MIAMI >> Former CIA operative and militant Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, who was accused of organizing a string of 1997 Havana hotel bombings and a 1976 Cuban airline bombing that killed 73 people, has died. He was 90.
Posada, who had been diagnosed with throat cancer about five years ago, died today in Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood north of Miami.
“An extraordinary life has ended,” Arturo Hernandez, a lawyer for the hardline exile, told the Associated Press. “It’s a very sad morning for me, to say farewell to such a great man.”
Posada had been acquitted in 2011 by a federal jury in El Paso, Texas, of lying to U.S. officials about his role in the Havana bombings to win political asylum.
He was among a core group of Cuban exiles the CIA trained in the early 1960s in a failed effort to overthrow Fidel Castro’s fledgling communist government. Unlike many others, he never renounced violence as a way to bring about change on the island.
“If Castro came through the door, I’d kill him, not because I hate him but because I’d kill a cockroach too,” Posada told the AP at one point during a series of interviews between 2009 and 2010.
To many older exiles, Posada was a freedom fighter who did what was necessary to attempt to overthrow a dictatorship. Many other people, like Peter Kornbluh, head of the independent National Security Archive’s Cuba project that fought years to declassify documents relating to Posada, viewed him as an unrepentant terrorist.
“The CIA created and unleashed a Frankenstein,” he said of Posada.
Cuban government website Cubadebate on Wednesday described him as a “terrorist” whose victims included the innocent passengers on the plane that exploded after taking off from Barbados in 1976. It said he died “without having paid for this crime nor the many other terrorist acts that are a feature of his criminal record.”
Posada always publicly denied involvement in the bombing of the bombing of a Cuban airliner that had taken off from Barbados, the deadliest in-flight explosion until the 1988 Pan Am flight bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
But in a 1998 New York Times interview, he took credit for the Havana bombings, which killed an Italian tourist, before later recanting.
When the AP asked about that interview and the bombings in 2009, Posada initially said he didn’t hear or understand the Times’ questions, then mentioned his lawyer, then stopped, laughed and shrugged.
Posada enjoyed an official and sometimes tumultuous relationship with the CIA until 1975. Yet throughout his years living in Latin America, he retained at least some contact with U.S. officials, culminating in the 2011 trial and acquittal. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Miami’s Cuban community.
Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1928, Posada studied chemistry at the University of Havana, and briefly worked for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Following the Castro forces’ final triumph in the Cuban Revolution on New Year’s Day 1959, he joined the political opposition and was imprisoned briefly. He fled to Mexico and eventually the U.S. in 1961.
Other members of his family, including his brother and sister, remained in Cuba and he continued to send them money throughout his life through friends and other emissaries.
Several years after arriving in the U.S., he divorced his first wife and married Elina Nieves, with whom he had a son and a daughter. The lived apart for much of their marriage, but in his later years, Posada boasted that Nieves still did his laundry.
Posada trained for but never participated in the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba organized by the CIA. Through that experience, he became lifelong friends with the late Cuban exile and political kingmaker Jorge Mas Canosa, a reported benefactor and with whom he graduated from the U.S. Army’s officer training school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Posada claimed on a number of occasions Mas Canosa helped support him financially.
Early on, Posada’s CIA handlers described him as reliable and even a reasonable voice among the exiles, whom he was willing to inform on, according to declassified agency documents released at the request of the National Security Archives.
“A15 is not a typical kind of ‘boom and bang’ individual,” CIA handler Grover Lythcott wrote in 1966, using a code name for Posada. “He is acutely aware of the international implications of ill-planned or overly enthusiastic activities against Cuba.”
The agency has refused to declassify many documents related to Posada, but official summaries of those documents released to the Archive, show U.S. officials were particularly concerned about Posada’s relationship with the mafia-linked casino operator Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.
Another summary shows the agency was also concerned he’d taken CIA explosives and other items with him when in 1967 he took a job with Venezuela’s state security agency, which he later headed.
He was running his own security firm in Venezuela by the time he was accused of coordinating the 1976 bombing of the Cuban airliner that exploded over the Caribbean shortly after taking off from Barbados. Posada was arrested when two men who worked for his small firm confessed to planting the bombs.
Posada — who still had strong ties to the then-Venezuelan government — was acquitted by a military court. He later escaped from jail dressed as a priest while awaiting a second trial in a civilian court.
He made his way to El Salvador, where he helped the Reagan administration and U.S. Army Col. Oliver North resupply neighboring Nicaragua’s rightist Contra rebels against the left-leaning Sandinista government.
Posada flew beneath the radar for years — moving to Guatemala, where he survived a 1990 assassination attempt that left his face and body bullet-scarred and permanently damaged his speech.
Then in 2004, he was convicted in Panama in connection with a failed assassination attempt against Castro. While in prison, Posada became a prolific painter. His subjects ranged from Cuban independence hero and poet Jose Marti to Mother Teresa and then Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, who pardoned him in 2005 at the behest of several Cuban-American lawmakers from South Florida.
Posada resurfaced in Miami in 2005. Two months later, he was arrested, following international pressure on the George W. Bush administration to hold him to the same standard as other accused terrorists.
The U.S. refused to turn him over to Venezuela or Cuba, citing fears he might face torture, nor did it ever try him directly on any terrorist charges, just the immigration charges.
Opinions were as widely split over the verdict as they were over Posada himself. Some believed the trial was too little too late, others thought it was a politically motivated case against an aging patriot, while still others saw the acquittal, which came after three hours of deliberation, as a travesty of justice.
He is survived by his wife and two adult children.