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Uncle Sam's Favorite Terrorists

June 24, 1998

By Jerry Meldon & Robert Parry

The Cold War ended nearly a decade ago. Pope John Paul II prayed last January for an end to the 37-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. And the Pentagon in May finally acknowledged the obvious: that Cuba's emaciated army is no threat to the security of the United States or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere.

But old obsessions die hard, as the United States again finds itself serving as a base for terror attacks against Cuba. In the past year, American soil has been used for staging commando raids reminiscent of an earlier era of assassination plots against Fidel Castro and sabotage against Cuba's economy.

Like those older operations, the new attacks have targeted both Castro personally and civilian economic facilities inside Cuba. In spring and summer 1997, a dozen or so bombs rocked Cuban hotels and restaurants. Last fall, an alleged Castro assassination plot failed when a yacht carrying the would-be attackers nearly sank off Puerto Rico.

The bombers apparently sought to scare away European and Canadian tourists who have been flocking to the Caribbean island in record numbers. Last Sept. 4, bombs exploded at three hotels on the Havana waterfront -- the Copacabana, the Chateau and the Triton. At the Copacabana, an Italian businessman named Fabio diCelmo was hit in the throat by debris and died.

After the Sept. 4 bombings, Cuban police broke the case. They arrested Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon, a member of a Salvadoran stolen car ring who admitted his role in the terror campaign. Since then, the mastermind has been identified as CIA-trained Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, with money for the operation traced to Miami and New Jersey.

Yet, despite evidence of U.S. connections to the conspiracies -- and a federal criminal investigation that is reportedly under way into the assassination plot -- this dramatic story of politics and terrorism has drawn only spotty and often ambivalent coverage in the American news media.

When the Miami Herald reported that Posada, a renowned anti-Castro extremist, was implicated in the hotel bombings, a headline made light of his reputation as a painter as well as a terrorist. "Exile conspirator's art is on canvas, in bomb plots," a headline read. [MH, June 7, 1998]

During the bombing spree last year, other U.S. press outlets mocked Cuban charges of American complicity and incorrectly framed the story as evidence of internal divisions within Castro's government. A Journal of Commerce story even pondered whether "the dastardly deeds" were the work "of the Cuban government willing to harm its own economy so it has an excuse to crack down." [July 15, 1997]

A St. Petersburg Times story saw the attacks as a sign of Castro's decaying government. "The bombings, and Cuba's apparent inability to catch the perpetrators, are attracting the attention of political analysts and security experts who say Cuba may be witnessing the first signs in decades of a home-grown terrorist assault against the Fidel Castro regime."

That same article quoted leaders of the influential Cuban-American National Foundation as denying a hand in the bombings, but declaring solidarity with "any act of internal rebellion" against Castro. "We don't consider these actions as terrorism because people fighting for liberty cannot be limited by a system that is itself terrorist," declared CANF president Francisco Hernandez. [St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 5, 1997]

Last summer, the Clinton administration also disparaged Cuba's assertions about a U.S. role. But in recent months, the administration has clammed up about the mounting evidence that American territory, in fact, did serve as a logistical base for both the bombing attacks and an assassination plot against Castro.

Fishing Trip

A federal criminal investigation is focusing quietly on secret links between armed terrorists and the CANF, including its president, Francisco Hernandez. The New York Times reported that Hernandez and another CANF leader have been informed that they are targets of a probe into the 1997 assassination plot against Castro. Such a warning often precedes an indictment. [NYT, May 5, 1998] The CANF, a 50,000-member political powerhouse in the Cuban-American community, appears to be implicated in supporting Posada as well.

But only luck put the current wave of anti-Castro terrorism into focus. The federal criminal investigation started last Oct. 27 when a Miami-based cabin cruiser, named "La Esperanza," was foundering off Puerto Rico and radioed for help. The Coast Guard responded and escorted the yacht to safety.

The Coast Guard grew suspicious because the four Cuban exiles on board insisted they were on a fishing trip, although the fishing gear was still in plastic wrap. They also claimed they had sailed the 900 miles from Miami in a single day, an impossible trip.

Suspecting drug smuggling, federal authorities searched the yacht. Under a loose plank, they found a hidden compartment containing a cache of military supplies: ammunition, fatigues, night-vision goggles, sophisticated communications gear, tripods and two .50-caliber semi-automatic rifles capable of firing flat-trajectory bullets one mile.

According to a U.S. Custom investigator, crew member Angel Alfonso Aleman blurted out that the weapons were his and that they were intended for Castro's assassination. The crewman later denied making the confession, but the yacht's navigational coordinates were set for Margarita Island near Venezuela, where Castro was expected for a summit of Latin American leaders.

The political sensitivity of the case escalated when authorities discovered that one of the rifles belonged to CANF president Francisco Hernandez. "La Esperanza" was owned by Jose Antonio Llama, a Bay of Pigs veteran who sits on the CANF Executive Committee.

