US Let Terrorists Go Free

"Any nation that harbors terrorists are as responsible as the terrorists themselves." - George W. Bush

Four terrorists have a portfolio of accomplishments that included blowing up an airplane and killing 76 passengers, setting off bombs in six tourist hotels and killing 11 people including an Italian tourist, kidnapping and assassinating foreign consulate staff and political activists, and conspiring to assassinate a head of state.  Ah, but their target is Cuba, so this must not be terrorism then.

And what was Panama's President Mireya Moscoso thinking?  This is one of the biggest setbacks to the global war against terrorism.  Her reason was grounded on humanitarianism (and not under any 'international pressure' as if anyone could possibly believe that she would do that without American consent), as if the 76 dead passengers on the Cuban airline were non-humans.

Mireya Moscoso

(Miami Herald)  Cuba cuts formal ties over pardons.  By Nancy San Martin.  August 27, 2004.

Cuba broke diplomatic ties with Panama on Thursday after President Mireya Moscoso pardoned four anti-Castro exiles, saying she feared they might be extradited to Havana and executed, and that she empathized with their struggle against dictatorship.

''As of this minute, 4:15 p.m., diplomatic relations between the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Panama are broken for an indefinite time,'' Havana said in a statement.

''The president of Panama, accomplice and protector of terrorism, will carry the historic responsibility of this repugnant and treacherous action, and will also be responsible for the new crimes these assassins could commit,'' the statement added.

Cuba's decision made good on its weekend threat to cut relations with Panama if Moscoso pardoned the four, convicted in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Fidel Castro in 2000. Moscoso pardoned them Wednesday and they were freed Thursday.

''I know what it's like to be in exile. I know what it's like to suffer under a dictatorship,'' Moscoso told The Herald in a telephone interview Thursday from Panama. She lived in Miami for 11 years while Panama was ruled by its military.  ''I did it for humanitarian reasons'' because of the men's ages and poor health, Moscoso added, noting that the four were never tried for or accused of terrorist acts in Panama. "That's an accusation by Castro's government.''

She also said she feared that her successor would extradite the four to Cuba. Moscoso will pass the presidency Sept. 1 to Martin Torrijos, a son of the late ruler Gen. Omar Torrijos, who was close to Castro.

Gaspar Jiménez, Pedro Remón and Guillermo Novo, all Miami residents, returned home Thursday aboard a small airplane chartered by exile supporters. But Luis Posada Carriles, described by Cuba as its top enemy, was flown to a third country that the supporters refused to identify.

A Cuban Foreign Ministry statement released earlier Thursday said any country that offered refuge to the four would be considered "collaborators of those killers.''

The pardons provoked a small street protest by leftist students at the University of Panama and the resignation of Gaspar Salama, the governor of Colón province, who said he was ''ashamed'' of the president's pardon.

But in Miami the three men, who were convicted only on charges of endangering public safety and sentenced to up to eight years, thanked the president.  ''It was a courageous decision,'' Novo said. Moscoso "did not let herself be intimidated by Castro, like other presidents do.''

The four Cubans were among 167 prisoners pardoned, including 80 journalists charged with defamation or libel, a crime in Panama.

Moscoso told The Herald that the pardon announcement immediately prompted death-threat phone calls to the presidential palace.  ''I'm not afraid,'' she said. "I've acted with my conscience and am comfortable with the decision I made.''

(BBC News)  Venezuela envoy to leave Panama.  August 28, 2004.

Venezuela has withdrawn its ambassador to Panama, a day after Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with Panama over a pardon for four Cuban exiles.  The men had been accused of attempting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro four years ago.

Venezuelan Ambassador Flavio Granados said he was being withdrawn "because of the offensive statements" made by Panama's President Mireya Moscoso.  She pardoned the four a few days before leaving office at the end of August.  One of the four Cubans is wanted in Venezuela on charges relating to the hijacking of a passenger plane in 1976.

Ms Moscoso said had pardoned them for "humanitarian reasons", because "if they stay (in Panama), they might be extradited to Venezuela or Cuba, where I am sure they would have killed them".  Mr Granados said he and his government "categorically reject and repudiate those statements", adding that Venezuela did not have the death penalty.  

However, he added that the two countries would maintain diplomatic relations.  "With the arrival of the new government in Panama, we are sure our ambassador will return there," said Venezuelan Deputy Foreign Minister Arevalo Mendez.

