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

Nine days after the bombing, a million Cubans massed in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Fidel Castro was brimming with fury. “We can say that the pain is not divided among us,” he thundered. “It is multiplied.” He accused the CIA of complicity. “At the beginning, we had doubts as to whether the CIA had directly organized the sabotage or had carefully elaborated it through its cover organizations made up of Cuban counterrevolutionaries,” he told the crowd. “We are now decidedly inclined toward the first. The CIA participated directly in the destruction of the Cubana Airlines plane in Barbados.”

Thirty years later, after six months of investigation, reviewing recently declassified documents and speaking to sources in Caracas, Washington, Miami, and Trinidad, I have found no evidence of direct U.S. involvement in the Cubana bombing. And yet to this day, the United States refuses to declassify hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the attack. This refusal fuels conspiracy theories and leaves unanswered questions about an act that has come to stand as an iconic symbol of America’s insidious meddling in Latin America. Why was no effort made, despite warnings by CIA and FBI informers, to alert Cuba to the plot to take down a Cuban plane? What was America’s relation to the plotters? And why did the Reagan and Bush administrations hire Posada and grant Bosch U.S. residency, when the CIA believed they’d had a hand in blowing up the plane?

Every year since 1976, Castro has marked the October 6 anniversary of the Cubana bombing with a fiery speech. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy, four weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Castro noted that Cuba had been a victim of airline terrorism long before the United States. “On a day like today, we have the right to ask, What will be done about Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch,” he railed, “the perpetrators of that monstrous, terrorist act?” Castro is fading from the scene, but he has passed the torch to his disciple, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, who has vowed to bring Posada to justice, even if it means taking on the United States.

Unrepentant Warriors

Standing at the front door of his home this past April, Orlando Bosch offered me his hand and smiled weakly. On August 18, Bosch would turn eighty, following in the footsteps of his former college classmate. “Fidel is only five days older than me,” he said glumly, holding up the fingers of his right hand. Bosch’s body is failing him. His lower lip appears bruised and droopy, the consequence of a series of strokes in the last year.

Bosch

The author with Orlando Bosch at his home

Bosch lives in a tract house in a lower-middle-class suburb on the western outskirts of Miami. His paintings line nearly every wall, most simple pastorals of Las Villas, the verdant province in Cuba where he was born. Many were done behind bars. “Nineteen years in prison, all told,” he says, speaking slowly, “here and there,” meaning Caracas, Atlanta, and Miami, for the most part.

Once upon a time, Bosch says, he spoke pretty good English, but those days are gone. He is foggy about some details of his life. In 1953, he did a medical internship in Toledo, Ohio, and the following year he completed his residency “in the hospital where Martin Luther King died, but I can’t remember the name.” That was a long time ago—before he gave up pediatrics for “terrorism,” as the FBI has described his forty-five years as a paramilitary commando.

Bosch

Orlando Bosch next to one of his paintings

Bosch has another view of his career. Soy luchador y patriota,” he says. “I am a fighter and a patriot.” Asked about the young fencers who died on the Cubana plane, he says, impatiently, “We were at war with Castro, and in war, everything is valid.” Soon after our first meeting, Bosch was asked about the bombing on a Miami television program. “The war we wage against the tyrant, you have to down planes, you have to sink ships. You have to be prepared to attack anything that is within reach,” he told the host. “Who was on board that plane? Members of the Communist Party, chico! Our enemies.”

At our next meeting, I asked Bosch if he was responsible for the Cubana bombing. “I have to tell you no,” he said. “If I tell you I did it, I’m incriminating myself. If I tell you I didn’t … you won’t believe me.”

Two thousand miles away, Bosch’s former comrade in arms, Luis Posada Carriles, paces in a small cell at an immigration facility in El Paso, Texas, waiting for the Justice Department to decide whether to release, deport, or prosecute him. Posada was arrested and charged with illegal entry in May 2005. He had slipped into the United States six weeks earlier and was visiting supporters and family in Miami. He had even filed an application for political asylum, but then he held a press conference, embarrassing authorities sufficiently to provoke his arrest. Last year, the Justice Department issued an “order of removal,” but it has yet to find an acceptable country willing to take him.

Posada and Bosch, co-conspirators for almost fifty years, are a study in opposites: where Bosch has goaded law- enforcement agents with his raw fervor and guileless boasts, Posada is more subtle, a man of multiple agendas and multiple employers. At seventy-eight, he has speckled white hair, but he is sturdier than Bosch, notwithstanding an assassination attempt in 1990 that shattered his jaw and nearly severed his tongue, leaving him with a crushed, gravelly voice. (Posada insists his assailants were Cuban agents, though he acknowledges he has many enemies.)

The 1998 New York Times series on exile militants by Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rohter:

"Plot On Castro Spotlights A Powerful Group" (May 5, 1998)

"A Bomber's Tale: Part 1" (July 12, 1998)
Taking aim at Castro.

"A Bomber's Tale: Part 2" (July 13, 1998)
Decades of Intrigue.

"Cuban Exile Leader Among 7 Accused of Plot" (August 26, 1998)

I first met Posada in June 1998, when I was writing an investigative series on exile militants for The New York Times. He left a message on my answering machine, suggesting we meet. I flew on his instruction to Aruba, where he picked me up at the airport wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals. He carried my bags outside to a waiting van, and off we went to his gated safe house, the home of a supporter, hidden from view by a high stucco wall. Posada explained that he had granted the unprecedented interview because he needed publicity for a bombing campaign he had launched in 1997 against Cuba’s tourist industry, which killed one Italian tourist. (The attacks, he told me, were designed to damage property, not people.) Otherwise, investors and tourists would continue flocking to Cuba, handing Castro an economic lifeline. “It’s a war,’’ Posada said. “A bad war.”

On my last day in Aruba, Posada handed me three pages of notes. “Ideology,” he had written at the top in Spanish:

The absence of freedom of expression, of freedom of movement for a hungry people oppressed and terrorized by communist repression … This gives all free Cubans a right to take up arms against the tyrant, using violence or whatever means at our disposal to derail this terrible system and bring freedom to our country.

At the bottom he had written, in English: “He does not admit the bombs in the hotels but he does not deny either.”

In the end, the attention Posada garnered from the Times series was more than he had bargained for. His boasts of masterminding the bombings compromised his supporters in South Florida and New Jersey, some of whom he named as providing him with money. If the attorney general decides to try Posada for acts of terrorism, Exhibit A will be Posada’s own admissions. Two grand juries, one in El Paso and another in Union City, New Jersey, empaneled intermittently to investigate Posada’s activities, have subpoenaed several exile militants and detained one who refused to testify. What’s clear from the meandering investigation, however, is that the Bush Justice Department has been reluctant so far to prosecute this case.

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