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El Paso Diary: Day 21 in the Trial of Posada Carriles

A Gentleman on the Stand

by JOSÉ PERTIERRA

At 9:00 a.m. sharp, Judge Kathleen Cardone entered the courtroom. Her last encounter with the defense attorneys and prosecutors had been exactly one week ago, when the judge continued the trial to "calmly deliberate" about whether to grant either of the pending motions from Luis Posada Carriles’ attorney: one calling for a mistrial, the other calling for a dismissal of the first three counts of the indictment. Those counts pertain to the false declarations made by the defendant about the 1997 bombings in Havana.

We could all feel the tension in the courtroom. Judge Cardone extended the attorneys a bleak greeting, and Prosecutor Timothy J. Reardon, III, as he does first thing every morning, stood and politely approached the podium. "Good morning, Your Honor. The government is ready for the trial," he said, knowing full well that the judge had not as yet ruled on whether to halt the proceedings. The lead defense attorney, Arturo Hernández, also stood and from counsel table cheerfully greeted the judge.

Judge Cardone’s decision

"The Court would first like to address the defense counsel’s motions for a mistrial or for a dismissal of counts 1, 2 and 3 of the indictment," said Judge Cardone. She then pulled out a piece of paper and read her decision out loud.

The legal impasse between the parties arose from defense counsel’s allegations that the prosecution had failed to disclose certain "exculpatory" documents before the expiration of deadlines laid down earlier by Judge Cardone.

According to attorney Hernández these so-called "exculpatory documents" show that a key government witness—a criminal investigator from Cuba—is biased against Posada Carriles and had fabricated evidence in an unrelated case several years ago.

The defense counsel also alleged that the FBI knew, yet had failed to disclose, that a secretary in Guatemala, Cecilia Canel, had made statements seemingly exculpating Posada Carriles from responsibility for the bombs that exploded in Havana in 1997 and that the government had withheld two FBI reports that are favorable to the defense’s theory of the case.

As prologue to her decision, Judge Cardone read aloud from the defense counsel’s written motion of February 11 some of the allegations against the government concerning the exculpatory evidence. She looked firmly at the prosecutors and said, "This court has set orders for discovery deadlines. I find that the government has not met those deadlines and has withheld documents from the defense attorneys. What’s more," said the judge, "if the defense had not found out on its own that these documents existed, the prosecution probably would not have turned the documents over."

"I have reflected long and hard on this," said Judge Cardone still staring at the prosecutors. She paused. At that moment, the fate of the government’s case against Luis Posada Carriles hung by a thread. Government attorney Bridget Behling stole a furtive peek at her colleague, Jerome Teresinksi, who sat to her left. She looked worried. So did he.

"I have asked myself whether the government has made an untimely disclosure," Judge Cardone continued. "The answer is affirmative," she declared. "Has the defendant been prejudiced by the untimely disclosure?" she mused.

Without articulating an answer to her last question, the judge suddenly stated, "I am going to deny the motions …" She paused a moment before adding "…for now." "But I am warning you," she said to the prosecutors, "If this kind of thing should happen again…" Her voice trailed off. She didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t have to.

Judges rarely declare a mistrial for failure to meet discovery deadlines unless there is evidence of prejudice to the defendant’s due process rights. Here Judge Cardone did not find such prejudice and therefore could not take such a radical decision as a dismissal.

"Anything else before I convene the jury?" the judge asked. Attorney Hernández, who began the morning brimming with confidence, mumbled a disappointed "no." He didn’t even bother to embellish his reply with the customary "Your Honor."

The jury comes in

The gavel sounded three times. The guard opened the side door to the courtroom, and the jurors slowly filed in to their seats. None had the slightest idea why they had been given so many days off other than what Judge Cardone had told them a week ago—that there were some "legal matters" that needed to be resolved.

After the jurors were seated, the witness returned to the stand. "It’s been a long time since you were last here," said government attorney Timothy J. Reardon to the witness. "Please give the ladies and gentlemen of the jury your name." With that question, Reardon resumed the direct examination of Roberto Hernández Caballero. It’s been almost two weeks, since the witness testified. He was dressed today in a light green suit, with a black shirt and black tie.

