30 years ago: US-backed terrorists killed 73 in airline bombing
CUBANA DC8 and right, memorial unveiled during Castro visit to Barbados
ON October 6, 1976, Cubana airlines Flight 455 took off from Seawell airport, Barbados, at 17.15hrs on the penultimate leg of a scheduled journey Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Kingston Jamaica to Cuba. Less than ten minutes after take off a timebomb exploded on board the Douglas DC8, at 18,000 feet above the Caribbean.
The captain, Wilfredo Pérez Pérez, radioed to the control tower: "We have an explosion aboard, we are descending immediately! ... We have fire on board! We are requesting immediate landing! We have a total emergency!"
As the pilots struggled to stop the plane's fall and return it to Seawell a second bomb exploded. Realising a successful landing would now be impossible it seems the pilot turned back to the ocean rather than endanger tourists on the beach.
All 48 passengers and 25 crew aboard the plane were killed - 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans. Among them were all 24 members of the Cuban fencing team that had just won gold medals in the Central American and Caribbean Championship. Many were teenagers. Several officials of the Cuban government were also aboard. The 11 Guyanese passengers included 18 and 19-year-old medical students, and the young wife of a Guyanese diplomat.]
Hours after the explosions, police in Trinidad arrested Freddy Lugo and Hernan Ricardo Lozano, two Venezuelans who had boarded the plane in Trinidad and checked their baggage to Cuba but alighted in Barbados and flown back to Trinidad. Ricardo had been travelling with a false identity under the name of José Vázquez García.
The two men confessed, saying they had been acting under orders from Luis Posada Carriles. Their testimony and other evidence implicated Carriles and another Venezuelan, Orlando Bosch. On 14 October, Posada and Bosch were arrested in Caracas. The offices of Investigaciones Comerciales e Industriales C.A. (ICICA), a private detective company owned by Posada, were raided, and weapons, explosives and a radio transmitter found. Ricardo was an employee of ICICA at the time of the attack.
By agreement among the governments involved, the four accused were to go on trial in Venezuela, since they were citizens of that country. On August 25 1977 the case was referred to a military tribunal. The men were charged with treason. In September 1980, a Venezuelan military judge acquitted all four of them. the prosecutor appealed, arguing that the crime was homicide and the men were civilians, and the four were then charged with aggravated homicide and treason before a civilian court.
Lugo and Ricardo were each sentenced to 20 years in prison, but this ws reduced "due to the extenuating circumstance of no prior criminal records." Orlando Bosch was acquitted, because the evidence gathered by the Barbados authorities during the investigation could not be used in the Venezuela trial, as it was presented too late and had not been translated into Spanish.
On the eve of sentence Posada fled from the San Juan de los Morros penitentiary where he had been confined following two previous failed escape attempts. Allegations were made that Venezuelan authorities were bribed to help him escape. No verdict was entered against Posada because, according to the Venezuelan Penal Code, judicial proceedings cannot continue without the presence of the accused.
A different judge then ordered the case reviewed by a higher court. The Venezuelan government declined to appeal the case any further, and in November 1987 Bosch was freed. Lugo and Lozano were released in 1993 and continue to reside in Venezuela. Posada fled to Panama, then to the United States. Hugo Chavez' government wants him returned for trial, but in September of 2005, a US immigration judge ruled that Posada should not be deported to either Cuba or Venezuela because he could be subject to torture.
This touching regard for the airline bomber's rights stands out impressively against the background of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extradition and "extraordinary rendition", in America's "War on Terror". But then Posada is different. He is one of America's own terrorists. Official documents obtained in the United States show the links between the United States and the plane bombers.
Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born naturalized Venezuelan, was the Director of Counterintelligence at Venezuela's FBI equivalent, the DISIP, from 1967 to 1974. But he also had a long relationship with the CIA. In February 1961, he joined Brigade 2506 to invade Cuba, although the ship to which he was assigned never landed at the Bay of Pigs. While in the U.S. military between 1963 and 1965 the CIA recruited and trained him in explosives and demolitions; he subsequently became a trainer of others. Although his service officially terminated in July 1967 he was reinstated, and remained in contact with the CIA until June 1976, just three months before the plane bombing.
A U.S. Government document released through the Freedom of Information Act also refers to "Luis Posada, in whom CIA has an operational interest - Posada is receiving approximately $300 per month from CIA". Posada was heavily involved with right-wing anti-Castro groups like the Cuban-American National Foundation and the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Revolucionarias Unidas - CORU), led at the time by Orlando Bosch.
A declassified CIA document dated October 12, 1976 quotes Posada as saying, a few days after a plate fund-raising meeting for CORU held around September 15th, "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner... Orlando has the details"
A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976 quotes a CORU member stating that CORU "was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 ... this bombing and the resulting deaths were fully justified because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime."
After bribing his way out of prison in Venezuela, Posada went to El Salvador to work for Lt. Col. Oliver North, supplying right-wing contras in Nicaragua with arms, without the official knowledge of the US Congress. Assuming the name "Ramon Medina," he worked as a deputy to another anti-Castro Cuban exile, Felix Rodriguez, who was in charge of a small airlift of arms and supplies to the contras in Southern Nicaragua. Rodriguez used the code name, Max Gomez. A document, released during the Congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra operations, records both Posada and Rodriguez obtaining supplies for the contras from a warehouse at Illopango airbase in San Salvador. Posada is also accused of involvement in plans to overthrow a government in Guatemala.