Venezuela Will Push U.S. to Hand Over Man Tied to Plane Bombing
by Simon Romero and Damien Cave
Jan. 23, 2009
Reprinted from The New York Times
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela will press the Obama administration in the coming days to extradite a former senior official in Venezuela’s secret intelligence police so that he can be tried for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, according to lawyers for the government here.
The move will test the new administration’s willingness to engage on a festering issue that has further strained America’s relations with Venezuela and Cuba. Both nations have depicted the case of Luis Posada Carriles, an elderly Cuban exile who is a naturalized Venezuelan and a former C.I.A. operative, as an example of hypocrisy by Washington in its fight against terrorism.
Mr. Posada, 80, is charged here with masterminding the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane as it flew above Barbados, killing all 73 people on board, including dozens of Cuban civilians and a 9-year-old Guyanese girl. It was the Western Hemisphere’s first act of midair terrorism, the bloodiest of a series of bombings aimed at weakening Fidel Castro’s government.
At the time of the bombing, Mr. Posada was operating a private security firm here, after holding senior posts in Venezuela’s intelligence police. He was imprisoned in Venezuela for nine years while facing charges of plotting the bombing with another Cuban exile, but escaped in 1985 to El Salvador aboard a shrimp boat.
Mr. Posada has lived freely in Miami since 2007, when a federal judge in Texas dismissed an indictment against him on immigration fraud charges. He had entered the United States from Mexico, and was detained for two years until his release. He now spends his days painting landscapes, which are sold by the dozens at shows in Miami frequented by a shrinking but powerful group of hardened anti-Castro exiles.
“The Bush administration did not want to extradite Posada, because of its close ties to extremist elements in Miami that protect Posada,” said José Pertierra, a lawyer in Washington who represents Venezuela’s government. “We are hopeful that the Obama administration will see the case differently.”
Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, declined to comment on Venezuela’s extradition request.
Venezuela first submitted its request in 2005, when Mr. Posada appeared in Miami after being released from prison in Panama, where he had been convicted on charges of plotting to kill Mr. Castro. President Hugo Chávez has since taken a page from Mr. Castro’s use of the case to criticize the United States for failing to extradite or imprison a militant implicated in the deaths of dozens of civilians.
Mr. Pertierra, the lawyer for Venezuela, said Mr. Chávez’s government would now put forward additional evidence linking Mr. Posada to the bombing, including the scouting notes of Hernán Ricardo, a Venezuelan employee of Mr. Posada’s private security firm here at the time of the Cubana Airlines attack. The notes, which Venezuelan officials reportedly found in searches of Mr. Posada’s home and office, show Mr. Ricardo’s surveillance of Caribbean targets “with a link to Cuba” for potential attacks, including the flight from Barbados. Several other attacks on targets described in the notes were carried out in 1976, including the bombing of the Guyanese Embassy in Trinidad.
Venezuela is in the midst of a broad push to raise awareness of the airline bombing, which has been a defining element of public life in Cuba for three decades. A documentary, “Posada Carriles: Terrorism Made in the U.S.A.,” has been shown repeatedly on Venezuelan state television in recent weeks.
And a new feature film about Mr. Posada financed by Mr. Chávez’s government is scheduled for release soon, according to its director, Eduardo Barberena. The thriller, starring Cuban actors, recounts Mr. Posada’s time in the secret intelligence police and the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455.
“What allows him to avoid his moral obligation?” Mr. Barberena said of Mr. Posada’s freedom.
But some with ties to Mr. Posada are far less sanguine about extraditing him to Venezuela. Joaquín Chaffardet, a former business partner of Mr. Posada’s and the former secretary general of the intelligence police, testified in the United States in 2005 that he believed Mr. Posada would be tortured or sent to Cuba if he were extradited to Venezuela.
Mr. Chaffardet, a lawyer, said his home was searched by military intelligence officials, and that his clients were hounded to abandon him around the time that Mr. Posada was released from detention in 2007. Mr. Chaffardet said in a telephone interview that he later left Venezuela for the United States.
“From my own experience, there is no rule of law in Venezuela, and certainly no assurance that Posada would not be subjected to inhumane treatment,” said Mr. Chaffardet, who is listed by Venezuela’s military intelligence service as one of the country’s most wanted fugitives, accused of instigating military rebellion.
Mr. Pertierra, the lawyer for Venezuela, said officials were willing to provide the United States with written guarantees that no harm would come to Mr. Posada and that he would be given a fair trial.
In the United States, Mr. Posada still faces immigration charges, and a separate criminal case in New Jersey linking him to a bombing campaign in Cuba in the 1990s.
Still, “there have been no indictments to my knowledge” in the New Jersey case, said Arturo V. Hernandez, Mr. Posada’s lawyer in Miami. Beyond that, Mr. Hernandez said he was appealing Mr. Posada’s immigration case to the Supreme Court.
Relations between Washington and Caracas, meanwhile, remain frayed. The United States Embassy here has had no ambassador since Mr. Chávez expelled the American envoy, Patrick Duddy, last September.
And Mr. Chávez has already shown a willingness to insult Mr. Obama, saying he had the same “stench” as his predecessor after Mr. Obama expressed concern last week that Mr. Chávez’s government may have supported Colombia’s FARC rebels, which are classified as terrorists by the United States.
“U.S. credibility on fighting terrorism makes it imperative for the new administration to move the Posada case toward justice,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archive, an organization at George Washington University that has released documents on Mr. Posada, including the 1976 scouting notes. But Mr. Kornbluh added, “The sorry state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations will make it politically difficult for even an Obama administration to put an extradition of Posada to Caracas at the top of the agenda.”
Another option for the Obama administration that may arise is to extradite Mr. Posada to Panama, where the Supreme Court last year overturned the pardon he received from then-President Mireya Moscoso in 2004. That court ruling has opened a debate in Panama over requesting Mr. Posada’s extradition so that he can finish his prison term there. “With Obama, we hope that a cleansing of the past can take place,” said Jesús Marrero, 62, a former guerrilla in Venezuela who claims he was tortured by the nation’s intelligence police under Mr. Posada’s supervision.
Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Damien Cave from Miami. María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting from Caracas.