Miami -- A militant Cuban exile wanted in Venezuela in connection with the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner was released from a New Mexico jail yesterday and allowed to return to his home in Miami to await trial on charges of violating immigration law.
The Bush administration's inability to keep former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles locked up incited broad condemnation throughout Latin America and among critics of U.S.-Cuba policy. It also provoked accusations that the White House maintains a double standard on terrorism, punishing those who strike at the United States while giving shelter to a man who has admitted to deadly violence against his Communist-ruled homeland.
An international fugitive for the past 22 years, Posada was arrested in May 2005, two months after slipping into the United States, and sent to an immigration lockup in El Paso, Texas. A federal magistrate ordered him deported, but none of the countries contacted by the U.S. State Department would accept him.
Although slowed by age, incarceration and injuries suffered in bombings and shootouts, the 79- year-old Posada is seen in Latin America as a ruthless assassin so bent on destroying Fidel Castro's Cuba that he is willing to take innocent lives. Many of the 73 killed aboard the Cubana de Aviacion plane were teenagers returning from a youth athletics competition in Caracas.
An Italian tourist bled to death in a 1997 Havana hotel bombing for which Posada took credit in an interview with a freelance journalist a year later.
Posada was a Bay of Pigs veteran suspected in numerous plots to kill Castro, and his CIA service included a role in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
"Posada's release shows the Bush administration's position against terrorism for the cynical sham it is. It takes us back to one man's terrorist being another's freedom fighter," said Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat and Cuban affairs analyst.
Under the USA Patriot Act, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has had the option of declaring Posada a terrorist and detaining him indefinitely. In a letter to the Texas court hearing Posada's request for release in October, the Justice Department urged the court to keep him in jail because he is "an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks," a flight risk and a danger to the community.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also is empowered to keep Posada imprisoned by declaring his release a threat to stable international relations.
The Cuban and Venezuelan governments immediately denounced Posada's release.
"Cuba emphatically condemns this decision and holds the U.S. government entirely responsible for Posada Carilles being free in Miami," said Dagoberto Rodriguez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
The Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has given the case broad coverage, called Posada "the bin Laden of the Americas" and blamed his release on inaction by Washington.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Castro, condemned Posada's release as evidence the Bush administration condones violence against political adversaries.
"We demand they extradite that terrorist and assassin to Venezuela instead of continuing to protect him," Chavez told a political rally in Caracas.
Posada operated out of Venezuela during much of his CIA service and is a naturalized citizen of that country. A Venezuelan court tried him in the early 1980s in connection with the plane bombing, acquitting him on a technicality. He bribed his way out of a Venezuelan jail in 1985 while awaiting retrial, reportedly with money provided by a CIA colleague.
A federal grand jury in Texas indicted Posada in January on charges of violating immigration laws, citing inaccurate information in his application for naturalization. He was transferred to a New Mexico jail pending a May 11 trial, but U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone in El Paso ruled two weeks ago that the immigration charges were insufficient to deny Posada bail.
With money put up by his family and donated by fellow anti-Castro exiles in Miami, Posada posted $350,000 bail Wednesday. He was escorted to Florida by federal marshals and was to be fitted with an electronic surveillance device. He has been ordered to remain in his Miami home except for visits to physicians or lawyers.
The government's failure to act to keep the militant jailed stirred speculation that President Bush fears Posada might claim he was following U.S. government orders in carrying out violent acts during his decades of CIA service.
"The allegation will be that the administration didn't want to identify him as the terrorist he is for fear of him airing his dirty laundry, responding that 'I was your terrorist,'" said Peter Kornbluh, head of the National Security Archives at George Washington University, where he researches past covert CIA operations.
Posada's Miami attorney, Eduardo Soto, hinted in an interview last year that his client was privy to dark chapters in U.S. intelligence history but had kept silent out of loyalty to his adopted country.
In Havana, Camilo Rojo, the son of a Cubana de Aviacion official who died aboard the bombed plane, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that Posada's released showed "a lack of respect for all the victims of terrorism, not only in Cuba but throughout the world."
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.