The assassination case -- and the earlier string of bombings -- suggest that some anti-Castro Cubans again are turning to violent tactics, similar to those employed by Cuban exiles and their CIA sponsors in years past. Since its founding in 1981, the CANF officially has favored a strategy of using its money and voting power to force tougher anti-Castro policies, while eschewing violence.

But with its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, dying of lung cancer last year, the group appears to have grown impatient and switched to more aggressive tactics. In Miami, there was speculation that the Castro assassination plot might have been an attempt to fulfill Mas's deathbed wish of outliving his longtime nemesis. But Mas died on Nov. 23, at age 58, having failed in his dream of ending Castro's rule of Cuba.

The CANF had no comment about the reported criminal investigation.

CIA-Trained Terrorist

The discovery of Posada's role in the 1997 bombing attacks added more fuel to the politically incendiary mix. Posada was a CIA-trained intelligence operative who had been jailed in Venezuela on suspicion of masterminding the mid-air bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, killing 73 people.

In 1985, with the reported help of Miami-based Cuban-Americans, Posada escaped from prison. He traveled to Central America where he joined Oliver North's secret Nicaraguan contra supply operation. After that White House activity was exposed in fall 1986 -- along with Posada's connection -- Posada fled to Guatemala.

In Guatemala City, Posada was wounded in a shooting but recovered. In his 1994 memoirs, The Ways of the Warrior, Posada recounted how his friends in the CANF paid the $22,000 hospital bill. As Posada hopscotched among Central American cities, he continued to be supported by Miami-based Cuban exiles, who contributed to Posada's welfare by paying top dollar for his paintings.

Posada also appears to have benefitted from the Cuban-American community's political clout. Though his whereabouts were exposed in 1986, the U.S. government took no noticeable action to help bring the accused fugitive terrorist to justice. Not surprisingly, once he recovered from his wounds, Posada returned to his long-held passion for anti-Castro terrorism.

In 1994, Posada reportedly plotted to assassinate Castro during a trip to Cartagena, Colombia. Posada and five cohorts reached Cartagena, but the plan flopped when security cordons prevented the would-be assassins from getting a clean shot at Castro, according to a Miami Herald article by Juan O. Tamayo and Gerardo Reyes. [MH, June 7, 1998]

Another Posada plan to use Honduras as a base for commando attacks against Cuba fell through in 1994 after four Cuban exiles met in Miami with Pinel Calix, head of Honduran military intelligence, the Herald reported. The Cubans apparently distrusted the corrupt Honduran military and Pinel Calix reportedly was unimpressed with the Cubans.

In the same article, the Herald detailed Posada's role in the 1997 bombing campaign against popular Cuban hotels and restaurants. The story cited documentary evidence that Posada arranged some payments to conspirators from accounts in the United States. "This afternoon you will receive via Western Union four transfers of $800 each ... from New Jersey," said one fax signed SOLO, one of Posada's aliases.

Much of the Herald story, however, focused on the mishaps of the clumsy conspirators who used diapers and shampoo bottles to smuggle plastic explosives from Guatemala to Cuba for another round of bombings scheduled for last fall. "The plan was a bust," the Herald stated. "The explosive was apparently old and failed to explode in tests."

The Herald noted that Posada was disappointed even with the results of the earlier explosions. To minimize panic, Cuba's government-controlled press had given the bombings little notice. "If there is no publicity, the work is not useful," Posada lamented.

But the Herald observed that the bombings had one unintended benefit. They touched off rumors in Havana and elsewhere that the explosions reflected a split inside Castro's security forces and a possible challenge to Castro's leadership. The speculation seeped into the U.S. press coverage and ended only last September when Cuban police arrested Posada's Salvadoran collaborator.


Posada's bombing spree and the muted U.S. reaction to it reveal anew Washington's ambivalence toward acts of terrorism that are useful to American geopolitical aims. For nearly four decades, the United States has tolerated and even sponsored acts of political violence against Cuba, with the goal of bringing down the Castro government by nearly any means necessary.

In line with that strategy, U.S. presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton have granted the anti-Castro Cubans leeway that few other violent movements have enjoyed. That's partly because the CIA recruited thousands of Cuban exiles into the shadow war, a strategy that has always skated on the edge of state-sponsored terrorism.

Recently declassified U.S. documents reveal that Kennedy administration planners dreamt up a wide range of violent schemes to justify an invasion of Cuba in the early 1960s. Brig. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, chief of the CIA's Operation Mongoose and one of President Kennedy's favorite officers, drafted the top-secret plans and presented them to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on March 1, 1962.

One of the schemes was a "Remember the Maine" incident in which "we could blow up a U.S. warship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," the memo stated. "We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. ... The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated)."

