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Cuban Exile's Journey From Hero to Outcast

Luis Posada Carriles, once hailed as a U.S. ally, now poses a dilemma in the post-9/11 climate.

May 19, 2005|Nicole Gaouette and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — When federal agents detained him Tuesday, Luis Posada Carriles was wearing a pale linen suit and tasteful necktie, emblems of a life lately devoted to leisure, painting, reading Asian philosophy and socializing with affluent friends. Only his scarred face and garbled speech -- marks of a 1990 assassination attempt -- recalled a lifetime of brutal, sometimes bloody struggle against Cuba's Fidel Castro.

But the contrast between past and present goes beyond physical appearance for Posada. He is a man that time has left behind, and on Wednesday the Bush administration tried to figure out how to reconcile its war on terrorism with its treatment of a onetime ally accused of terrorist acts.

Castro and the Venezuelan government have said the U.S. will be applying a double standard in fighting terrorism if it does not act to ensure that Posada faces trial in the 1976 bombing of an airliner that killed 73 people.

The Cuban exile, 77, once worked with the CIA during its tooth-and-claw war on leftist radicals in Latin America. Now, instead of being hailed as an anticommunist hero, he is drawing little support even from Florida's Cuban American community.

And his presence in the United States is a problem, not a source of pride, for the Bush administration, which remains hostile to Castro but more concerned about its credibility in the war on terrorism.

"Posada Carriles is really a relic of the Cold War," said Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. "I think that he has misjudged the post-9/11 environment both in the United States and in the Cuban American community."

An administration official said Wednesday that the United States would probably seek out a country willing to accept Posada but also willing to pledge that it would not deport him to Cuba or Venezuela, which has called on the United States to extradite him for alleged involvement in the airliner bombing. Venezuela has often acted on Cuba's behalf, and U.S. law prohibits extradition to such countries.

The administration official said El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were countries that might accept the militant. Mexico is also considered an option. Posada would be asked to leave voluntarily, sparing the administration from having to force his departure.

Under immigration rules, federal authorities had 48 hours after Posada's arrest to decide whether to let him stay or deport him, but the deadline could be extended.

Posada's life has taken him from Cuba's upper class to CIA bomb-making classes to brushes with organized crime, including midnight jailbreaks in Venezuela and weapons smuggling for the Contras rebels in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s.

Along the way, he picked up the nickname "Solo" after the urbane spy in the 1960s TV hit "The Man From UNCLE," and the more menacing moniker, "Lupo," Italian for wolf.

The son of a bookstore owner, Posada's upper-middle-class upbringing led him to study chemistry at the University of Havana, three years behind a charismatic law student named Fidel Castro.

While Posada's family embraced Castro, Posada became a fervent anticommunist, left the country in February 1961 and signed up with the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion that April.

In 1963, the CIA invited him to enroll in officer candidate school, where he learned to build bombs, gather intelligence and spread propaganda. He oversaw arms, boats and a network of safe houses in Florida but increasingly delved into extracurricular activities.

At one point, he was reportedly supplying explosives and detonators to Frank Rosenthal, the mob figure whose life inspired the 1995 movie "Casino."

Posada left Miami to join Venezuelan intelligence in 1967, and later founded a detective agency.

In October 1976, an explosion in the luggage hold of a Havana-bound Cuban airliner shattered the plane over the coast of Barbados, killing all aboard -- including many young Cuban athletes.

Venezuelan officials said they found that two of Posada's employees had checked bags but had gotten off the plane during the layover in Barbados.

Posada has been linked to 1997 bombings in Cuba that killed an Italian tourist and wounded 11 others.

Though Posada was tried and acquitted twice in connection with the airliner bombing, he spent nine years in a Venezuelan jail but escaped one night by walking out of the prison gates dressed as a priest. From there, he found his way to El Salvador and got a job supplying the Nicaraguan Contras.

After the Iran-Contra affair, Posada served as a security consultant to the president of Guatemala until gunmen peppered his car with bullets in 1990. He has said the attack was the work of Cuban operatives who hit him a dozen times.

Posada was arrested in Panama in 2000 for an alleged plan to assassinate Castro during a conference.

Pardoned in August 2004 by the Panamanian president, who has close ties to Miami's Cuban community, Posada vanished, only to surface in Miami this March.

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