The release of United 93 has brought renewed attention to the tragic events of 9/11. Yet Americans are less familiar with the story of another jet full of innocent people destroyed by terrorists: Cubana Flight 455.
On October 6, 1976, it was scheduled to take off from Barbados to Kingston, Jamaica. Nine minutes after takeoff, a bomb in the aircraft’s rear lavatory exploded. The captain radioed to the control tower: "We have an explosion aboard, we are descending immediately!" A second bomb exploded, causing the plane to crash into the water. All 73 people on board died, including all 24 members of the Cuban national fencing team, many of them teenagers. (1) Until 9/11, Cubana Flight 455 was the worst act of terrorism aboard a commercial airline in the Americas. One of the men responsible for the planning of this incident currently lives within the United States, and is currently applying for citizenship. His name is Luis Posada Carriles.
A fanatical anti-Castro Cuban exile, Posada has left a bloody swath of terror and destruction across the Gulf of Mexico. By his own admission, the CIA-trained and Miami-funded Posada has planned bombings of Cuban hotels, cafes, and dancehalls. (2) Although he has denied involvement, strong evidence exists that Posada was involved in the bombing of Cubana Flight 455. CIA and FBI documents unearthed by George Washington University’s National Security Archive place Posada among the conspirators at two planning meetings for the bombing. (3)
Posada has spent thirty years on the run from the government of Venezuela, which tried him for his role in the bombing. His trial was never completed and Posada escaped from prison while prosecutors appealed an acquittal and is still wanted by the government of Venezuela. He was arrested in the United States in 2005, and since has been involved in a bid for asylum. A judge ruled last September that he could be deported, but not to Cuba, where he faces execution, or Venezuela, where Posada’s lawyers alleged he would be tortured. Now, in a new twist, Posada applied on April 26, 2006 for US citizenship. (4) He has a good chance of getting it. Not surprisingly, Posada’s case has not made national news. The reason for the resounding silence and indifference given to his case is the double standard that exists in the United States: the very slim difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter.
In a November 2001 news conference, President George W. Bush declared that, in the "War on Terror", there is no room for neutrality: "A coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy, a coalition partner must perform…All nations…must do something…[It’s] important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. …[Y]ou’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror." (5) It sounded simple enough: Bush had thrown down the gauntlet, declaring that those nations who protected terrorists or did not do anything to expel or arrest terrorists inside their borders would face U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military consequences. He effectively eliminated the distinction between passive and active sponsors of terror. Georgetown Professor Daniel Byman says that a regime is "guilty of passive sponsorship if it knowingly allows a terrorist group to raise money, enjoy a sanctuary, recruit, or otherwise flourish but does not directly aid the group itself." (6) Again, there is a refreshing simplicity in this definition. Those who harbor terrorists, for whatever reason, are just as guilty as the terrorists themselves. But why then, has the U.S harbored a vicious group of terrorists for over forty years?
Posada’s case is by no means unique. Ever since the Bay of Pigs disaster, the United States government has ignored Cuban exile involvement in terrorist operations against Cuba, and Cuban interests as well as violence and intimidation directed against American citizens. According to the Center for International Policy, "Militant hard-line exile activities in the late 70s and early 80s caused the FBI to designate Miami the ‘terrorist capital’ of the United States. The terrorist activities in Miami included death threats, beatings, mob attacks, vandalism, extortion, bombings and outright murder," (7) The same article reports 68 acts of terror in Miami since 1968, including the bombings of:
The Continental National Bank, where Bernardo Benes, who was one of seventy-five Cuban exiles who met with Fidel Castro to negotiate the release of 3600 political prisoners in Cuba, was an executive (in 1983); the Cuban Museum of Art (in 1988 and again 1990); the home of Maria Cristina Herrera, the organizer of a conference on U.S.-Cuba relations (1988- the bomb was discovered in her garage before it went off); Marazul Tours, which arranges travel to Cuba (1989 and again in 1996): Little Havana’s Centro Vasco, prior to the performance of Cuban singer Rosita Fornes (1996); the Amnesia nightclub before a performance by Cuban singer Manolín (1999)…
Actions abroad have included bombings and assassinations directed against Cuban interests in Venezuela, Guatemala, and other countries. Yet in many cases the CIA and FBI did little to prevent these actions or apprehend the perpetrators. The documents in the National Security Archive’s cache demonstrate that US intelligence had advance knowledge of the bombing of Cubana Flight 455, but did nothing to warn Cuban authorities or stop it. (8)
The Cuban exiles are not the only ones who have enjoyed such passivity from US law enforcement and intelligence. According to an article Georgetown’s Professor Daniel Byman wrote in Survival magazine, the United States also allowed representatives of the anti-Iran terror group Mujahedin-e Khalq to lobby government officials until 1997, and turned a blind eye to blatant IRA fundraising by front organizations such as the Irish Northern Aid Committee during the bloodiest time of "The Troubles". (9) Of course there is also the now familiar clandestine US aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and the anti-Soviet Islamic fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Undeniably, the United States has been both a passive and active sponsor of terrorism for many years. However, to officials in Washington, such people are not terrorists but "heroes" and "freedom fighters."
