3rd Edition (Havana: Editorial Política, 2001) [1st Edition, Venezuela 1981]
A recent passenger on a Cubana airlines flight from Mexico to Havana was pleasantly surprised when she began her onboard meal. It wasn’t just the tasty food and strong, sweet Cuban coffee she was served, but the fact that the meal included real metal silverware: fork, spoon and knife. Since 9/11/2001 most airlines had replaced such silverware with its less threatening plastic counterparts.
But, if other airlines had cause to feel nervous, this airline had a special vulnerability. Just a few days earlier, an immigration judge in El Paso, Texas had refused to deport Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born anti-Castro exile with Venezuelan citizenship, long ties to the CIA, and an even longer list of terrorist bombings and assassinations under his belt. It appeared the Bush administration’s Homeland Security Department was giving a green light to terrorists as long as they were taking aim at Bush’s enemies. And Posada’s greatest claim to fame in the world of terror was his part in orchestrating the mid-flight bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, killing all aboard. The date was October 6, 1976. That act of terrorism – not September 11, 2001 – was the first such use of a passenger plane as a political target.
1976 was a particularly bloody year in this hemisphere: “dirty wars,” death squads, disappearances, and Operation Condor were raging throughout Latin America. Pinochet’s Junta and its secret police, DINA, ruled in Chile. In Venezuela the repressive agency was called DISIP and was directed by Joaquín Chaffardet – a figure who will come back to haunt us. DISIP’s assistant director was Luis Posada Carriles, who had left it (with Chaffardet as his silent partner) to form a private “security agency” in Caracas the year before. In September 1976, former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, and his associate Ronnie Karpen Moffitt, were assassinated by a car-bomb on Washington DC’s “Embassy Row”. Two weeks later, minutes after making a stop in Barbados, the Havana-bound Cubana flight 455 was blown from the air. The hands, minds and wallets that set off this chain of events were more often than not the same.
George H.W. Bush, father of the current US president, was director of the CIA that year. He was vice-president when Posada (by then having escaped from a Venezuelan prison while on trial for the plane bombing) went to work for Oliver North’s Contra supply network, and was the person North reported to when one of the small Cessnas illegally transporting guns to the Contras was shot down over Nicaragua. And he was President when Orlando Bosch, the reputed co-mastermind of the Cubana bombing, sneaked back into the United States. Over the objections of the Immigration, Justice and State Departments, President Bush allowed his former operative to remain in Miami – where later a street was named after him and he sat on the platform at fundraising dinners for the junior Bush.
Meanwhile, the two terrorist ringleaders continued their violent attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro. Posada, remaining in the shadows outside the US (except for occasional clandestine visits to Miami), was the more outspoken in claiming credit for his deeds. In 1998 he boasted to two New York Times reporters that he had organized a string of bombings in Cuban tourist hotels that had injured at least a dozen and killed a young Italian-Canadian visitor. Posada told the Times he lost no sleep over that. The dead man had just been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In 2000, Posada and three of his gang were arrested in Panama during a Latin American summit meeting, charged with plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro by blowing up a public auditorium where Castro was to speak before an audience of some 1,500. After a lot of pressure from Miami and Washington, they were ultimately convicted only of “endangering public safety” because of their possession of large quantities of explosives.”1
The blowing up of the Cubana airline had been buried in the American media consciousness until the spring of 2005, when it was brought to life by Posada’s illegal re-entry into the US, which was denounced by the Cuban government and others for over a month while the Bush administration pretended they didn’t know he was here. Finally, after the notorious terrorist held a press conference in a clandestine location in Miami, and numerous newspapers began editorializing about Bush’s double standard on terrorism, Homeland Security was forcedto arrest him. Venezuela immediately sought his extradition under a 32-year-old extradition treaty with the US, but the Bush administration has ignored that request. Their hostility toward the Chávez government is so great that they ultimately decided to not even deport Posada – although he admittedly doesn’t qualify for political asylum due to his violent past – allowing him to take shelter under the pretext that he would be “tortured” if he were returned to Venezuela to face trial. The basis for this decision was the lone, uncontested testimony of none other than Joaquín Chaffardet, Posada’s old friend, collaborator and former boss at DISIP. That fact was never brought out by the Homeland Security prosecutor, who didn’t even bother to cross-examine Chaffardet.
Posada’s re-entry, along with the timely release by the National Security Archives of tell-tale documents regarding the Cuban exiles, and the resulting media attention on their violent past, gives special relevance to this book by Venezuelan journalist Alicia Herrera. In its original 1981 publication, the book might have been dismissed as an interesting but not necessarily convincing thriller. Now, virtually everything Herrera wrote has been corroborated by declassified FBI and CIA documents. The book will also appear soon in an updated English edition.
The seriousness of this journalistic exposé isn’t at first apparent. It begins like a typical suspense novel, with the fictional reconstruction of the events leading up to, and immediately after, the 1976 explosion that took the lives of 73 innocent passengers. With no names, but with physical descriptions easily recognized later in the book, we see and hear Orlando Bosch, Luis Posada Carriles, and two employees at Posada’s “security agency,” Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, make plans and carry out the mass murder. We hear a cryptic, bone-chilling telephone message confirming the success of the mission: “A bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all perished.”
