Moral Low Ground


‘On This Day’ 1976: The Bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455

Relatives of the 73 people killed in the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 demand justice. (Photo: EFE)

Relatives of the 73 people killed in the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 demand justice. (Photo: EFE)

On a balmy October afternoon in 1976, a DC-8 commercial jetliner carrying 73 passengers, many of them teenagers who had just won gold medals in fencing at the Central American and Caribbean Championships, took off from Barbados bound for Jamaica. But flight 455 never made it to its destination. Before arriving in Barbados, the plane briefly stopped in nearby Trinidad and Tobago. There, Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo planted two bombs, cleverly hidden inside of a camera and a tube of toothpaste, aboard the plane. Ricardo and Lugo disembarked in Barbados, left their checked luggage on flight 455 and flew back to Trinidad and Tobago. Shortly after takeoff, the bombs detonated, tearing the plane into two pieces and sending it plunging into the sea. There were no survivors. Following the bombing, Ricardo phoned a man named Orlando Bosch and reported that “a bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed.”

Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, former Venezuelan agents, were arrested in Trinidad and Tobago. They confessed to the bombing and fingered two Cubans, Orlando Bosch and former CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles, as the masterminds behind the terror attack. Declassified CIA documents report Posada stating that “we are going to blow up a Cuban airliner… Orlando has the details.” All four men were jailed in Venezuela but Bosch and Posada managed to escape justice; literally so in the case of Posada, who fled from prison while awaiting trial for his role in the airliner bombing.

Where did these two terrorists eventually end up? Right here in the United States. But they weren’t here to face trial for orchestrating the attack that killed 73 innocent people. Incredibly, Bosch and Posada were welcomed as heroes upon entering the United States. President George H.W. Bush even granted Bosch political asylum.

Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles are both Cuban exiles who fled their homeland following Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Their fierce opposition to Castro and communism has endeared them to both the Cuban exile community, mostly in south Florida, and to successive administrations in Washington over the past half century. The civilian airliner they blew up happened to belong to Cubana Airlines; flight 455‘s final destination was Havana. The fact that 73 innocent people died was of no importance to Washington because the victims were America’s “enemies.”

Bosch lived freely in the United States until his death in 2011; Posada is an icon in his South Florida community. He successfully beat immigration charges for illegally entering the country, but the unrepentant terrorist need not worry about facing justice for his role in what was the worst act of air terrorism in the Western Hemisphere until one Tuesday morning in September of 2001.

The bombing of Cubana Flight 455 was but one of many atrocities committed by US-backed anti-Castro Cuban exiles during a decades-long war of terror waged with the goal of ousting Fidel Castro from power and replacing him with a US-friendly dictator. Beginning in 1959, US-based aircraft began bombing runs over Cuban sugar plantations, killing innocent civilians and causing widespread property damage. Declassified documents reveal how the CIA conspired with Chicago mafia boss Momo Salvatore, Al Capone’s successor, to assassinate Castro.

After his election, President John F. Kennedy wanted to unleash “the terrors of the earth” upon Castro’s Cuba. In 1961, a group of US-armed, CIA-trained Cuban exiles launched the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Among the planners of the doomed attack was Luis Posada Carriles. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, top Pentagon brass devised Operation Northwoods, a top secret plan to carry out ‘false-flag’ terror attacks against US cities, troops and Cuban refugees and blame them on Castro. Northwoods was rejected, but US aggression against Cuba continued unabated. During Operation Mongoose, the CIA and Cuban exile terrorists tried to kill Castro dozens of times. Among the madcap methods attempted were poison pens, exploding cigars and seashells, a toxic wetsuit, poison pills and a femme fatale lover/assassin.

In addition to trying to kill Castro, US-backed terrorism targeted innocent Cuban civilians and animals. There were strafing attacks on seaside villages and hotels. There was CIA contamination of Cuban sugar supplies and a US military intelligence mission to infect Cuban livestock with a fatal virus. A factory was bombed, resulting in the deaths of 400 workers. The Kennedy administration was “operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,” President Lyndon B. Johnson infamously admitted shortly after taking office.

The perpetrators of these terrorist attacks enjoyed full immunity from prosecution in the United States, for it was the CIA and US military that were training, arming and funding many of them. Militant anti-Castro exile groups operated openly in south Florida, setting up training camps in the Everglades where they planned terrorist attacks against Cuba with the full knowledge, blessing and instruction of the United States government, military and intelligence services. Luis Posada Carriles once boasted that “the CIA taught us everything—everything. They taught us explosives, how to kill, bomb; trained us in sabotage.”