A Game of Football at Hyannis Port with President Kennedy

The lead prosecutor is a veteran Justice Department litigator. His father, Timothy J. Reardon, Jr., was a very close friend of President John F. Kennedy and one of his closest aides in the White House. Decades ago, father and son played football at Hyannis Port with the Kennedy clan.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy delivered the eulogy for Reardon’s father in 1993. He told of the time a young Timothy J. Reardon, III, intercepted a football thrown by the recently elected President Kennedy. His father made him return the ball to the President, because "you must never intercept the pass of the President-Elect of the United States."

Today the boy who intercepted President Kennedy’s pass is an experienced litigator with the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division and is responsible for prosecuting a former CIA agent who has been the mastermind of much of the terrorism unleashed against Cuba during the last fifty years—a terrorist campaign that originated in Washington.

A new paradigm?

Government policy is only a memorandum, a record of an agreement policymakers may retract tomorrow. For decades, the United States Department of Justice has given anti-Cuban terrorists a pass. Things may be changing.

It is significant that its Counterterrorism Unit is prosecuting Posada Carriles with the full collaboration of the Cuban government, using as a star witness a lieutenant colonel from Cuba’s counterintelligence unit as well as documents prepared by forensic specialists in Cuba. The American Justice Department’s Counterterrorism team working hand in hand with the Cuban Ministry of the Interior’s Counterintelligence team to stem five decades of U.S.-sponsored terrorism against the island is a new paradigm for U.S.-Cuba relations.

Terrorists in our midst

As the historian Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archive, told me, "After the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedys unleashed a wave of violent exiles against Cuba through Operation Mongoose as well as more autonomous actions." The purpose of the CIA undercover operation known as Mongoose was to destroy the Cuban revolution. Its plans included the assassination of President Fidel Castro and other leaders, the use of sabotage and attacks on civilian targets. Terrorism was a favorite weapon of the United States in its undeclared war against Cuba.

The head of Operation Mongoose was the then U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, from the same Justice Department where Timothy J. Reardon, III, now works. While still attorney general, Kennedy began distancing himself from the Cuban extremists of Operation Mongoose.

Author David Talbot described Robert Kennedy’s conundrum with the so-called Cuban exiles. "As he tried to establish control over CIA operations and to herd the rambunctious Cuban exile groups into a unified progressive front, Bobby learned what a swamp of intrigue the anti-Castro world was. Working out of a sprawling Miami station code-named JM/WAVE that was second in size only to the CIA’s Langley, VA, headquarters, the agency had recruited an unruly army of Cuban militants to launch raids on the island and even contracted Mafia henchmen to kill Castro—including mob bosses Johnny Rosselli, Santo Trafficante and Sam Giancana, whom Kennedy, as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee in the late 1950s, had targeted. It was an overheated ecosystem that was united not just by its fevered opposition to the Castro regime, but by its hatred for the Kennedys, who were regarded as traitors for failing to use the full military might of the United States against the communist outpost in the Caribbean."

Robert Kennedy’s growing understanding of the mentality of these Cuban extremists led him to suspect them of assassinating President John F. Kennedy. On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Kennedy called zEnrique "Harry" Ruiz-Williams, a Bay of Pigs veteran and one of the leaders of the Cubans involved in Operation Mongoose, and told him point-blank, "One of your guys did it."

After President Kennedy’s assassination, the United States government continued to rely on the Cuban exiles for its dirty war against Cuba. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, they were also used to help prop up military dictatorships and repressive governments in Chile, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere. Posada Carriles was dispatched to Venezuela to head the Special Operations division of the country’s intelligence service—the DISIP. In later years, he helped train death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, becoming eventually a "special adviser on security" to Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo.

As Posada Carriles’ own attorney, Arturo Hernández, told the Court in pleadings he filed months ago, "Everything that my client has done has been in the name of Washington." During opening arguments to the trial now under way in El Paso, defense counsel told the jury, "Luis Posada Carriles has been an ally of the United States his entire life. Always on the side of our country."

Have things changed? If so, has 9-11 changed them so much that the United States is now going after the terrorists it unleashed against Cuba and Latin America for decades?

Although it is true that Washington is not prosecuting Posada Carriles for terrorism or murder, it has indicted him for perjury and obstruction of an investigation into international terrorism. Some of the alleged false declarations he made involve immigration infractions, but others have to do with a campaign of terror against Cuba in 1997—that resulted in the murder of a thirty-two-year-old Italian businessman in Havana named Fabio Di Celmo.

Has the torch been passed to a new generation of prosecutors at the Department of Justice?

