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Cuban 'terrorist' arrested in Miami

Hours after Castro leads thousands on a march accusing the U.S. of harboring a terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles is arrested.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published May 18, 2005

MIAMI - The Cuban protesters began assembling before dawn Tuesday on Havana's seafront for the "March Against Terrorism," the culmination of Fidel Castro's latest campaign against Washington.

Castro accuses the Bush administration of hypocrisy in the war on terrorism by harboring Havana's most wanted man.

The focus of his ire: Luis Posada Carriles, a 77-year-old, CIA-trained anti-Castro militant - alias "Bambi."

Even before the march got under way, some 225 miles away readers of the Miami Herald were picking up their morning papers to learn that Posada was indeed hiding out in Miami. He hardly sounded like a man on the run.

Interviewed at a luxury condo overlooking Biscayne Bay, a dapper Posada said he didn't think the United States was looking very hard for him.

"At first I hid a lot," he told the paper, describing his illegal entry into the United States in March. "Now I hide a lot less."

By midafternoon Tuesday he was in custody; federal agents whisked him away by Black Hawk helicopter to Homestead Air Reserve Base.

Cuba accuses Posada, a one-time U.S. intelligence asset, of leading a decadeslong terrorist campaign against the communist island, including the 1976 downing of a Cubana Airlines DC-8 passenger plane that killed all 73 people aboard. He also is the alleged mastermind of a 1997 bombing campaign in Havana that targeted tourist hotels with small explosive devices. One Italian tourist was killed, and several others injured.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out for Tuesday's government-orchestrated march in Havana. State TV broadcast the event with a picture of President Bush dressed as Adolf Hitler.

"Bush, fascist, capture the terrorist," the marchers chanted as they passed the U.S. diplomatic mission.

"It is painful to know that this terrorist is in the United States, and the U.S. government has done nothing," said Margarita Morales at the march in Havana. She was 14 when her father, a national youth team fencing coach, was killed on the Cubana flight.

Castro seized on Posada's secret arrival in Miami the moment it was first made public in late March. Since then he has made 17 TV appearances on the subject, bombarding the Cuban airwaves with speeches and live, four-hour lectures.

Castro, who has taken to calling President Bush "the little fuhrer," likes to remind Cuban viewers that the United States went to war in Afghanistan on the premise that those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves.

As Cuban exiles are quick to point out, Castro's record on terrorism isn't stellar either. But, as in his last big fight with the United States - the bitter custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez - Castro again appears to hold the higher moral ground.

"Posada is no Elian," said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "The (Miami Cuban) community has not warmed to Posada. He doesn't pull at the heartstrings."

During the Elian affair, Cuban-American officials eagerly joined the battle to prevent the boy from being sent back to his father in Cuba. But this time most Cuban exile leaders aren't willing to embrace a suspected terrorist.

"This is more of a challenge to the Bush administration than the exile community itself," said Fernandez.

Until Tuesday, Washington wasn't saying much.

The official silence may have a lot to do with Posada's former close association with the CIA. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the CIA instructed Posada to "establish a training camp for guerrilla operations against Castro," according to declassified government documents.

He reportedly became an expert bombmaker and helped mount clandestine raids against Cuba.

With the CIA's support he got a job with the Venezuelan intelligence services in 1969. Venezuela at the time was facing a threat from left-wing guerrillas trained and supported by Castro. Posada was recruited with other Miami Cubans, including convicted terrorist Orlando Bosch, to help root out the guerrilla threat.

But by the early 1970s Posada fell out of favor with the CIA, according to the book Cuba Confidential by Anne Louise Bardach, which includes the most detailed description of Posada's career. Official documents refer to his association with "gangster elements," and links to drug traffickers.

By 1973 he was officially described as a "serious potential liability."

Posada left Venezuelan intelligence in 1974 and formed his own private security and detective agency. After the 1976 airline bombing, Posada and Bosch were arrested by Venezuelan authorities. They were acquitted in two trials, but kept in jail pending appeals.

The declassified intelligence documents from that time reveal that informants told U.S. officials that Posada attended two planning meetings for the bombing. But one of the sources, Ricardo "Monkey" Morales, a notoriously unreliable Cuban exile who later turned to drug trafficking, retracted his account. Morales was fatally shot in a Key Biscayne bar in 1982.

Posada eventually bribed his way out of jail in 1985 and fled the country. Bosch served 11 years before he was deported to Miami.