The incoming Panamanian leader, Martin Torrijos, has publicly opposed the pardons. He takes office next Wednesday.  Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez had been due to attend his inauguration, but has now said he will no longer be coming.

(Washington Post)  U.S. Denies Role in Cuban Exiles' Pardon.  By Glenn Kessler.  August 27, 2004.

Bush administration officials denied any role yesterday in the politically fortuitous pardon of four Cuban exiles by the outgoing Panamanian government. Three of the exiles -- who were convicted in connection with a plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro at a summit of Latin American leaders in 2000 -- were immediately flown to Miami.

President Bush, whose Cuba policies have stirred anger among Cuban Americans in Florida, will hold a campaign rally in Miami today. The Cuban American vote was crucial to Bush's 537-vote margin in Florida in 2000, and his political advisers have worried that poor turnout among Cuban Americans could swing the state to Democrat John F. Kerry.

In Panama, speculation was rampant that the Bush administration, indirectly or not, had pressured Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso to pardon the exiles in her waning days in office. Panama's next president, Martin Torrijos, a social democrat who will take office on Sept. 1, said he disagrees with the pardons. Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Panama in response.

But U.S. officials said they were not involved. "This was a decision made by the government of Panama," said State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli. "We never lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon anyone involved in this case, and I'd leave it to the government of Panama to discuss the action."

In Panama, Moscoso -- who has been close to the Bush administration -- also denied that she had been influenced by the United States. "No foreign government has pressured me to take the decision," she told reporters. "I knew that if these men stayed here, they would be extradited to Cuba and Venezuela, and there they were surely going to kill them there."

Reflecting the political sensitivities of the case, U.S. officials declined to condemn the actions of the four men -- who authorities said had planned to use 33 pounds of explosives to kill Castro -- even though Bush has said the war on global terrorism is his top priority.

"These are bad guys. The absence of a statement says a lot," said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is the most preposterous violation of what this administration stands for."

Sweig said direct White House involvement in the pardons was perhaps unnecessary. She noted that Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), is influential in Cuban American circles, and that there is a complex web of business and personal connections between Panama and the Cuban American exile community. "My gut is this reeks of political and diplomatic cronyism," Sweig said.

The men were arrested in 2000 in Panama City on the assassination charges. Earlier this year, they were convicted of endangering public safety and sentenced to seven to eight years in prison.

Venezuela had sought one of the activists -- Luis Posada Carriles -- because he had escaped from a Venezuelan jail where he had faced charges of planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people. Posada, 74, is not a U.S. citizen, and it is not clear whether he left Panama. Posada has also claimed credit for having planned and directed six Havana hotel bombings in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 other people.

The other three men -- Gaspar Jimenez, Pedro Remon and Guillermo Novo Sampol -- have U.S. passports and arrived in Miami yesterday.

New Times, a Miami newspaper, said U.S. law enforcement records say that Jimenez, 69, helped kidnap Cuba's consul to Mexico in 1977 and killed a consular official, and that Remon, 60, was identified as the triggerman in the slaying of a pro-Castro activist and a Cuban diplomat. Novo, 65, was convicted in the United States in the late 1970s of taking part in the 1976 assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier. He was acquitted on appeal but served four years in prison for lying to a grand jury.

(Miami Herald)  Exile foe of Castro being sought in Honduras.  By Juan O. Tomayo.  August 29, 2004.

Fugitive Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, accused by Havana of multiple terror attacks, sneaked into Honduras using an altered U.S. passport after he was freed from a Panama prison, Honduran officials said Saturday.

A Honduran immigration worker at the airport in the northern city of San Pedro Sula confirmed that a known photograph of Posada matched a man who landed there Thursday, the officials said.

''Based on that identification, we believe Posada did enter Honduras, and we have many teams out looking for him,'' said a top government official who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job.

Posada, 76, is a virtual icon to some exiles committed to toppling Cuban President Fidel Castro by force and is linked to a lengthy string of plots to kill Castro or bomb Cuban targets, including an airliner and Havana tourist spots. He was once branded by Castro as ``the worst terrorist in the hemisphere.''

His presence in any country almost always sparks complaints from Havana of sheltering a terrorist -- and Cuban allegations that Washington lobbied those countries to protect him.