The Bombs

This morning Reardon showed the Cuban investigator, Hernández Caballero, several photographs from the places in Cuba where a series of bombs exploded in 1997: the Copacabana, Chateau Miramar and Tritón hotels, as well as the most famous restaurant in Cuba La Bodeguita del Medio. Two weeks ago, Reardon had shown him similar photos of the bombing damage at the Meliá Cohiba and Capri hotels, as well as at the most representative of Cuba’s hotels El Nacional. The jury listened attentively to the Cuban investigator as he described the photos while looking intently at the photographs on their personal television monitors.

"We can see there the bar in the lobby of the Copacabana Hotel. The entire right side was destroyed by an explosive device," said the investigator. "That bloodstain on the floor is from the person who was wounded and later died from the wounds he suffered in the explosion," the witness pointed out.

Defense counsel shot up from his seat and objected. "This witness is not competent to offer an opinion about cause of death," he said. Posada Carriles’ attorney also does not want the jury to hear that Fabio Di Celmo bled to death as a result of a piece of shrapnel launched by an explosion at the Copacabana Hotel.

He is also counting on the jury never learning that the bomb was placed at the hotel by a Salvadoran named Raúl Cruz León at the urging of Francisco Chávez Abarca and under the direction of Luis Posada Carriles. Both Cruz León and Chávez Abarca confessed, and Posada Carriles boasted the following year to the New York Times of being the mastermind behind the crime.

Raúl Cruz León admitted to Cuban authorities that he arrived at the Copacabana on September 4, 1997 at around 10:30 a.m., sat down in the lobby/bar, and asked for a "Bucanero" beer, before going to the bathroom to assemble and activate the bomb that he deposited in the base of a metal ashcan located at the right hand corner of the bar. When he finished his beer, he exited the hotel, leaving behind the bomb that took the life of Fabio Di Celmo.

"How far away from the blood was the focus of the explosion?" asked Reardon. "Just 5 or 6 meters," answered the investigator. The prosecutor did not ask and the jury did not realize that the hotel also suffered damage from broken glass, a suspended ceiling, lamps, furniture and the floor of the bar, valued at $16,700.60 Cuban pesos and more than $3,000 U.S. dollars.

"How many places did you go on September 4, 1997, where there had been explosions?" asked the prosecutor. "To three places in the morning and one more that night. Four in all," answered the witness. That day, bombs exploded at the Copacabana, the Chateau Miramar, the Tritón hotels, and finally at the Bodeguita del Medio restaurant.

With the assistance of the photos, the witness described to the jury the destruction at the Chateau Miramar. While he was there investigating, another bomb went off at the Hotel Tritón, just 3,000 meters away. "I got there in five minutes," said the witness.

"When I arrived at the Tritón," Lt. Col. Hernández Caballero told the jury, "There was already a group of experts on the scene. The alarm and worry on the faces of the guests and workers at the hotel was evident. The location of the explosion was also visible." The witness commented that three consecutive explosions had taken place in a brief period of time.

While the Cuban investigator testified, Posada Carriles’ attorney held his glasses in his hand, nibbling on them, while scrutinizing the members of the jury. It was as though he was trying to read their minds. The jurors paid no attention to him. They were concentrating on Hernández Caballero’s testimony. Reardon showed the witness photo after photo.

"You can see in this particular photograph one of the aluminum beams that was violently severed and landed against the wall of the Tritón’s lobby," the witness pointed out. "This other shows the back of the sofa that was thrown 15 to 20 meters by the force of the explosion. It landed at the hotel entrance," he added.

The Cuban investigation established that the Hotel Tritón suffered damage to glass in the lobby, display cases and doors, its suspended ceiling, lamps and furniture, of $3,661 dollars. The same Raúl Cruz León placed the bomb at the Tritón Hotel–between the planters behind the sofa, close to some children from Spain who were vacationing in Cuba with their parents. One of them, just 14 years old, alerted the guard on duty, who immediately evacuated the children and everyone else in the lobby. There was no time to deactivate the device before it exploded. Thanks to the alertness of the Spanish boy, there were no deaths or injuries at the Tritón.

The jury doesn’t know any of this, because it is not part of the case against Posada Carriles. In El Paso, he is not on trial for murder—only for perjury.

Reardon showed the Cuban investigator another photo of the Hotel Tritón. Hernández Caballero explained, "This is a photo from just before the bomb’s explosion. There were some children…" At that, Posada Carriles’ attorney objected. "That is beyond the scope of the witness’ personal knowledge, Your Honor. It’s hearsay," he said. The judge sustained the objection.

