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All afternoon, the defense tried to convince the jury that one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Gilberto Abascal, cannot be trusted. Attorney Arturo Hernández needs to impeach Abascal’s credibility, because his testimony against Luis Posada Carriles is devastating.
This morning, Abascal testified that the Santrina arrived in Miami at 10:30 a.m. one day in March 2005 from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, with Luis Posada Carriles aboard. He said that Posada did not leave the boat until it reached its final destination in Miami, where Abascal personally saw him get off the yacht and board a speedboat to traverse the Miami River, which crosses the city from west to east.
Irritated with Arturo Hernández’s brutal cross-examination, Abascal told Posada’s attorney, "You know that I’m telling the truth", emphasizing with his voice, "YOU DO KNOW IT." Hernández´ face flushed, upon hearing this unexpected emotional retort from Abascal. I don’t know whether he blushed from anger or embarrassment.
We came to pick up Posada
Abascal’s testimony today buttressed his previous declarations. He was allowed to go into areas that, for legal reasons, the judge had disallowed yesterday. For example, Abascal testified that upon the Santrina’s arrival at Isla Mujeres, the boat’s owner, Santiago Álvarez, called the entire crew together in the boat’s dining room and told them: "Now I can tell you why we came to Isla Mujeres. We came to pick up Posada Carriles."
"I was angry with Santiago Álvarez, when I heard that, because he’d deceived me," said Abascal. The prosecutor who questioned Abascal asked him who had been on the Santrina when the boat arrived in Miami. Abascal didn’t hesitate. "Santiago Álvarez, Osvaldo Mitat, Rubén López Castro, Pepín Pujol, Luis Posada Carriles and me."
The weather was very bad between Isla Mujeres and Miami. Posada Carriles became seasick, said Abascal. With a pen in hand, the witness drew on a map for the jury the route the Santrina took from Isla Mujeres to Miami. While listening to Abascal, the jury looked at him attentively, hypnotized by his narrative. Seated on his chair, Posada Carriles picked up a pen and began to write in a notebook.
They heard Abascal describe in detail how the Santrina navigated into the Miami River with Posada Carriles aboard. Santiago Álvarez "gave the order to Rubén López Castro to take Posada in a speedboat to one of the restaurants on the river," said the witness. He explained that "Álvarez’s son, Santiaguito, would be there waiting for him. Then I saw Luis Posada Carriles get into a speedboat with Rubén López Castro and head for a restaurant."
Some in the audience laughed when they heard Abascal state that Rubén López Castro returned to the Santrina shortly thereafter and said, "Oh my god, the chief of police was there in the restaurant, eating!" The situation is ironic. An international fugitive with 73 murder charges pending against him for the explosion of a passenger airliner, the mastermind of a terrorist campaign against Cuba, sneaks into the United States illegally and immediately finds himself in a restaurant with the city’s police chief . . . and yet nothing happens! Miami is surreal.
Collision with the truth
During his opening presentation to the jury the first day of the trial, Arturo Hernández promised he would put on evidence that Posada Carriles had never boarded the Santrina, although he did meet with the crew in Isla Mujeres in March of 2005. Hernández´ theory of the case is that Santiago Álvarez went on the sea voyage to Mexico to hand Posada Carriles $10,000, so that he could hire a coyote that would help him cross the Rio Grande illegally into the United States, near the Mexican border town of Matamoros.
Hernández told the jury two weeks ago that after getting the 10 grand from Santiago Alvarez in Isla Mujeres, "Posada returned to Guatemala with Ernesto Abreu. There he hired a coyote who brought him to the United States in a pickup truck."
But Attorney Hernández’s novella collided with the truth this morning. "Santiago Álvarez told those of us who’d traveled on the Santrina that if the FBI or the government asked, we should say that we went to Isla Mujeres to deliver $10,000 to Posada Carriles and that we had left him there and that he had returned to Guatemala to hire a coyote," Abascal testified today.
During several interviews with Immigration officials, Posada Carriles also repeated the fanciful tale about his road trip from Guatemala to Houston. Last week we listened to the recordings in which Posada said that in Houston he took a Greyhound bus to Miami. He also identified a ticket from the Houston-Miami bus dated March 26, 2005, and said that it had cost him approximately $100.
But today Abascal testified that it was Santiago Álvarez who had the idea to buy a Greyhound ticket in Houston. "Álvarez told us that he had sent López Castro to Houston to buy a Greyhound ticket in order to produce it later and say that it was Posada who’d purchased it and used it for his trip to Miami." They evidently had everything prepared and thought that the compromising clues would disappear with the story concocted by Santiago Álvarez.
Why did Posada Carriles lie? Why did he say that he crossed the border with a coyote, instead of telling the truth; that he entered on the Santrina with Santiago Álvarez, Osvaldo Mitat, Pepín Pujol, Rubén López Castro and Gilberto Abascal? What difference did it make? A lot.
It’s illegal to help a person enter the United States without a visa, however the penalties are enhanced if the human contraband is a terrorist. Posada Carriles´friends on the Santrina could get as much as 30 years in prison for secreting him into the country. That’s why he Posada lied. He wanted to protect his friends, and that’s why Santiago Álvarez and the rest of the crew conspired to cover-up the real details of the Santrina trip.
Posada’s only concern
Gilberto Abascal’s statements show that the only real worry aboard the Santrina in March 2005 was the interview that Posada had given Ann Louise Bardach not how to deceive Immigration. They had planned that very well. Their true concerns had to do with the interview that he had given Ann Louise Bardach, a journalist from The New York Times, in June 1998. Posada bragged to her that he was the mastermind of the bombings in Havana. One of the bombs killed Fabio di Celmo, a young Italian, in the Copacabana Hotel on September 4, 1997. Abascal told the jury today, "I heard Santiago Alvarez tell Posada: ‘what’s going to hurt you is what you told the journalist’."
Grateful to his friends who had smuggled him into Miami, Posada gave each of them one of his paintings, said Abascal. "I lent mine to the girlfriend I had at the time, and "she later told me that she threw it away. I could never get it back."
Posada’s defense strategy consists of discrediting Abascal, showing the jury that he’s a liar, mentally ill and a spy. The cross-examination was fierce. Hernández asked him about the false statements that he had previously made on his federal tax returns, and the false statements about his income in connection with his divorce. Abascal admitted having made mistakes, but he firmly insisted that he’s telling the truth about how Luis Posada Carriles entered the United States.
His testimony was coherent and firm. He even scolded Hernández on several occasions: "Ask me questions, but don’t try to confuse me," he told him. "Please lower the tone of your voice. I’m not being disrespectful to you."
The jury’s impatience
The jury began to grow impatient. Hernández, for instance, took the whole afternoon to establish that Abascal had sworn to tell the truth about his income yet made false declarations. The prosecutor interrupted the cross-examination several times in order to consult with Judge Cardone privately. Some members of the jury expressed their annoyance. They looked at one another, some raised their eyes toward the ceiling, others consulted their wristwatches impatiently, and one of the seven women on the panel sighed loudly.
The jury will decide this case, not the judge. These jurors have jobs, families and commitments. They don’t like the idea of spending several weeks stuck in court, especially if they think that the lawyers don’t respect their time. Too many delays and interruptions in a trial militate against an impartial decision.
Tomorrow we’ll continue at 8:30 in the morning. Hernández will summarize his cross-examination and will probably concentrate on the accusation that he made a few days ago: that Abascal is a "spy for the Cuban government." We shall see.
José Pertierra practices law in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela in the case to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.
Translated by Manuel Talens and Machetera. They are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity.