Thirty-five years ago the world witnessed one of the worst ever cases of terrorism in the skies when an American Airlines plane exploded shortly after takeoff and crashed into the sea off the coast of a small Caribbean island, killing all on board including every member of a gold-medal winning team returning from a premier sporting event held in Caracas. The terrorist who worked with the Cuban intelligence agency was indicted and successfully prosecuted in a Venezuelan court, but managed to escape from prison shortly before the verdict was pronounced. Likely aided by the authorities in his homeland he picked up right where he had left off, returning to the employ of the state agency which now harbored a convicted terrorist and fugitive, who proudly boasted of the rightness of his actions.
Intent on bringing justice to the scores of victims and their families, five Americans were dispatched to Cuba during the late-1990's to gather evidence that was subsequently turned over to Cuban police in the hopes that the terrorists would be arrested and prosecuted. However, Cuban law enforcement instead arrested, charged and sentenced the five Americans to draconian terms from 15 - 30 years, while the mastermind and fellow terrorists walked free and were praised as heroes in their homeland.
Indeed, except for a switch in the names of the two countries involved in this now infamous incident, every aspect of the story summarized above and recounted in vivid detail in the article below is true. Different strokes clearly apply to different folks according to which state decides to harbor terrorists.
October 11, 2011
A CounterPunch Special Report on the Bombing of Cuban Air Flight 455
It was a peaceful Wednesday afternoon in Barbados 35 years ago. Dalton Guiller had just finished a round of waterskiing and was refueling his boat on shore when a roar in the sky startled him. A low-flying and apparently damaged airliner was fast approaching from the west toward the beach. “It didn’t look right. It was too low. I then saw the plane rise slightly, bank to the right and crash into the water: nose and wing first,” said Guiller.
At the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados, Professor Cecilia Karch-Braithwaite also heard the loud droning of a passenger plane overhead. She told me, “It was unusual, because the aircraft was flying too low and was on a path that planes never take when they approach the airport.” She remembers seeing smoke coming from the side of the plane as it banked to the right and dove nose first into the waters of Paradise Beach. The university is located on a hill five miles from the beach.
I met Guiller and Karch-Braithwaite in Barbardos during last week’s ceremonies to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the murder of the 73 people aboard the Cuban passenger plane that crashed only a few minutes after takeoff from Seawell International Airport in Barbados. Their memories of that day are still vivid.
The aircraft was a DC-8, flown by Cubana de Aviación. It had received its regular maintenance only 10 days earlier and carried 73 persons the day it crashed. The average age on board was a mere 30 years of age, because 24 members of the Cuban fencing team were returning to Cuba after having swept the gold medals at the Pan American games in Caracas, Venezuela. They boarded the plane wearing their medals. In total, there were 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and 5 Koreans.
At 1:23 p.m., local time, Seawell International Airport reported that the pilot, Wilfredo Pérez, called to report an emergency on board, “Seawell! Seawell! CU-455 Seawell. . . ! We have an explosion on board. . . . . We have a fire on board.” A forensic investigation made by Dr. Julio Lara Alonso established that two bombs exploded aboard CU-455, causing it to crash into the sea. The first bomb—under a passenger seat—ignited a fire near the front of the plane, and the second bomb, which exploded about eight minutes later in the rear bathroom of the plane, brought the plane down in seconds.
“I KILLED MORE THAN THE JACKAL”
Two Venezuelan nationals, Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, had left the bombs on the plane, before disembarking in Barbados. Lugo later told police officials that Ricardo boasted that the 73 people he killed on the plane were “more than the Jackal,” alluding to the famous terrorist Carlos the Jackal. “Now I’m the one who has the record, because I’m the one who blew up that thing,” he told Lugo.
Ricardo confessed to Barbadian and Trinidad officials who were investigating the crime that he and Lugo bombed the plane and that they worked for the CIA and Luis Posada Carriles. He even drew a diagram for them of the detonator he used to ignite the C-4 explosives he placed in the aircraft. He admitted to receiving $25,000 for downing the plane.
Lugo and Ricardo were extradited to Venezuela by Trinidad and Tobago. There they were convicted for their role in downing the plane and sentenced to 20 years. After serving their time, they were released. Lugo still lives in Caracas, driving a taxi to earn his living. The Miami Herald reported that Ricardo is now an undercover operative in Florida for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 1985 Luis Posada Carriles was indicted and prosecuted as the mastermind of the murder of the 73 persons aboard that plane. But before the Venezuelan court could pronounce a verdict, he escaped from prison. Within a few weeks, he landed a job with the CIA in an operation that later became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. The United States has never bothered to explain how it was possible for an international fugitive charged with 73 counts of first-degree murder to so quickly land a $120,000-a-year job with the CIA, arming Nicaraguan Contras.
