Miami's Cubans Watch Their Hero Go On Trial

Freedom fighter or terrorist? Tomorrow in El Paso, Texas, Luis Posada Carriles goes on trial in federal court on charges related to a 1997 hotel bombing in Havana that killed an Italian tourist. The 82-year old Posada is a staunch anti-Castro militant embraced as a hero by Miami's Cuban exile community. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

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In federal court in El Paso, Texas, tomorrow, Cuban exile and former CIA employee Luis Posada Carriles goes on trial. Posada's name may not ring a bell, but in Cuba and in Miami's Cuban-American community, he is a well-known and polarizing figure.

Posada faces charges related to his alleged involvement in a series of hotel bombings in Havana in the mid-'90s. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has this story.

GREG ALLEN: Terrorist or freedom fighter? For many years, how you answered that question about Luis Posada depended largely on where you lived - Havana or Miami. Posada, who's now 82 years old, has fought to overthrow Fidel Castro for most of his life. He took part in the Bay of Pigs operation and later joined the CIA - until the mid-'70s, when he began organizing his own operations to destabilize the Cuban regime.

Venezuela and Cuba have long charged he was behind the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people. The incident at the center of the trial in El Paso involves a bomb set off at a Havana hotel in 1997, that killed an Italian tourist. A year later, a reporter for the New York Times taped an interview with Posada. Prosecutors are presenting those tapes as key evidence in the trial.

Peter Kornbluh, with the National Security Archive, says in the government transcripts of the tapes, Posada clearly admits his responsibility.

Mr. PETER KORNBLUH (National Security Archive): He said to the New York Times: I sleep like a baby; it's sad that somebody was killed, but we have to keep going. He is asked: Do you take credit for these bombings as an act of war? And he says, si.

ALLEN: Posada's defense attorneys take issue with the government transcripts. In transcripts they prepared, when asked about his involvement in the bombing, rather than si, they say Posada's answer was unintelligible. It will ultimately be up to the jury to decide what Posada admits to on the tapes.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. may also introduce evidence on the Havana bombing gathered by the government of Cuba. Cuban officials will also testify. Posada's lawyer questions the credibility of allowing representatives of a country that's on the U.S. list of states that support terrorism, testify about a bombing.

Cuban-American writer and commentator Humberto Fontova agrees. Of the Cuban witnesses, he says...

Mr. HUMBERTO FONTOVA (Writer, Commentator): They're representatives of a totalitarian regime whose co-founder, Che Guevara, said the following: Judicial evidence is an archaic, bourgeois detail. Now, does it make sense to have officials from that regime at this trial?

ALLEN: Fontova says he doesn't know if Posada was involved in the bombing or not, but he explains his sympathy for Posada - and other aging Cuban militants accused of terrorism - this way:

Mr. FONTOVA: Put yourself in these men's places. The men of the Bay of Pigs generation, and the tremendous sense of betrayal that they felt, you know - to them, the battle wasn't over.

ALLEN: Posada isn't being charged with terrorism, but perjury related to testimony at an immigration hearing. In 2005, after decades of living abroad, Posada turned up in Miami and asked first for asylum, then naturalization. Eventually, that request was denied, and Posada was charged with lying and several other immigration violations.

The Obama administration significantly upped the ante when it added perjury charges related to the Cuban bombing to the indictment against Posada. The trial beginning tomorrow will mark the first time he'll have to answer in a U.S. courtroom to longstanding charges.

Watching the trial closely will be Livio Di Celmo, brother of the Italian tourist who was killed in the Havana hotel. Di Celmo says he believes the U.S. will never brand Posada as a terrorist.

Mr. LIVIO DI CELMO: But it doesn't matter. The families of his victims will continue to ask for justice. Not only to ask for justice but also to raise awareness in the American population - because I think that the American people should be more aware of what has been going on with terrorism against Cuba.

ALLEN: The trial will be closely followed in Miami, where Posada has been living while out on bail - as something of a celebrity. Also in Cuba, where officials often refer to him as the Osama bin Laden of Latin America.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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