Another standby plan, called Operation Dirty Trick, proposed blaming Castro if John Glenn's Mercury space flight crashed. The manufactured story of Cuban sabotage would generate fierce public anger as well as political demands for invading Cuba, the planners thought.

Though the Joint Chiefs endorsed Lansdale's plots as "suitable for planning purposes," it is not clear how far the planning went. They did mesh, however, with other conspiracies, some involving the Mafia, to murder Castro or, at least, to arrange his public humiliation. [For more details, see NYT, Nov. 19, 1997.]

Business & Politics

In that over-heated climate of anti-Castro scheming, hard-core paramilitary operatives rubbed shoulders with supposedly non-violent political leaders. Mas Canosa, for instance, built his "closest links to the American intelligence community [through] two of the CIA's most effective and lethal operators," Felix Rodriguez and Posada, according to a lengthy Mas biographical article in Esquire. [Jan. 1993]

Mas and Posada each joined Representacion Cubana en Exilio, which congressional investigators later linked to the CIA. An FBI report identified Mas as one of its leaders, who supervised anti-Castro propaganda and planned military raids on Cuba. He allegedly once handed Posada $5,000 to blow up a ship in the Mexican port of Veracruz.

But Mas channeled his energies into building a thriving business, too. In 1971, he borrowed $50,000 and bought a small construction company which he renamed Church and Tower. He got a break when Southern Bell contracted with his firm to lay cable and erect telephone poles, the first step toward a personal telecommunications empire worth an estimated $100 million.

Mas's focus on business drew complaints from some of his old comrades that he was insufficiently militant. When an explosion shattered the legs of a newsman who had criticized terrorism, Mas felt threatened enough to start carrying a gun and driving an armored car.

But Mas also helped out Cuban exiles implicated in terrorism. When Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel was connected to the 1976 car bomb that killed Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his co-worker Ronnie Moffitt in Washington, Mas defrayed Suarez's legal bills. Mas also contributed to the attorney fees for Guillermo and Ignacio Novo, two other exiles accused in the Letelier/Moffitt murders.

After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Mas saw a new opening for his political ambitions. With White House blessing, Mas launched the Cuban-American National Foundation as a political force to support aggressive anti-Castro legislation and policies. Mas rapidly emerged as the Cuban exile to see in the hotbed of Miami politics, a kind of modern caudillo.

The Reagan administration collaborated with Mas despite his strong authoritarian streak. "He would lash out at anyone who appeared soft on Castro," observed Alvin A. Snyder, who was a senior USIA official in the 1980s. Mas demonstrated his clout when the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Miami auctioned works by some Cuban artists who were selected by museum director Ramon Cernuda for their talent, not their political views.

"Jorge Mas saw this as subversive behavior and publicly threatened to use his Washington connections to have Cernuda 'investigated'," Snyder wrote in his book, Warriors of Disinformation. "Customs officials raided Cernuda's home and office and seized some 200 paintings whose importation they claimed had violated the trade embargo against Cuba."

Through a variety of projects, the Reagan-Bush administration funnelled millions of dollars to CANF. One of the biggest boondoggles was a $20 million-plus-a-year scheme to beam U.S. propaganda -- as well as TV programs such as "Alf" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" -- to the people of Cuba. Called TV Marti, the project never succeeded in breaking through simple Cuban jamming procedures, but continued because few Washington politicians dared to challenge Mas's political clout.

Politically savvy, Mas also understood the need to feather both the Republican and Democratic sides of his Washington nest. In 1992, when Bill Clinton emerged as a likely winner against George Bush, Mas raised $300,000 for the Democratic contender at a single lunch.

Clinton's Goal

Four years later, running for re-election, President Clinton recognized the political advantage in placating the potent Cuban-American voting blocs in the swing states of Florida and New Jersey. Clinton got his chance when Cuban pilots shot down two unarmed Cessna planes flown by exiles who ignored warnings against buzzing the Cuban shoreline. An outraged Clinton threw his support behind the hard-line Helms-Burton embargo bill.

But this year, Clinton has seen reasons to lighten up on Cuba. First, Pope John Paul II visited the island and urged an end to the punishing embargo. Then, on May 6, the Pentagon issued a report declaring that Cuba's military was no longer a threat to its neighbors. Its size had been cut by 50 percent and its readiness had been reduced by a lack of supplies. The Cuban military is now "a stay-at-home force that has minimal conventional fighting ability," the report said.

So, with Cuba a toothless relic of the Cold War, Mas dead and his CANF veering toward violent extremism, Clinton is faced with a new challenge. He can demonstrate U.S. intolerance of any terrorism launched from American soil while opening economic doors to Cuba -- or he again can turn a blind eye toward the exile violence and continue the economic stranglehold.

Clinton's choice could mark either an end to a long era of U.S.-Cuban hostility, or it could be one more chapter in Washington's near-four-decade determination to crush Fidel Castro, with the ends justifying the means.

Copyright (c) 1998

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