The reader knows the author wasn’t with the plotters and bombers in that restaurant, in their cars, on board the plane, and later in the hotel to which the bombers fled. Herrera didn’t overhear the phone conversations she describes word for word. So the reader’s mind relaxes, not having to deal with this as a real-life horror story in which crew-members and passengers – most of whom were Guyanese students and young Cuban athletes – were plunged screaming to their deaths at sea in a burning airplane cabin. This all seems at first like a Stephen King novel.
But by the next chapter, one gets a sense that Alicia Herrera is writing about real people and real events. The “historical fiction” is dropped. We see the Venezuelan journalist walking into the military prison where her former colleague, photographer Freddy Lugo, is being held – mistakenly, she believes – on charges of being involved with the bombing of the plane. She finds him in a suite of cells complete with kitchen and patio along with his “cellmate” – Cuban exile leader Orlando Bosch.
And so begins the delicate, hesitant relationship between Alicia Herrera, who was editing a women’s magazine at the time, and some of the hemisphere’s most notorious anti-Castro terrorists, their families, friends, and supporters. The book’s real-life characters include both the anti-Castro exile community in Caracas and some key members of the Venezuelan government of that time – all the way up to the presidency.
It would be an understatement to say that the two men “confessed” to Herrera. Bragged would be a better word. Increasingly, as she gained their confidence, Lugo admitted that he had in fact placed the bomb at the behest of Posada and Bosch, along with Ricardo Hernán. Bosch, Posada and their wives boasted of their success in bombing the airliner and their plans to continue their terrorist campaign against Revolutionary Cuba. Herrera served (we can only assume as a means to get closer to them) as a conduit for some of their fundraising activities among right-wing Cuban exile supporters, by selling paintings the men did in prison as a cover for the money wealthy exiles poured in to finance their terrorist activities.
Eventually, Alicia Herrera’s initial doubts that her mild-mannered photographer friend could have been one of the men who physically placed the bomb on Cubana Flight 455 dissipated, and she decided to abandon her work at the women’s magazine and return to investigative journalism. Although she doesn’t explain this in “Pusimos la bomba…” (an unfortunate omission), we know from later interviews that she began to make mental notes of every conversation, and rushed to write them down as soon as she left the prison each day. She began to keep notes on her social encounters with the wives of Bosch and Posada, with whom she developed an ostensible friendship.
Conversations at the beach, at lunch, or out shopping with the wives revealed their pride, and even delight, in their husbands’ horrendous acts, which they clearly viewed as heroic. The women exposed the complicity of the greater Cuban exile community in Venezuela. Their families’ lifestyles and the men’s terrorist actions were fully supported by donations to the “cause” (only sometimes disguised as purchases of landscape paintings). Interestingly, the FBI and CIA documents released under the Freedom of Information Act during the last years of the Clinton Administration corroborate in grisly detail the financial backing these men received. One CIA memo reports a $1000-a-plate fundraising dinner presided over by Orlando Bosch at which he stated: “Now that our organization has come out of the Letelier job looking good, we are going to try something else.” Several days later, another US government memo reports, Posada boasted that “we are going to hit a Cuban airplane” and “Orlando has the details.”
Nothing was done about it. No one warned Cuba that one of their civilian passenger planes was about to be attacked, although the US government was aware of these plans all along. Another FBI document described a secret meeting that had been held on June 11, 1976 in Santo Domingo, where a Cuban “exile umbrella organization” was created, run by Bosch and Posada, named CORU (Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations). The informant’s report said that a series of bombing attacks were planned at that meeting, including the bombing of a Cubana airliner. Another of the released memos relates in great detail how Orlando Bosch was met by Luis Posada and other anti-Castro exiles in Caracas on September 8, 1976. There a deal was struck with Venezuelan authorities about the kind of activities the Cubans could organize with their support or acquiescence – as long as they didn’t take place on Venezuelan soil. The Letelier assassination in DC occurred less than two weeks later; the Cubana airlines bombing, the following month.
Herrera’s book is all the more powerful because in a simple, conversational style, she is telling us from her own experience what the documents released decades later make clear – that the Venezuelan government of that time was complicit in the terrorist activities of the Cuban exiles and that the US government at the very least knew of the plans to blow up a Cuban passenger plane.
A Venezuelan government document Herrera received after the publication of the first edition of her book also reports in detail the behind-the-scene efforts in Caracas to obtain the early release of Bosch and Posada from prison. Those efforts are referred to regularly by the real-life characters in Herrera’s book – showing Bosch’s patient confidence, Lugo’s nervous concern, and Posada and Hernán’s impatience and doubt about the much-promised government actions to assure their aquittal.
