Castro's nemesis, a former CIA operative, goes on trial in Texas

The controversial trial of Luis Posada, a hero to Miami's Cuban community, a bomber and killer in Havana.

To the Cuban government, Luis Posada Carriles is the Osama bin Laden of Latin America, a coldly calculating, unapologetic Cold Warrior who is responsible for the murder of at least 74 innocents.

To many in Florida's Cuban exile community, however, Posada remains — in the defiant words of one of the banners his supporters carried this week outside a Texas courtroom — "a soldier, a patriot, a fighter for liberty and democracy."  

It is hard to reconcile either of those polar-opposite views with the courtly, no-longer-larger-than-life 82-year-old currently on trial for immigration fraud.

Luis Posada Carriles, in Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood in March 2010. A man with a long history of violent opposition to the Castro government, Posada currently faces 11 counts of perjury, obstruction and naturalization fraud in U.S. federal court in El Paso. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Although the formal allegations against him seem almost pedestrian — he is charged with lying to immigration officials in his 2005 application to enter the U.S. — his case has become a litmus test of Washington's resolve to fight international terrorism whatever its face and also to put some of its own dark past on the stand.

A Cuban-born contemporary of Fidel Castro, Posada was one of thousands who fled his homeland after the 1959 revolution, vowing to change things back to what they were.

In the U.S., he signed up for the CIA's ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, though he never actually took part in the fighting.

Afterward, embittered and driven, he briefly joined the U.S. military and was trained in the art of bomb-making and sabotage before going on to become a paid CIA operative.

In 1976 and apparently no longer on the CIA payroll, according to agency files that were released in 2009, Posada reportedly boasted to a CIA informant that "we are going to hit a Cuban airplane."

That was just weeks before bombs blew Cubana Airlines flight 455 out of the air, killing all 73 aboard.

Posada and a fellow exile, militant Orlando Bosch, were fingered as the "intellectual authors" of that attack, which was, until 9/11, the most deadly act of air terrorism in the Americas.

Cold Warrior

Venezuelan authorities eventually charged both Posada and Bosch in connection with the bombing.

Stephen Kimber is a Halifax-based journalist and author of eight books. He's currently writing a book on the story of the Cuban Five. He is following the Posada trial in Texas and commenting on it on his website and for CBC Radio's Dispatches.

But in 1985, while awaiting the outcome of a government appeal (Posada had been acquitted during an earlier proceeding) Posada escaped and quickly ended up in the messy middle of the Iran-Contra affair, clandestinely ferrying U.S.-supplied weapons to anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, a congressional committee was told.

Posada was never charged for his role in that episode.

But 10 years later, the Castro government accused him of orchestrating a series of hotel bombings in Havana and, in 2000, he and three accomplices were arrested in Panama and charged with trying to assassinate Fidel Castro using more than 200 pounds of C-4 explosives.

In 2004, Posada and his confederates were convicted on related weapons charges but were almost immediately pardoned by the country's outgoing president, a U.S. ally.  

The following year, he slipped into the U.S. and asked for asylum, creating a difficult diplomatic dilemma for the government of George W. Bush.

For all sorts of reasons — including Posada's heroic stature in Florida's politically critical Cuban-American community and the risk his CIA connections might surface in a trial — the Bush administration was reluctant to prosecute him as a terrorist or extradite him to someplace like Venezuela, which still wants to put him on trial.

Then Cuban president Fidel Castro holds up a photo of Posada during a state visit to Panama in November 2000. Castro said he had information that Posado was planning an assassination attempt against him. (Jose Goitia/Associated Press)

At the same time, in the wake of 9/11 and the president's strident declaration that "any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime," letting Posada walk made the Americans vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Upping the ante

In the end, the government simply charged Posada with lying to get into the U.S.

The judge in the case-the same judge presiding over his current trial-eventually threw out those charges, arguing the government had entrapped Posada with its questions.

But an appeal court reinstated them and the new Obama administration upped the ante in April 2009, adding new perjury counts to the original indictment.

These new charges specifically accuse Posada of lying about his claim that he had not been involved in organizing the 1997 Havana hotel bombings.

But those new allegations create a number of fascinating complications. Posada is not being charged with committing terrorism, but only with lying about committing terrorism — a distinction some claim allowed the U.S. administration to appear to be confronting Posada's murky past without actually doing so.

At the same time, the new charges mean prosecutors must rely in part on the testimony of Cuban police and the more than 1,500 pages of evidence gathered by Cuban authorities during their original investigation of the bombings.

(Ironically, the Cubans had provided much of that same evidence to U.S. authorities in 1998, but American officials instead charged a group of Cuban intelligence agents who'd been sent to Florida to infiltrate militant exile groups who were allegedly financing the attacks. Those agents-the Cuban Five-are all still in American prisons.)

During the upcoming trial, prosecutors will also try to trip up Posada with his own, often contradictory words.

For example, in a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Posada bragged about his role in the bombings and dismissed the death of a visiting Italian-Canadian businessman as collateral damage in the greater war against Castro.

"I sleep like a baby," he said. Ann Louise Bardach, the author who interviewed Posada, is scheduled to testify during the trial.

The stakes

Few people who have followed these events closely are prepared to bet on the outcome of this trial, which began in El Paso, Texas, earlier this week.

Top: Posada supporters call for his release in front of the federal court in El Paso in January 2011. (Associated Press) Middle: Anti-Posada protestors in El Paso call for his deportation and the release of the so-called Cuban Five. (Associated Press) Bottom: In 2007, Cuban protestors in Havana, mostly law students following a mock trial, blame Posada for the bombing of an Air Cubana flight. (Reuters)

But Peter Kornbluh, the head of the Cuba Project at the independent National Security Archives in Washington, calls the trial an "opportunity because it is the first time that the U.S. government is going to present formally the evidence of what (Posada) did in the hotel bombing cases.

"And that hopefully will have an impact not only on U.S.-Cuban relations, but also as a general repudiation of this violent past that the U.S. sponsored in the 1960s and '70s against Cuba."

Julia Schweig, an American expert on Cuba-American relations, has a similar view.

"It is a case in which we see the Obama administration becoming conscious of the damage that something like the Posada case does to the American standing and image globally and within Latin America," she said at a press briefing in Washington last week.

The outcome, whatever it is, is bound to be controversial. If Posada is acquitted, critics will say the U.S. isn't capable of — or willing to — tackle terrorism that isn't Islamic or aimed directly at its own shores.

If he's convicted, however, the penalty for lying is likely to be relatively minor compared with the penalties he would have faced if he had been convicted of a terrorism-related offence; and the clamour will continue for his extradition.

That said, Washington and Havana have, however tentatively and reluctantly, officially shared information in order to bring Posada to trial. In the end, that may be the most hopeful sign for an eventual thawing of relations between the two countries,

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.