Honduran officials said that if he is arrested, Posada will be deported immediately but acknowledged that would be difficult because he is believed to have only Cuban citizenship. ''At no time are we going to allow our country to be home nor sanctuary for terrorists of any type, whether they attempt against Cuba . . . or any other country,'' Interior Minister Oscar Alvarez said Friday.

Posada went into hiding after Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned him and three Miami Cuban exiles arrested there in 2000 in connection with an alleged plot to kill Castro during a visit. A Panamanian court dropped initial charges of conspiracy to murder and possession of explosives, but convicted them in April of endangering public safety and sentenced them to up to eight years.

The three Miami men -- Gaspar Jiménez, Pedro Remón and Guillermo Novo, all longtime anti-Castro militants -- flew home Thursday aboard a Learjet chartered by Santiago Alvarez, a Miami developer and friend who helped raise some $400,000 for their legal defense.

But Posada, an explosives expert trained by the CIA in the 1960s and alleged mastermind of the Panama assassination plot -- which all four have denied -- boarded a different chartered aircraft in Panama and has not been seen in public since.

Santiago Alvarez told The Herald Saturday he would not comment on Posada's whereabouts. He has said that he fears a Cuban attempt against Posada.

Honduran government officials said he landed in San Pedro Sula aboard a U.S. registered Learjet 31A that arrived from Panama and filed a flight manifest saying it was carrying four passengers -- but left with only three.

Honduran officials provided The Herald with the jet's registration number. Federal Aviation Administration records show the jet is registered to a Miami aviation company, but efforts to contact the firm and its manager failed Saturday.

The passport used by the man who stayed in Honduras is in the name of Melvin Cleyde Thompson, the Honduran officials added. They said a check with U.S. authorities showed that the passport, No. 076050572, had been legally issued to an unidentified woman.

Honduran officials also said that at the time of Posada's arrival, witnesses spotted a wealthy Cuban-American-Honduran businessman waiting outside the Ramón Villeda Morales Airport terminal in San Pedro Sula, 130 miles northwest of the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

Police investigators have been unable to locate the businessman for questioning since Thursday, the Honduran officials added.

Posada lived in hiding in El Salvador and often visited Honduras for extended stays in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, after his escape from a Venezuelan prison where he was awaiting a retrial in connection with the 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which 73 people were killed. The first trial found him not guilty.

He eventually turned up in El Salvador, working for the U.S.-backed supply operation for contra rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

(Miami Herald)  Probe of assistance to exile is widened.  By Juan O. Tamayo and Elaine de Valle.  August 31, 2004.

Honduran President Roberto Maduro on Monday said investigators are looking into whether public functionaries allowed fugitive Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles to enter Honduras illegally after his release from a prison in Panama last week.

Simón Ferro, a Miami lawyer and former U.S. ambassador to Panama, meanwhile said the call he received from Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso telling him that she had pardoned Posada and three other anti-Castro exiles was a "courtesy.''

Maduro told reporters in Honduras that if Posada is captured, he will be deported because, "If this gentleman is here, he is here illegally, without permission, without approval and without the agreement of the government.''

He also said government officials were investigating several people in the case, including ''public functionaries'' who may have had some ''responsibility'' for Posada's slipping into Honduras.

Honduran officials have said Posada sneaked into Honduras with a false U.S. passport, one day after he was pardoned Wednesday, after landing in the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula aboard a chartered Learjet that arrived from Panama.

An Associated Press story said Honduran newspapers had reported that Posada was spotted Sunday eating in a San Pedro Sula hotel with Rafael Nodarse, a Cuban-American-Honduran businessman who owns the Honduran Channel 6 television station.

A secretary at the station said Nodarse was not available.  Nodarse has long been known as a Posada friend and anti-Castro activist. He has also helped several Cuban boat people who landed in Honduras earlier this year, friends said.

Posada, a long-time resident of neighboring El Salvador, and three Miami Cubans were arrested in Panama in 2000 on charges that they planed to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro. A Panamanian court dropped charges of conspiracy to murder and possession of explosives but in April convicted them of endangering public safety and sentenced them to up to eight years.  Posada has a long history of anti-Castro violence, including a string of terror bombings in Havana in 1997. Cuba has accused him of involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people.

Moscoso pardoned the four exiles on Wednesday, a week before she is to leave office, saying she did not want to allow her successor to deport them to Cuba, where they could face firing squads.