Except for the details of the photographs shown to them, therefore, the jury will not get to hear much of what happened at the Tritón Hotel on September 4, 1997.

The fourth bomb on September 4, 1997 exploded at the Bodeguita del Medio restaurant in the heart of Old Havana. "It’s possibly the most famous restaurant in Cuba," said the investigator as the jury members listened to him closely. "The explosion was at around 11:50 p.m.," said Hernández Caballero. "I arrived there at 1:00 a.m."

Reardon showed him several photos of the Bodeguita. "This is the part of the restaurant where the explosive device went off," he said, pointing to the Terrace Bar located on the second floor.

Although the El Paso jury won’t ever learn it, the Cuban people know that Cruz León admitted to having placed the bomb behind a refrigeration unit on the restaurant’s second floor, on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, after having ordered some drinks and roasted meat. He confessed to having programmed the timer on the bomb so that it would go off approximately seven or eight hours later. Reardon showed the Cuban investigator another photograph from the restaurant. "This is the crater caused by the explosion," said the witness. "Pieces of the ceiling fell on some Mexican tourists who were eating downstairs and injured them."

The limitations of the U.S. judicial system prevent the witness Hernández Caballero from saying that the Mexican tourist, Marco Polo Soriano Villa suffered a head injury. Or that Juan José Huerta Lluviano, another Mexican tourist suffered a mild concussion and a one-centimeter scalp wound. And that Ramón Soriano Ledesma, Octavio Soriano Ledesma and Nicolás Rodríguez Valdés were also wounded in the explosion. The purpose of Hernández Caballero’s testimony in El Paso is simply to establish that there were explosions in Havana in 1997. Nothing more. Having met the goal, Prosecutor Reardon ended the direct examination of Roberto Hernández Caballero.

An agitated Posada Carriles

During the break, Posada Carriles stood up to nervously ask one of his attorneys, Felipe Millán, when "la Bardach" would testify (Ann Louise Bardach, the New York Times journalist, to whom he boasted of having been the mastermind of the 1997 explosions in Havana). He also asked Millán about María Elvira Salazar, a Miami television journalist who also interviewed him about the matter. In that interview Posada is clearly heard to have said, "I have no remorse whatsoever, and accept my historic responsibility. They can call me whatever they want. The only option that we Cubans have is to fight a violent regime with violence."

Posada Carriles was also visibly upset when he heard the Cuban investigator describe the destruction left behind by one of the explosions. He blurted, "Está loco."

The cross-examination

Arturo Hernández, Luis Posada Carriles’ lead attorney, approached the witness and began the cross-examination in a solemn tone. He asked the witness his name, his birthplace (Matanzas, Cuba) and his profession. But the Miami attorney did not contain his hostility toward the witness for long. "Whom do you work for?" he asked. "Isn’t it true that you work for the Castro regime?"

"I work for the Cuban government. The Interior Ministry. The Directorate of Criminal Investigations and Operations, the Department of Crimes Against State Security," said Lt. Col. Hernández Caballero calmly. "Isn’t it true that you work for counterintelligence?" Posada Carriles’ attorney asked accusingly, as if it were illegal to be so employed. "Yes," said the witness, "I work investigating crimes that affect Cuban state security, but mainly I am an investigator."

"During a trial in the city of Tampa in 1997, you were asked if you worked for the DGCI. Is that true?" asked the attorney. "Yes. I work for the Directorate of Counterintelligence," answered Hernández Caballero. "But I’m not a counterintelligence expert. I investigate the facts after the crimes have occurred."

Defense counsel continued his barrage, "Yet you never told us that you worked for the DGCI."

"Because no one asked me," answered Hernández Caballero.

The defense attorney then whipped out the trick he had been keeping up his sleeve for the Cuban witness.

"Don’t you remember that in 2001 you testified in Miami in the case of the five Cuban spies and denied ever working for the DGI?"

Lt. Col. Hernández Caballero smiled, sipped a little water and savored it before answering. "I don’t work for the DGI. One thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other," he answered amiably.

The Miami attorney obviously doesn’t know that the DGCI is one thing (counter-intelligence) and the DGI something else (intelligence). They are different institutions in Cuba. Hernández Caballero works for one, but not for the other.

