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
Pediatrician, Patriot, Militant

Orlando Bosch arrived in Miami in July 1960 with his wife and four young children, and soon found work as a pediatrician. While his day job was saving babies, his free time was devoted to eliminating his political enemies. The CIA financed a training camp for him not far from the Everglades, but Bosch didn’t have the temperament to work with the agency. Once he realized there would be no second Bay of Pigs, he wrote President Kennedy a rambling screed, shut down his camp, and went out on his own. Bosch’s new group, Cuban Power, took responsibility for dozens of bombings and assassination attempts, which Bosch referred to as “justice actions.” By the mid-’60s, Bosch had been arrested half a dozen times in Miami for various bombings and attacks. In September 1968, he was arrested again, for firing a 57 mm bazooka into a Polish ship docked at the Port of Miami. This time, he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

Some of Bosch’s collaborators questioned his tactics. Friends in Miami often whispered that he was “mad” or “crazy,” sometimes affectionately, but also fearfully. Bosch had developed a cultlike following, and attracted powerful supporters. The governor of Florida, Claude Kirk, was among those who lobbied for his early parole, and in 1972 Bosch walked out of prison. Two years later, he violated his parole and left the country “to make sabotage against Castro,” as he put it, with Posada in Venezuela. One casualty of his crusade was his marriage.

On October 10, 1974, Cuba’s Independence Day, Bosch set off bombs at Panama’s embassy and at a cultural center in Caracas shortly before Cuban officials were due to arrive. True to form, he boasted about his handiwork, necessitating his arrest. Venezuela offered to extradite him to the United States and was surprised to learn that the Justice Department did not want him back. Bosch was soon released, and he headed south to Chile, where he found an accommodating host in General Augusto Pinochet. In Santiago, he fell in love with a beautiful chilena, Adriana Delgado, twenty years his junior. The two married in February 1975 and had a daughter soon after.

George H. W. Bush became director of the CIA in January 1976 and served through January 1977. Bush succeeded William Colby, whose cooperation with the Church Committee hearings, and testimony about the CIA’s role in destabilizing Chile, had infuriated many in the agency. Colby had implemented major reforms, including a prohibition on political assassinations, and was the first director to give major public briefings to Congress on agency operations. These actions deeply alienated some of the CIA’s more committed Cold Warriors, many of whom backed the appointment of Bush.

When Bush took up his post, he offered Ted Shackley, the former head of JMWave, the CIA’s third most powerful job: associate deputy director. Bush appears to have had contacts with Cuban exiles as far back as the 1960s, when, according to a declassified memo by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI briefed him on their response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A Bush spokesman has previously said that the memo referred to a different George Bush, and Bush did not respond to my requests for comment.

Shackley was a divisive figure, and relations between Henry Kissinger’s State Department and George Bush’s CIA were painfully strained—so much so, according to William Rogers, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, that the State Department rarely relied on CIA intelligence. “The agency was controlled by hard-liners,” he said. “They had an agenda, and the intelligence was lousy.” Shackley later played a role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Bush’s tenure at the CIA coincided with the worst spate of bombings and assassinations by Cuban exile militants in Latin America and in the United States. At that time, bombs went off regularly in Miami; sometimes there were several explosions in one day. In December 1975, thirteen bombs went off in forty-eight hours, striking at the very heart of the city: the airport, the police department, the state attorney’s office, the Social Security building, the post office, and the FBI’s main office. Miraculously, no one was seriously wounded: the goal was not to kill civilians, but to warn Kissinger and Rogers not to pursue détente with Cuba.

Before the blasts, the target or the news media would often get a phone call. The caller would play the first haunting strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit, “If I Could”—also called “El Cóndor Pasa,” after a Peruvian folk song: “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. Yes I would, if I could …” It was not lost on investigators that Condor was also the code name of the “Dirty War” against leftist opponents being conducted by the military regimes of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, who sometimes employed Cuban militants to do their bidding.

The Bombing, and After

Bosch was a fugitive from U.S. justice when he founded the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, an act that established him as the godfather of the Cuban exiles. At CORU’s initial meeting, on June 11, 1976, at a mountaintop retreat in the Dominican Republic, twenty exiles, including Bosch and Posada, devised a master plan to bring down Castro and intimidate his allies. “Our war strategy was created there—everything,” Bosch told me. “All the top leaders of the paramilitaries in Miami were there.” Subsequently, CORU took responsibility for scores of bombings, kidnappings, and murders in Latin America and the United States. One of its highest priorities, according to an FBI informer, was to bring down a Cuban airliner. The group reasoned that such an audacious act would demonstrate its might, terrify the Cuban government, and focus the world’s attention on its cause.