In 1963, anti-Castro exiles fired a bazooka rocket launcher at the United Nations headquarters in New York while Che Guevara was speaking inside. The CIA unleashed an epidemic of African swine fever on the island in 1971, a bioterrorism attack that resulted in the slaughter of half a million pigs. That same year, a Florida-based motorboat strafed a Cuban fishing village killing two men and wounding four people, including two little girls. Throughout the 1970s, a wave of more than 100 terror bombings and assassinations carried out by anti-Castro exiles on US soil, mainly in South Florida, led the FBI to dub Miami the “terrorist capital” of the United States. In 1976, terrorists led by Cubana Flight 455 masterminds Posada and Bosch planned the car bombing assassination of former Chilean official Orlando Letelier and his newlywed American aide Ronni Moffitt in Washington DC. A few months later, Cubana 455 was bombed.

Luis Posada Carriles was tried and acquitted by a US-friendly military court in Venezuelan court for his role in the bombing of Cubana Flight 455, but his acquittal was overturned and he was ordered to stand trial in a civilian court. He didn’t stick around for that and bribed his way out of prison. He spent a good part of the 1980s working for the CIA in an illegal gun-running operation to supply the Nicaraguan Contra terrorists, for which he was paid $3,000 a month by an aide to disgraced  Iran-Contra figure Oliver North. Orlando Bosch was also imprisoned in Venezuela over Flight 455, but Reagan administration officials fought for his freedom even though the Justice Department openly admitted it believed he participated in the Cubana 455 bombing.

Bosch and Posada were hailed as heroes in Miami. The city even celebrated ‘Orlando Bosch Day’ in honor of the unrepentant terrorist who once said that killing innocent civilians was unavoidable. Cheering crowds greeted the men when they returned stateside. Bosch was arrested on a parole violation but released after six months when Miami Cubans pressed future governor Jeb Bush, then a budding politician, to get his father, President George H.W. Bush, to intervene on the terrorist’s behalf. This, despite the fact that the US government knew all about his role in the bombing of Flight 455 and other terrorist attacks.

When Bosch applied for political asylum in the United States, Attorney General Joe Whitley protested, describing him as “a terrorist unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims.” But Bosch had powerful friends including a pair of Florida Republicans in Congress, Sen. Connie Mack and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who lobbied President Bush—who was CIA director and oversaw the consolidation of Cuban terror groups at the time of the Cubana Airlines bombing. Bush responded by securing the release and US residency for Bosch, a man the FBI called the Western hemisphere’s “most dangerous terrorist.”

As for Posada, he was behind a string of hotel bombings in Cuba that injured many tourists and killed one Italian man. Posada bragged that he “slept like a baby” despite the deadly results of the bombing campaign. “That Italian was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. Posada was also responsible for over 40 bombings in Honduras in the 1990s. When he sought asylum in the United States in 2005, Posada was arrested for illegally entering the country. Despite the fact that the US Justice Department called him “an unrepentant criminal and admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks on tourist sites,” a federal judge recommended that Posada be set free on September 11, 2006. And incredibly, he was. He stood trial—and was acquitted—on immigration charges in 2011.  Imagine Washington’s reaction if Osama bin Laden had been arrested in Pakistan and tried only for being in the country illegally?

And therein lies the blatant hypocrisy in America’s pursuit of terrorists. Compare Posada’s fate to that of José Padilla, a US citizen prosecuted by the Bush administration on dubious terror charges after being held without trial for three-and-a-half years, much of it in maddening solitary confinement, as an enemy combatant. Originally accused of trying to plant a radioactive “dirty bomb” in an American city, the government had absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. But a civilian court in Miami—the very same city from which Posada, Orlando Bosch and other anti-Castro Cubans plotted and executed countless terror attacks and live as heroes—found Padilla guilty of lesser conspiracy charges and sentenced him to 17 years behind bars.

Until his death, Orlando Bosch insisted that the victims of the Cubana Airlines bombing all got what they deserved. In his eyes, they were all “henchmen,” even the women and children. Roseanne Nenninger Persaud of Guyana, whose 19 year-old brother Raymond was one of the “henchmen” killed aboard Flight 455, said Posada and Bosch ought to be “treated like bin Laden.”

“If this were a plane full of Americans, it would have been a different story,” Nenninger told the New York Times.

Indeed, Americans were outraged when Abdel al-Megrahi was prematurely released from a British prison in 2009 for health reasons despite being sentenced to life for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That act of terror claimed 270 lives, most of them American. Al-Megrahi returned to Tripoli where he was greeted by a jubilant crowd. President Obama was incensed. “The interests of justice have not been served by this decision,” fumed  Attorney General Eric Holder, who added that “there is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals.”

If that is so, then why are the terrorists behind the bombing of Cubana flight 455 living out the remainder of their lives as free men in Florida? Were the innocent victims killed on flight 455 any different from those killed at Lockerbie? Of course not. But, as renowned thinker Noam Chomsky wrote: “‘Their’ terror against us and our clients is the ultimate evil, while our terror against ‘them’ does not exist—or if it does, it is entirely appropriate.”

But as President George W. Bush declared in the wake of 9/11, “if you harbor terrorists, you are a terrorist.” 

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