Panama's media were abuzz Sunday with reports of a tape recording of a message that Moscoso left on the cellphone of Ferro, a Cuban-American who served as U.S. ambassador to Panama 1999-2001.  The message said: ''Ambassador, good morning. This is the president to inform you that the four Cubans were already pardoned last night and they have left the country,'' the tape says, according to the Cuban government. "Three are on their way to Miami and the other, well, in an unknown direction. Goodbye. A hug.''  Panamanian media portrayed the recording as evidence supporting Cuban charges that the U.S. government pressured Moscoso to pardon the four Cubans.

But Ferro told The Herald on Monday that Moscoco called him back after he called her Thursday morning to inquire about media reports that she had pardoned the four Cubans and Havana's threat to cut diplomatic relations if she did so.  'It was just a friendly, 'We want you to know that we support what you're doing and your position,' and that was it,'' Ferro said, adding that he called as a member of Miami's Cuban exile community and not as a former U.S. ambassador.

(Washington Post)  Where Is The Consistency in the War on Terrorism?  By Marcela Sanchez.  September 2, 2004.

It would seem safe to assume that individuals who have fired a bazooka at the United Nations headquarters in New York, served time in connection with the first state-sponsored act of terrorism in the United States, or actively participated in secret groups that claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings in New York, New Jersey and Florida, would raise many red flags when coming into this country.

Or maybe not. Just last week, Guillermo Novo, Pedro Remon and Gaspar Jimenez, the men behind those and other terrorist acts, received a hero's welcome in the United States. After a quick flight from Panama aboard a private jet, the men flashed victory signs and smiled to a swarm of cameras in a Miami airport while U.S. authorities looked on.

Hours earlier, Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the three men and another, Luis Posada Carriles, days before her term was up, ending their stint in a Panamanian prison for charges related to plotting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000. According to a court ruling in April, if they explosives found in the case had been used, they could have destroyed an armored car and everything within 20 meters would have felt the impact. Moscoso issued the pardson fearing rightly that if extradited to Cuba, as Castro has been requesting, the men would be summarily executed.

Posada, an international fugitive charged with the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, did not join the rest in Miami because he does not hold a U.S. passport. Instead, according to Honduran press reports, the CIA-trained explosives expert was dropped off in Honduras with a false U.S. passport.

Critics here and in Latin America jumped to conclude that Washington had pressured Moscoso to release the men, citing the Bush administration's obsession with Castro and the potential political gain for President Bush in Florida. U.S. officials, on the other hand, responded quickly by stating they "never lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon anyone."

Such talk falls into the old trap of conspiracy and denial, and obscures the larger point: There is something terribly wrong when the United States, after 9/11, fails to condemn the pardoning of terrorists and instead allows them to walk freely on U.S. streets.

"Moral clarity is a strategic asset" in the war on terrorism, said Pentagon policy chief, Douglas Feith, in a 2002 speech. If President Bush frequently labels terrorism as "evil," he continued, it is meant to steer the world toward an unquestionable rejection of terrorism, regardless of its goals.

The four Cuban exiles have spent nearly four decades in a rabid pursuit to destroy Castro, his communist revolution and anyone who dared criticize their violent methods. Whether by the fortune of powerful supporters or the convenience of previous tolerance toward certain acts of terrorism, they have more often than not managed to roam free to plan their next move. They can now add Panamanian presidential clemency to a bizarre list of achievements that have included foreign prison escapes, dropped charges, and commuted life-sentences.

Times are supposed to be different. In his 2002 speech, Feith acknowledged the "unpleasant fact" that for the last three decades the world, including the United States, tolerated terrorism. In the post 9/11 world, he added, "no one who aspires to respectability can tolerate, let alone support'' terrorists who in the past may have been seen as freedom fighters.

Perhaps Feith should have exempted people who hate Castro. Judging by interviews this week, leaders in the Cuban-American community, including former U.S. officials, have not re-evaluated their tolerance of terrorism. Simon Ferro, former U.S. ambassador to Panama, downplayed the significance of Moscoso's pardon, incorrectly stating the men had only been found guilty of entering Panama illegally. (They were serving seven- to eight-year sentences for endangering public safety). Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said his organization does not advocate violence but "we do not condemn those who fight and risk their lives to try to liberate their people."

The U.S. government appears to be doing little to make them think otherwise. Asked again to comment this week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher simply denied once again any U.S. involvement. In an interview this week with a Panamanian journalist Secretary of State Colin L. Powell himself said this was "entirely and internal Panamanian matter and I will just leave it there."