“Several informers infiltrated, of course,” Bosch’s wife, Adriana, told me with a roll of her eyes. “It never fails.” One informer warned the CIA that militants led by Bosch had “plans to place a bomb on a Cubana airline flight traveling between Panama and Havana,” specifically naming Cubana Airlines Flight 476 on June 21. The resulting CIA memo, titled “Possible Plans of Cuban Exile Extremists to Blow up a Cubana Airliner,” described its source as a “businessman with close ties to the Cuban exile community” and a “usually reliable reporter.”

On September 8, 1976, Bosch returned to Venezuela at the invitation of Orlando García, President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s chief of security. This time, a pact was agreed upon: Bosch was told that he could base himself in Venezuela so long as his targets remained outside its borders. In return, he was given a Venezuelan passport, a DISIP identity card in the name of Carlos Sucre, and a suite at the chic Anauco Hilton, where García and his deputy, Ricardo “El Mono” Morales, also had apartments. Morales, a Cuban exile like his boss, was a frequent informer for the FBI, the DEA, the CIA, and assorted Latin American intelligence agencies; he even testified against Bosch in the Polish ship case of 1968.

Not long after Bosch’s arrival in Caracas, a fund-raising dinner was held in his honor at the home of a wealthy Cuban doctor. Posada, Mono Morales, and Orlando García were among the attendees. During dinner, according to a CIA memo sent after the Cubana bombing, Bosch sought to extort “a substantial cash contribution to his organization” from the Venezuelan government in exchange for a promise to abstain from attacks in the United States during President Pérez’s upcoming trip to the United Nations. He received $500.

It appears this was not sufficient. On September 21, Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former ambassador to the United States and an outspoken critic of General Pinochet’s military regime, was assassinated with his American assistant in Washington when a bomb placed under his car blew up just as he was approaching his office on Massachusetts Avenue. The FBI immediately suspected—correctly—that Cuban militants had killed Letelier with help from the Chilean secret police. “Pinochet’s people were always telling us that they wanted Letelier killed,” Bosch told me. A map of Letelier’s route to work was later found in Posada’s office.

The murders, six weeks before the presidential election, stunned Washington, from the White House to the CIA to the international diplomatic corps. Another CIA memo written after the Cubana bombing stated that its informer had overheard Bosch asserting, “Now that our organization has come out of the Letelier job looking good, we are going to try something else.” Posada is quoted as saying, “We are going to hit a Cuban airliner” and “Orlando (Bosch) has the details.” The memo concluded that specific plans for the Cubana bombing were solidified soon after.

The plan had been for Hernán Ricardo to stop in the United States after the Cubana bombing. To do this, he would need a visa. Joseph Leo, the FBI’s legal attaché in Caracas, turned Ricardo away on his first application, telling him he had to have a letter of employment. On October 1, 1976, five days before the bombing, Ricardo returned to Leo’s office with a letter signed by Luis Posada on business stationery, attesting that Ricardo was Posada’s employee.

A few things about the smooth-talking Ricardo troubled Leo, whose name and number were found by investigators in Lugo’s address book. In a seven-page memo to the FBI sent two days after the bombing, Leo wrote that he had met Ricardo on several occasions; he described Ricardo as a photojournalist “in the personal service of Luis Posada” and explained that Ricardo had sought his help, asking if he had “some suggestions regarding courses of action that might be taken against the Cuban embassy in Caracas by an anti-Castro group.” (Leo reported that he discouraged Ricardo, telling him he “abhorred terrorist activities.”) When Ricardo returned to the embassy with Posada’s letter on September 30, Leo studied his passport and noted that he had been in Trinidad on September 1, the very day the Guyanese consulate there had been bombed. Guyana’s cordial relations with Cuba infuriated militant exiles, and Leo wrote in his memo that he wondered, “in view of Ricardo’s association with Luis Posada, if his presence there during that period was coincidence.”

Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archive, which published the declassified CIA and FBI memos concerning the Cubana bombing, has questioned why Leo never raised any alarms about Ricardo, despite his suspicions. (Leo has consistently refused to speak to the press.) The archive, says Kornbluh, has pressed the Bush administration to release hundreds of pages of known CIA and FBI memos and reports on Posada, Bosch, and the Cubana case. So far, the requests have been denied.

When Venezuelan police arrested Bosch and Posada on October 13, Posada was told he was being held at DISIP headquarters “for a few days” for his own protection. He and Bosch were allowed to order dinner from their favorite restaurants, along with the finest whiskeys. Bosch told me he was led into Morales’s office two days after his arrest for a secret meeting with García and Morales. At the end of the meeting, Morales handed him an envelope full of cash, saying, “Here’s some money for you to get out of the country.” Bosch wanted to know what would happen to his comrade. “Posada is staying,” he recalled being told. “There is no alternative.” Morales urged him to leave: “Better you get out first, and later we’ll see what we can do for Posada.” Bosch told me he replied without hesitation: “Either we both leave, or I stay with him.”

I asked Bosch why he did not leap at the offer of freedom. “Because he was my friend,” he said, “and I could not go and leave him in prison.” Then he added, cryptically, “And I was responsible for all of that.”

Presented by

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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