In Spanish, caballero means gentleman. When Hernández Caballero testified in the case of the Cuban Five in Miami, one of the defendants in that case, René González Sehweret, said he had been "a gentleman on the stand." And that’s also how he conducted himself in El Paso.

The lawyers skirmish

"Your Honor, I want to make a proffer," said attorney Hernández. In legal parlance, a proffer is a preliminary offering of what will later be shown by testimony or other evidence.

To allow him to make his points outside the presence of the jurors, Judge Cardone dismissed the jury. She then asked the Cuban witness to step outside.

"We’re going to establish that the mission of this witness is to conduct investigations, so that this [Castro's] tyrannical regime can continue to exist," said Posada Carriles’ attorney. "This has been a complete bamboozlement of the jury by the Government to present this witness as a cop, an FBI agent or an investigator," he continued. "This person falsifies documents," he insisted, without proof. "The purpose of Castro’s intelligence services is to kill or jail my client," he alleged, practically shouting. "It is the will of the dictator."

The judge then gave the floor to Reardon, but immediately tried to take it away.

Reardon began his rebuttal with a retort made famous by Ronald Reagan during his 1980 Presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, "There you go again."

"There is a back door to the front door," Reardon continued. He was referring to a decision Judge Cardone made some weeks ago in which she had prohibited the defense attorney from turning the case into a trial against Cuba in order to divert attention from Posada Carriles.

But Judge Cardone cut Reardon off before he could say more.

"Your Honor," insisted Reardon, by now very irritated. "The Court has given the defense counsel every opportunity to lay a foundation for his arguments. May I be given the same opportunity as Counsel? This court has been very liberal with the defendant, but the Court must draw a line when bias is invoked. This is way beyond the pale. Defense counsel is now confusing the jury," said Reardon. He then reminded Judge Cardone, "This witness is here to testify about the places where bombs exploded."

Posada Carriles’ attorney always insists on having the last word, and he managed to do so again. "This is unbelievable naiveté by government counsel," said the Miami attorney. "The DGI and the DGCI [here the attorney appeared to have at last understood that the agencies are not the same] have engaged in extraterritorial murders in the United States and around the world. This is bias that needs to come out. If the Court allows me to call witnesses, we will show what Villa Marista is all about," he concluded.

After listening to Posada Carriles’ attorney, Judge Cardone ruled that although this case is not against Cuba, she would allow defense counsel to inquire about the witness’ bias against Posada Carriles, thus opening the door to questions and accusations against Cuba. "This is a plea for pity and jury nullification," said Reardon, greatly irritated.

Respect

The judge then reconvened the jury. "Are you a communist?" snapped Posada Carriles’ attorney, pronouncing the word communist as if it were a sexual perversion. "Isn’t it true that you have fabricated evidence? Do you know Cuba’s position on the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes? Isn’t it true that Castro’s regime is a sponsor of terrorism?"

Posada Carriles’ attorney unleashed a barrage of accusatory questions on the witness with no link to the issues related to the case at bar.

"These questions poison the jury," Reardon objected. "I overrule the objection," said the judge. "You may proceed with your questions, Mr. Hernández." And proceed he did: with question after question meant to impress upon the jury the notion that the witness is a communist who fabricates evidence and probably tortures people at a mysterious detention facility in Havana. Posada Carriles’ attorney didn’t offer any proof for his allegations. He didn’t have to. After all, as Judge Cardone has said repeatedly during this trial, "this is cross-examination."

Unruffled, the Cuban investigator responded to all of the questions. "Yes, I’m a member of the Communist party. No I have not fabricated evidence. I don’t know the details of Cuba’s official position on the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. No, Cuba neither sponsors nor supports terrorism."

Tomorrow, Posada Carriles’ attorney will continue with his cross-examination of the witness. Today he was unable to score any points. He found himself up against a professional investigator who answered every question respectfully despite the disrespectful questions put to him by Luis Posada Carriles’ attorney.

Lt. Col. Roberto Hernández Caballero remains a formidable witness, and it will be difficult for defense counsel to impeach him. He led the investigations into the bombings in Havana. He was easily able to identify the bombing scenes and describe them in detail to the jury. All the prosecutors want him to do on the stand is to evidence that bombs exploded in Havana in 1997. Today, he did that in spades.

José Pertierra practices law in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela in the case to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.

Translated by Machetera and Manuel Talens. They are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity.

Spanish language version: http://www.cubadebate.cu/especiales/2011/02/11/diario-de-el-paso-arenas-movedizas