Why does the U.S. government harbor and tolerate international killers and thugs like Posada? Cold War-era opposition to Castro certainly is one explanation. The enemy of an enemy was a friend, no matter how unsavory. The National Security Archive documents reveal a surprising degree of collusion between Posada and the United States. His involvement can be found in the Iran-Contra affair, where he worked as an overseer in the illegal supplying of weapons for the American-backed rebels. He worked for a CIA operative who reported directly to the White House (10). "The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. don't bother me, and I am neutral with them. Whenever I can help them, I do," Posada boasted (11). But for all intents and purposes, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago. As President Bush and his allies are so fond of reminding us, September 11 dramatically changed the world order. There is no excuse, then, for the continued toleration, if not outright acceptance, of murderers like Posada. He is an unrepentant, fanatical terrorist who has taken innocent human lives and will most likely do so again. When asked whether he felt any guilt over his campaign of hotel and café bombings, Posada declared that he "sleeps like a baby" (12).
Why is someone like Posada on the threshold of becoming a United States citizen? The answer lies in the insidious influence of the Cuban exile lobby in America. Blinded by rage over their expulsion from Cuba, they will settle for nothing less than the total destruction of Castro’s regime by any means necessary. Like Al Qaeda’s bombers and hijackers, the murder of innocent civilians is of little consequence. Yet politicians of every political stripe bend over backwards to pander to them because of Florida’s importance as a swing state.
Lobbying by wealthy, politically connected Cuban exiles has resulted in softball treatment for many Cuban exile terrorists, and, if some are to believed, material aid. Posada claims to have the financial backing of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), a powerful tax-exempt lobbying group whose reach extends deep into the Beltway. (13) The CANF has frequently intervened on behalf of terrorists, including Virgilio Paz, one of the killers of the former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier in a 1976 Washington car-bombing. Paz was released from INS custody after a campaign largely organized by CANF. Similarly, the first Bush administration, under pressure from the Cuban exile lobby, gave asylum to exile terrorist Orlando Bosch. Bosch fired a bazooka at a Polish freighter docked in Miami and has been linked by the Justice Department to "more than thirty acts of sabotage and violence" in the United States, Puerto Rico, Panama and Cuba; planning the murder of two Cuban diplomats in Argentina (who subsequently were kidnapped and disappeared); the bombing of the Mexican embassy in Guatamala in 1976; and package bombs to Cuban embassies in Lima, Madrid, Ottawa and Buenos Aires." Bosch has also been suspected of involvement in the bombing of Cubana 455, though never convicted. (14)
In the United States, there is little public knowledge of these exiles’ horrible crimes. The media is simply not interested in reporting on acts of terrorism that do not fit the simplistic template constructed by the Bush administration. As Jeff Cohen noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, "The stories of Luis Posada and the CIA's historic links to right-wing terror groups overseas have been under-reported because much of the U.S. media is content presenting a simplistic view of the world where Americans in white hats police the globe of black hats--usually worn by Middle Eastern terrorists." (15) The idea of a murderous campaign waged by US citizens both at home and abroad is deeply unsettling and a contradiction of the "official" values of the "War on Terror."
If the U.S. gives Posada citizenship, what separates the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the other countries that the United States has been charged with passive sponsorship of terrorism? It is the height of hypocrisy to lecture other countries to do more about terrorism when we are seriously entertaining a bid for citizenship by a man who is wanted for helping to destroy a passenger airplane. The United States invaded and occupied Afghanistan because the country’s Taliban regime refused to give up Bin Laden. Why should Pakistan curb the activities of its Kashmiri terrorist groups if we condone a similar campaign of violence against a legitimate government? The citizenship of Luis Posada Carriles will make a mockery of the United States and all it claims to stand for.
On a more human level, the families of those lost in the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 deserve justice. Ordinary people, not soldiers of Castro’s regime, perished in the attack, people whose lives matter just as much as those lost in 9/11. Unlike the famous passengers of Flight 93, the passengers of Cubana Flight 455 apparently do not merit a Hollywood movie or widespread fame. To the relatives of the victims, the Posada citizenship proceedings are a ghoulish insult. The anguish behind the words of Carlos Cremata, who lost his father at the age of 16, is palpable: "What made things worse was that we were never able to bury my father….[The asylum proceedings] makes everything worse…It’s inconceivable." (16)
Posada must not be allowed to wrap himself in the refuge of citizenship. In turn, the United States must act to punish Cuban exile terrorists. Those who have or plan to do harm must be arrested and tried. Those organizations that provide financial support and aid must be banned, like the many Muslim charities under suspicion of being fronts for Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The assets of those who bankroll terror out of their own pockets must be frozen. It is time to end the mockery of justice, peace, and order that has existed for too long in Miami.
Adam Elkus lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He has written for Truthdig, Strawberry Press Magazine, Wanderings and Altar Magazine.
1. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7678398/ http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/