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
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Venezuelan Justice

Several countries initiated investigations into the Cubana bombing, and a tussle ensued over who would try the case. In the end, jurisdiction was awarded to Venezuela, in part because Ricardo and Lugo were Venezuelan, but also because the putative masterminds—Posada and Bosch—had planned the attack in Caracas. A month after the bombing, Morales told the FBI that the plan was conceived at two meetings at the Anauco Hilton in Caracas. According to a declassified FBI memo, Morales reported that “some people in the Venezuelan government are involved in this airplane bombing, and that if Posada Carriles talks, then [Morales] and others in the Venezuelan government will ‘go down the tube.’” He warned his FBI handler, “We’ll have our own Watergate.”

Posada and Bosch were transferred to a Venezuelan prison, and held together with Ricardo and Lugo, who were deported to Caracas twenty days after their arrest. Their supporters responded with deadly fury. In the fourteen months following their arrest, CORU bombed Venezuelan airline ticket offices in San Juan and Miami and the Venezuelan consulate in San Juan. Bosch referred to the bombings as “messages.” The Cubana case became a cause célèbre for Miami’s political leaders, who lobbied Washington to press for their release. Miami’s mayor, Maurice Ferré, visited Bosch in prison; the city commissioners declared an official “Orlando Bosch Day.”

The case was fraught with peril for its prosecutors, witnesses, and judges, several of whom received death threats. “It would be inconceivable to allow them to go free,” one judge told a Venezuelan reporter, “but we are being strongly pressured … Whatever the government wants is what will get done.” The Venezuelan government had two conflicting goals: to avoid a showdown with Cuban militants, and to demonstrate to the world—and to Castro—that it was serious about prosecuting the case.

Venezuela also had a third goal: to divert attention from the involvement of its own intelligence agency. Recently declassified State Department cables reveal that the United States asked Venezuela to extradite Bosch immediately after the attack. The Venezuelan government tried, instead, to smuggle him out of the country. It was far more expedient to focus attention on Posada, a former CIA agent, than on Bosch, who had so recently been welcomed into the country by the Venezuelan president’s chief of security.

In 1982, Mono Morales turned state’s evidence in a major narcotics investigation in Miami, an operation called Tick Tock. He had worn out his welcome in Caracas and had plans to settle in Miami, and was eager to ease relations with Cuban exile militant leaders, who no longer trusted him. In a confession videotaped by Posada’s attorney in Miami, Morales took responsibility for the bombing and asserted that Bosch and Posada were innocent. He railed against the Venezuelan president and insisted that Ricardo and Lugo had been working for him at DISIP.

Not long after he confessed, Morales was shot dead in a Key Biscayne bar by a drug thug. “It was a hit,” said D. C. Diaz, a Miami detective who knew both Morales and his assassin. Posada’s attorney was murdered a year later.

George Kiszynski, a thirty-four-year veteran of the FBI who interviewed Posada, Morales, and García, described Morales as “decadent, devious, with an astonishing photographic memory.” Bosch’s verdict was more terse: “El Mono was a drunk and a lost soul.”

“Mono was crazy,” Posada told me. “He was not immoral, he was amoral.” But in the case of his Cubana confession, Posada insists that Morales was telling the truth. Posada has expressed feeling for the victims of the Cubana bombings, and denies involvement in the attack. When I pressed and asked him who did it, he said, “I think it was Morales.”

Bosch resigned himself to prison life, painting, writing, and plotting against Castro. Posada was less sanguine. In 1985, following two failed attempts, he escaped, after bribing the warden with $50,000 raised by Jorge Mas Canosa, the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. He was ferried to El Salvador on a shrimp boat owned by a Miami-based Cuban exile, and met by Félix Rodríguez, his former comrade from Fort Benning and the Bay of Pigs. Rodríguez had a special offer: he invited Posada to be his deputy in a covert operation to help the Contras dislodge the Nicaraguan government. Posada was given a Salvadoran passport and driver’s license in the name of Ramón Medina Rodríguez. Among his duties was coordinating the flights ferrying supplies from El Salvador to the battlefront in Nicaragua and setting up safe houses where American personnel kept their surveillance and encryption systems. Posada was delighted. Not only was he back in favor, he was back on the payroll.

Posada told me that when the Iran-Contra scandal burst onto the front pages in 1986, he earned every penny of his taxpayer-paid salary—by his account roughly $10,000 a month. In a matter of hours, he cleaned out the U.S. safe houses in El Salvador, ferrying American personnel out of the country and disposing of paperwork that would have proved troublesome to many in Washington.

Meanwhile, with Posada safely out of the picture, the Venezuelan judiciary moved forward with the trials of his co- defendants in the Cubana bombing case. The court inexplicably barred the confessions of Lugo and Ricardo, along with the entire case file of the Trinidad and Barbados police investigators, ruling that the material was inadmissible because it was in English. Nevertheless, in July 1986, Ricardo and Lugo were convicted of treason and aggravated homicide. They were sentenced to twenty years each, the minimum allowed under the law. Bosch was acquitted—perhaps not surprisingly, since almost none of the evidence against him was allowed at his trial.

On February 16, 1988, a supremely confident Orlando Bosch flew to Miami, despite not having a U.S. visa. He was promptly detained for his prior parole violation, and for illegal entry. Jorge Mas Canosa instructed his powerful lawyers to represent Bosch, whose arrival was celebrated by hard-liners.

And yet not everyone was pleased to see Bosch return. “My colleagues and I in Miami conducted exhaustive investigations of Bosch,” the FBI agent George Davis had written in a memo to Secretary of State George Shultz. “He was regarded by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as Miami’s number one terrorist.” The attorney general’s office recommended that he be immediately deported. “The October 6, 1976, Cuban airline bombing was a CORU operation under the direction of Bosch,” Joe Whitley, the associate attorney general, wrote in his decision recommending Bosch’s deportation. “CORU is the name of Bosch’s terrorist outfit.”

While the Justice Department reviewed the case, bomb threats were made against the Miami INS office, which classified Bosch as an “excludable alien.”

Now electoral politics would come into play. In 1989, securing Bosch’s release was one of the cornerstones of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional campaign in Miami. She praised Bosch as a hero and a patriot on exile radio stations and raised $265,000 for his legal defense fund. Her campaign manager was a political neophyte, but one who had the ear of the White House. His name was Jeb Bush.

On August 17, 1989, Jeb Bush attended a meeting he had arranged for Ros-Lehtinen with his father to discuss the matter. The following July, President Bush rejected his own Justice Department’s recommendation and authorized Bosch’s release. Not long after that, Bosch announced that he was ready to “rejoin the struggle” and called the agreement he had signed forswearing violence “a farce.” Two years later, the Bush administration granted Bosch U.S. residency.

Bosch’s defiance has been an ongoing source of embarrassment for the Bush family. “They purchased the chain,” Bosch is fond of saying, citing a Cuban adage, “but they don’t have the monkey.”

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