When he saw the plane crash into the water, Dalton Guiller immediately swung his small ski boat around and in two minutes arrived on the scene. “I was with two other chaps, and we went to see whether there were any survivors. Unfortunately, there were none,” he said. Surrounded by a strong of smell of fuel, Guiller surveyed the horror. “I saw suitcases, seats, and personal effects. I saw bodies: only one or two of them intact. The others were not full bodies.” He added, “They were suspended at the level of the sea. Perhaps the seat belts cut them off, I could not tell. It was just striking that two or three of the bodies were perpendicular under the sea. Trousers, but no top. Top, but no bottom.”
The forensic report performed by the Barbadian coroner describes the condition of the body of little Sabrina, a nine-year old Guyanese girl who was traveling with her family to Cuba: “Body of a girl around 9 years of age . . . . Brain missing, only facial bones, scalp, and hair remaining. Lungs and heart destroyed. Liver and intestines shattered. Buttocks missing on right lower limb. Compound fracture of tibia and fibula . . . “
The impetus for the horror that invaded paradise that day in Barbados was hatred. Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, terrorists have murdered 2,478 Cubans and incapacitated 2,099 others.
Declassified U.S. intelligence cables reveal that Luis Posada Carriles had spoken of plans to “hit” a Cuban airliner only days before Ricardo and Lugo blew up CU-455. The CIA informed Washington, but no one uttered a word of warning to the Cuban or Venezuelan governments.
What happened in Barbados three and a half decades ago is not an isolated incident. The threat persists. From his lair in Miami, one of the masterminds of the attack on the Cuban airliner, Luis Posada Carriles, continues to call for violence against the Cuban people. His friends continue their efforts to violently lash out at the people of Cuba in an effort to terrorize them into supporting the forceful overthrow of the Cuban government.
OUR MAN IN LATIN AMERICA
Posada Carriles readily admits his relationship with the CIA. His lawyer told a federal court judge that everything his client did in Latin America he did in the “name of Washington.”
What, then, is it that Mr. Posada did in Latin America “in the name of Washington”? Besides the mass murder of the people aboard that passenger plane, Posada tortured Venezuelans in the 1970s, assisted in the murder of Nicaraguans in the 1980s, and trained Guatemalan and Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s and 1990s. He also planned a series of bombings at prominent Cuban hotels and restaurants in 1997, resulting in the murder of Italian businessman Fabio DiCelmo and the wounding of several others. He also conspired to assassinate the president of Cuba, Fidel Castro, several times, including in 2000 at the University of Panamá, where he planned to use 100 pounds of C-4 explosives to blow up a university auditorium full of students along with the Cuban president.
The cruelty of a 50-year war of terror against Cuba is abhorrent. The training that the United States has given Cuban-American terrorists is immoral. Providing them with weapons is a scandal: continuing to protect them an outrage.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD
In contrast to the United States, Venezuela does not assassinate those it alleges are terrorists. It relies on the rule of law to pursue them, but for the rule of law to be effective, the other parties to those laws, including the United States, must observe their legal obligations. When Posada Carriles illegally arrived in the United States in 1985, Venezuela immediately filed an extradition request, based on an extradition treaty that dates back to 1922 and on an international convention designed to combat terrorism: the Montreal Convention on Civil Aviation. Rather than extraditing Posada Carriles to Venezuela, the U.S. government instead tried him for minor immigration violations in El Paso, and a jury acquitted him of those in April of this year. He now lives freely in Miami.
United Nations Resolution 1373 forbids the harboring of terrorists by member nations. This resolution was introduced by the United States to combat terrorism after the tragedy of 9-11. Does it not also oblige the United States to extradite the terrorists it harbors?
THE CUBAN FIVE
Thirteen years ago, the United States government arrested, convicted and subsequently sentenced Five Cubans in Miami to long prison terms, but they were not terrorists.
The Five had gone to Miami to gather evidence against Cuban-American terrorists. In 1998, Cuba turned the evidence over to the FBI in the hope that the terrorists would be arrested and prosecuted. Yet the U.S. government didn’t arrest or charge the terrorists. Instead it arrested, charged, and imprisoned those who had gathered the evidence. The Cuban Five have been in jail now for 13 cruel years.