Posada joined the U.S. covert operation just under way in Central America to topple the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Posada became a "field manager" in U.S.-backed resupply operations for Contra rebels fighting the Sandinistas.

The operation was secretly run by Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Reagan administration official in the National Security Council. Based in El Salvador, Posada served as liaison between U.S. pilots flying C-123 transport planes and the Salvadoran air force, according to declassified documents.

The lid was blown on that operation in 1986 after one of the planes was shot down and an American survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured.

Posada later went to work as a security consultant for the Guatemalan government. He survived an assassination attempt in 1990 that he blames on Cuban government agents. A bullet shattered his jaw, leaving him disfigured and with a slight speech impediment.

Posada reappeared after the 1997 hotel bombings in Havana. Seeking to draw attention to his anti-Castro exploits, he told the New York Times he was behind the bombings. He later said he lied to put investigators off the scent.

Posada has stuck to his claims of innocence in the 1976 airline bombing. One long-time friend produced a copy of a lie detector test taken this month in which Posada was asked about the plane incident. He passed.

In a round of media interviews before his arrest Tuesday he refused to answer questions about the 1997 string of a dozen hotel and restaurant bombings. But he came close to admitting his involvement. "I'll tell you one thing, the (hotel) bombs were very small, just intended to break windows and cause minor damage," he told the Herald.

He described the death of the Italian as "bad luck," the result of a shard of glass that struck the tourist in the neck.

Posada's decision to end his underground existence appears to be an effort to follow the footsteps of Bosch, his former Venezuelan cellmate. Bosch was released from jail after receiving a pardon from President George Bush in 1990, over the objections of the Justice Department.

Bosch enjoyed the kind of support then that Posada could only wish for today. Among his backers were Miami congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her then-campaign manager, the president's son, Jeb Bush.

How Posada entered the country in March despite his name being on an immigration watch list is still unclear. Posada says he crossed the border from Mexico by car at Brownsville, Texas, before hopping on a Greyhound bus from Houston to Miami.

He told the Herald that he was nearly nabbed by Border Patrol agents who boarded the bus in Fort Lauderdale. When they asked for his documents he played dumb. "Sir, I'm 80 years old. I forget things," he says he told the agent.

Cuba welcomed Posada's arrest but questioned why it took so long. "Do you want us to applaud the fact that he has been arrested after his presence (in the United States) was burning for two months?" said Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of the Cuban parliament and one of Cuba's chief spokesmen.

Where he is headed next isn't clear. In a statement late Tuesday the Department of Homeland Security said his immigration status was being "reviewed." A decision would be made in 48 hours.

The statement added that the United States "does not generally" deport people to Cuba. Nor was it likely he would be sent to Venezuela, which is Castro's closest ally in the region.

The U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a potential alternative, according to Posada's attorney. Certainly not what Posada envisioned Tuesday morning.

Information from the Associated Press was used in the report.

LUIS POSADA CARRILES

Key events in the life of Cuban militant Luis Posada Carriles, whose extradition is demanded by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

FEB. 15, 1928: Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

EARLY 1961: A supervisor for Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., he flees Cuba, first to Mexico, then to Florida.

1961: Trains for CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion. His ship does not land before the April 17 attack fails.

FEB. 1963-MARCH 1964: Serves in U.S. Army.

MAY 1965: FBI report has him associated with plot to overthrow Guatemalan government.

JUNE 1976: CIA reports last contact with Posada.

OCT. 6, 1976: Cuban civilian jetliner bombed over Bahamas, killing 73 people. Cubans, Venezuelans and then-secret U.S. intelligence reports say Posada involved in planning. Posada denies involvement.

OCTOBER 1976: Arrested in Venezuela. Acquitted in military and civilian trials, but held while prosecution appeals.

AUGUST 1985: Escapes prison.

1986: Newspaper and witnesses say Posada in El Salvador working on U.S. supply effort for Nicaragua's Contra rebels.

APRIL-SEPTEMBER 1997: Hotel bombings in Havana kill one tourist. Cuba blames Posada.

AUG. 26, 2004: Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardons Posada and allows him to be flown out of country, apparently to Honduras.

MARCH: Posada enters United States. Attorney says he is seeking asylum.

MAY 13: Venezuela says it has asked U.S. government to arrest and extradite Posada.

MAY 17, 2005: Castro leads massive Havana march to demand Posada's arrest.

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