The book recounts numerous monologues by Orlando Bosch boasting of his destructive and sometimes deadly counterrevolutionary activities as if he were reminiscing about high school football. He actually enjoys the sound of shattering glass, the sight of crumbling walls – he’s thrilled by them. His obvious comfort in telling his story to a reporter whom he had just come to know underlines his conviction that his audience would share his view – and his confidence that he was in no danger of being punished for his actions.
Herrera has said she did not come forward with her testimony before 1981 because she thought that, despite Bosch’s confidence, there was ample evidence of their guilt. She believed that the Venezuelan judicial system would certainly bring the four murderers to justice. She was clearly surprised that they were acquitted of the crime. But this acquittal – as she fails to make sufficiently clear – referred only to the first trial, which was held in right-wing military courts.
The original civilian judge assigned the case had tossed it like a hot potato to the military tribunals after receiving numerous threats. Later, a military judge was the object of an assassination attempt which took the lives of his son and driver. We don’t know from the book, but we do from updated reports focusing on Posada Carriles, that the military “acquittal” was ruled null and void and that the retrial of all four was referred to a civilian court.
By this time, the Venezuelan government was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they couldn’t just let terrorists guilty of bombing a passenger plane go unpunished. On the other hand, if they pushed too hard, Posada and Bosch might just reveal that high-level government officials – some say all the way up to President Carlos Andrés Pérez2 – had condoned and given them the green light to carry out such actions so long as they weren’t done in a way that would implicate the Venezuelan government. (Both Venezuelan and FBI-CIA documents obtained since then explicitly confirm the repeated assertions by Bosch and others who spoke to Herrera that DISIP and members of Carlos Andres Pérez’s staff were working behind the scenes to free them.) Ultimately, the government decided to convict the two men hired to do the job by Posada and Bosch, and let the more dangerous ringleaders go free.
The two Venezuelans who placed the bomb were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The documents that would have convicted Bosch and Posada had by this time mysteriously disappeared from police custody or were ruled inadmissible. (For instance, the police report of the blurted confessions by Lugo and Hernán to the Trinidad police, in which they stated they had been hired by Posada and Bosch, was thrown out because it was written in English!) But the nervous Posada, not trusting their friends in the Venezuelan hierarchy to come through for them, bribed his way out of prison before the trial was over. He is thus a fugitive from justice in Venezuela, on the Interpol’s “watch list” – something that did not stop the US government from employing him in Oliver North’s Contra supply network some months after his escape in 1985.
None of this is included in the earlier version of the book, which is strictly a memoir of Herrera’s interactions with the culprits and their families, with little of the background or context that is available today in FBI and CIA documents. But Herrera’s revelations, based on what is now known from the NSA-released CIA and FBI memos, as well as Venezuelan government documents that have since been discovered, strike home more often than not, and show us a part of history that many political figures of the 70s would rather have kept hidden.
What the newest Spanish edition gives us are the recently published documents corroborating practically everything in the first edition. These declassified documents support the guilt of the four and expose the complicity of the Venezuelan government. They demonstrate that, at the very least, the US government was aware of the involvement of Bosch, Posada, and the Miami-based CORU organization in the plans to blow up a Cuban airliner.
If the forthcoming English version of this book had come out sooner, there might have been more outrage and broader involvement in the movement to bring Posada Carriles to justice. Homeland Security lawyers might have been forced to cross-examine the only witness making the claim that Posada would be tortured if returned to Venezuela – the former DISIP head, Posada’s friend, colleague and co- conspirator, Joaquín Chaffardet. By the time this goes to print, Posada may well be walking the streets of Miami with his comrade-in-arms, Orlando Bosch. He may even get a street named after him.
There is still the potential that the information could prove useful in freeing the five Cuban security agents who were sentenced to up to two life terms for infiltrating the anti-Castro terrorist organizations in Miami. The threats posed to Cubans by these Miami-based terrorist groups fully justify the actions of the “Cuban Five” as necessary to protect the Cuban people. Ultimately, the anti-Castro terrorist Posada could be the spark leading to the acquittal of these five men (whose original convictions were overturned by the appellate court in 2005).
1. One of the three terrorists picked up with Posada was Guillermo Novo, a long-time associate of Bosch and Posada, who earlier had been convicted of participating in the Letelier assassination. After all four were pardoned by outgoing Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso (under further pressure from Florida’s Cuban-American Congressmen), the three returned to a hero’s welcome in Miami. Posada, for his part, hid out in Honduras until things cooled down, and then sneaked in later, unannounced.
2. In July 2005, in an interview with the newspaper El Nacional, Pérez, now in opposition to the government of President Hugo Chávez, called for Chávez’s removal by violence. Speaking from Miami, Pérez denied being involved in a plot to assassinate Chávez, but said Chávez “must die like a dog, because he deserves it” <www.venezuealanalysis.com>. (In February 1989, as president, Pérez had sent the military into the country’s streets to crack down on popular riots against the government’s neoliberal “reforms.” Estimates of how many people died during the crackdown range from 400 to 1000, but the government obstructed investigations into the precise number of deaths.)
Reviewed by Dawn Gable and Karen Lee Wald