Gerardo Hernández is serving two life terms plus 15 years. The Court of Appeals ratified his sentence. Even if he dies in prison twice and resurrects each time, he would still not have completed his sentence.
Ramón Labañino was sentenced to a life term plus 18 years—subsequently the Court of Appeals ruled the sentence to be in violation of the law for being too harsh, vacated it and remanded his case to the same judge who had sentenced him. Judge Joan Lenard in Miami re-sentenced him and reduced the sentence to “only” 30 years.
Antonio Guerrero was sentenced to a life term plus 10 years. The Court of Appeals vacated his sentence, and Judge Lenard reduced it to “only” 21 years and ten months.
Fernando Gonzalez was sentenced to 19 years. The Court of Appeals vacated it, and Judge Lenard reduced it to “only” 17 years and 9 months.
René González was sentenced to 15 years. The Court of Appeals ratified his sentence, and he was released from jail on October 7. However, his release comes with conditions. He is not allowed to return to Cuba, as he wishes, to rejoin his wife and children but must instead remain in the United States for three more years—an additional punishment as cruel as it is irresponsible. The terrorists that the United States protects are free and would relish exacting their revenge on the man who monitored their activities on behalf of Cuba.
INDIFFERENCE VS. INDIGNATION
Getting the United States to extradite Luis Posada Carriles is not easy, and convincing President Barack Obama to free the Cuban Five will also be difficult. Neither case appears on the radar of American public opinion. The United States counts on the indifference of people. It knows that indifference is the unsung ally of injustice.
But as people learn about the history of terrorism against Cuba they grow indignant and demand justice. Indifference crumbles when confronted with indignation.
THE MEMORY OF THOSE KILLED
The 73 persons assassinated in cold blood 35 years ago in Barbados are not forgotten. As I stood on Paradise Beach in front of the monument to their memory, I listened to the national anthems of Cuba and Barbados and scanned the sea before me, where the plane lies at the bottom of Deep Water Bay., remembering that the remains of 58 persons were never recovered.
Standing next to me at the monument was the son of Wilfredo Pérez, the brave pilot who steered the aircraft away from the sandy beach to avoid killing dozens of Barbadians on shore. Wilfredo (he is named after his father) could have easily allowed hatred to consume him, but instead he became a psychologist. His life’s work is to help broken people to mend.
Killed aboard that plane was also Nancy Uranga, a pregnant 22-year-old fencer from Cuba. It is well known that 73 persons were killed that day over Barbados, but few know that Nancy was pregnant and that the terrorists killed her unborn child as well.
The terrorists also killed Carlos Cremata that day. Carlos was 41 years old. He was a member of the crew and also an actor. His friends and family recall that Carlos always greeted them with, “Viva la vida” (Long live life). One of his sons, Carlos Alberto Cremata, founded one of the world’s most renowned children’s theater companies—La Colmenita (The Little Beehive)—whose mission is “sembrar el amor” (to sow love). La Colmenita is now on tour in the United States.
There is a history of injustice in the waters of Paradise Beach in Barbados. The cold-blooded murder of the 73 people aboard that passenger plane was a crime against them, their families, and their countries. It was also a crime against Barbados and its people.
The Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder Jr., is a Bajan-American. He was raised in a Bajan household in New York. His father, Eric Sr., was born in Barbados and married the daughter of Barbadian immigrants.
When he visited Barbados in 2008, the soon-to-be nominated Attorney General said, “I feel that I grew up partly in Barbados and partly in New York.”
History has now given him an opportunity to solve a mass murder that occurred in his parents’ home country 35 years ago. Mr. Holder can present to a United States District Court Venezuela’s request for the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles. He can also recommend that President Obama exercise his constitutional power of executive clemency to free the Cuban Five.
THE CHARACTER OF THE UNITED STATES AS A NATION
The extradition of Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela and the liberation of the Cuban Five are the responsibility of the United States and its people. More than merely legal issues, they are a moral imperative. At stake are not simply the facts of two particular criminal cases but bedrock principles of social justice and the character of the United States as a nation.
Will Eric Holder and President Barack Obama be up to the task? Will the people of the United States demand justice?
José Pertierra is an attorney. He represents the government of Venezuela in the extradition case of Luis Posada Carriles.