosch were arrested in Caracas. A search of Posada’s detective agency turned up surveillance equipment, weapons, and a schedule of Cubana flights. A week later, Ricardo signed a confession. Then he returned to his cell and slit his left wrist. The wound was not deep, and he recovered quickly.

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Ann Louise Bardach is the author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana and the editor of Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

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