February 9—In El Paso, Texas, the perjury trial of the infamous violent Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles took a historic turn today. For the first time in a long dramatic history dominated by hostility and aggression, US government prosecutors formally presented evidence of terrorism committed against Cuba in a court of law—against one of its own former CIA operatives. Even more extraordinary, the evidence comes in the form of a Cuban Ministry of Interior investigator explaining photographs and police reports to the jury relating to a series of explosions in Havana hotels, including the Hotel Copacabana which killed a young Italian businessman Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997. “Cuba Cooperating in US case against ex-CIA agent,” reads tomorrow’s news headlines.
The godfather of anti-Castro Cuban violence over the last four decades, Posada is being prosecuted for immigration fraud relating to how he illegally entered the United States in March 2005. But the Obama Justice Department added three counts of perjury relating to a far more important crime: Posada’s role in a series of seven bombings that rocked Havana hotels and other tourist sites between April and September 1997. “The defendant is alleged to have lied about his involvement in planning the bombings in Havana,” state court filings by the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Division. “The United States intends to prove that the bombings in Cuba actually occurred.”
This week marks the first time that concrete evidence is being presented to the jury on how those bombings took place and the damage they wrought. The jury has been shown photographs taken by Cuban authorities of the bloodstained floor of the hotel. Portions of a Cuban investigative study, known as the “Volcan report,” which discusses the cause of, and circumstances surrounding Fabio Di Celmo’s death, are due to be introduced as evidence during the testimony of Major Roberto Hernandez Caballero—he was Cuba’s lead detective on the hotel bombing investigation—who took the stand today.
The importance of this moment in US-Cuban relations cannot be overstated. Posada was originally trained in demolitions by the US military and put on the CIA payroll in 1965 to train and supervise other exile groups in sabotage, explosives and violent operations. Declassified CIA and FBI intelligence reports, posted on the website of the National Security Archive, identify him as a mastermind of a mid-air bombing of a Cuban jetliner that took the lives of all 73 men, women and children on board in October 1976. Most recently, Posada was arrested in Panama with a carload of C-4 and dynamite in what he admitted to U.S. officials was a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American summit in November 2000. By prosecuting him on charges related to his acts of terrorism, even if they are only perjury charges, the United States is effectively repudiating a dark past that its own Cold War officials and covert operatives set in motion.
For Cuba, where Posada is public enemy number one, having its day in court is also a turning point in a longstanding effort to collaborate with US officials to put Posada behind bars. Cuban authorities have been forced to set aside their understandable suspicion that the trial is for all for show, not for justice. (After all, how can the United States, which purports to be the leader in the campaign to fight international terrorism, prosecute one of the world’s most infamous terrorists only on perjury charges?) Since Posada popped up in Miami some six years ago, Cuban authorities have repeatedly welcomed teams of FBI investigators and Justice Department lawyers to Havana. They turned over almost 1,500 pages of investigative records for use in the trial and made Posada’s accomplices, now in prison in Cuba, available for interrogation. And they have sent three witnesses to El Paso—another police investigator and a forensic doctor to present the autopsy of the murdered Italian to the jury—who have been waiting for over a week to testify.
If this unprecedented level of Cuban judicial support helps convict the 82-year old Posada and he spends the rest of his natural life behind bars, the United States and Cuba will have arrived at a new level of cooperation and collaboration on fighting terrorism. More importantly, together Washington and Havana will have turned a page on the dark history of US-sponsored violence against the Cuban revolution and Washington can begin what President Obama refers to as “a new chapter” in US relations with Cuba.