Days before her term as president ended, Moscoso pardoned the four conspirators on humanitarian grounds, There is no argument here that Castro's courts would be anything but ruthless to the men. But must the United States welcome terrorists as heroes to avert further injustice?

There was room for moral consistency. Washington could always persuade Panama to deny extradition to Cuba without having to now look so conspicuously acquiescent with the pardon. That would have demonstrated Washington's intolerance for terrorists and allowed Panama to prove itself a strong and unquestionable ally in the larger war against terrorism. But U.S. officials made a decision altogether different.

(Los Angeles TimesAmid Cheers, Terrorists Have Landed in the U.S..  By Julia E. Sweig and Peter Kornbluh. September 12, 2004.

A little-noticed but chilling scene at Opa-locka Airport outside Miami last month demonstrates that the Bush administration's commitment to fighting international terrorism can be overtaken by presidential politics — even if that means admitting known terrorists onto U.S. soil.

That's what happened when outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso inexplicably pardoned four Cuban exiles convicted of "endangering public safety" for their role in an assassination plot against Fidel Castro during a 2000 international summit in Panama.

After their release, three of the four immediately flew via private jet to Miami, where they were greeted with a cheering fiesta organized by the hard-line anti-Castro community. Federal officials briefly interviewed the pardoned men — all holders of U.S. passports — and then let them go their way.

The fourth man, Luis Posada Carriles, was the most notorious member of this anti-Castro cell. He is an escapee from a prison in Venezuela, where he was incarcerated for blowing up an Air Cubana passenger plane in 1976, killing 73. He also admitted plotting six hotel bombings in Havana that killed one tourist and injured 11 others in 1997. Posada has gone into hiding in Honduras while seeking a Central American country that will harbor him, prompting Honduran President Ricardo Maduro to demand an explanation from the Bush administration on how a renowned terrorist could enter his country using a false U.S. passport.

The terrorist backgrounds of Posada's three comrades-in-arms are as well documented as their leader's. Guillermo Novo once fired a bazooka at the U.N. building; in February 1979, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years for conspiracy in the 1976 assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington. (His conviction was subsequently vacated on a legal technicality.) Gaspar Jimenez was convicted and imprisoned in Mexico in 1977 for murdering a Cuban consulate official; he was released by authorities in 1983. Pedro Remon received a 10-year sentence in 1986 for conspiring to kill Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations in 1980. These are violent men. Panamanian prosecutors said they had planned to detonate 33 pounds of explosives while Castro was speaking at a university in Panama. Had they not been intercepted by the authorities, the blast not only would have killed the Cuban president but quite possibly hundreds of others gathered to hear him speak during the inter-American summit.

For a small but powerful minority in the Cuban American community, the Posada gang are freedom fighters. But Sept. 11 taught the rest of us about the danger of political fanatics who seek to rationalize their violence. To uphold his oft-stated principle that no nation can be neutral in the war on terrorism, shouldn't President Bush have condemned Moscoso's decision to release these terrorists? To protect the sanctity of U.S. borders and the security of Americans, shouldn't the administration have taken all available steps to keep known terrorists out of the United States?

But Florida is crucial to Bush's reelection strategy. Currying favor with anti-Castro constituents in Miami appears to trump the president's anti-terrorism principles. So far, not a single White House, State Department or Homeland Security official has expressed outrage at Panama's decision to put terrorists back on the world's streets. The FBI appears to have no plans to lead a search for Posada so he can be returned to Venezuela, where he is a wanted fugitive. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has rounded up and expelled hundreds of foreigners on the mere suspicion of a terrorist link, has indicated no intention to detain and deport Novo, Jimenez and Remon.

In June, the White House seemed to have maxed out on pandering to hard-line Cuban exiles when it virtually eliminated family visits and remittances to Cuba as part of a new initiative to undermine Castro's rule. But that policy has upset anti-Castro moderates in both parties because it criminalizes efforts to build family ties across the Straits of Florida, something a family-values president should support. In response, Bush's decision to accept the repatriation of the Cuban exile terrorists seems calculated to shore up support in the Cuban American community.

"I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world," Bush recently said in an interview.

But the decision to allow members of the Posada gang into this country, and the televised spectacle of Miamians applauding their return, sends a different and dangerous message: In a swing state, some terrorists are not only acceptable but welcome.