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María Elvira, the Afternoon Diva

Although the Justice Department called María Elvira Salazar to the witness stand, she testified in favor of Posada Carriles.

Government prosecutors wanted Salazar to corroborate Posada Carriles’ admissions that he was behind a sequence of bombings in Havana in 1997, one of which killed a thirty-two-year-old Italian businessman, Fabio Di Celmo.  Salazar interviewed Posada Carriles for a Miami television station, and he answered her question about the bombings by claiming responsibility.

The Diva

María Elvira, as she’s known in Miami, took the stand in an elegant red shoulder scarf and a casual blue suit, looking every bit the Spanish-language television personality she is.

Although she often says that she would have preferred to become a missionary, her employer—MEGATV in Miami—touts her as one of its “afternoon divas.”

The witness told the jurors that she was born in Miami and calls herself a Cuban American.  She said that she began a career in journalism in 1984 and now works for MEGATV.  She has her own Spanish-language hour-long program Monday through Friday on matters that are of interest to the Miami community.  “I’m a very respected journalist in South Florida, especially among Cubans, Venezuelans and Mexicans,” Salazar declared with pride.

Last year, she told Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, “I’m like Oprah.  Being an independent producer allows me to choose who works with me and how much they earn.  Since I manage the budget, I can decide if I should buy a video of Fidel Castro in his underwear.”

The Posada Carriles interview

Prosecutor Timothy J. Reardon, III, conducted the direct examination.  He went straight to the point and asked her whether she had ever met Luis Posada Carriles.  “Yes, I met him in 1998, when I interviewed him for the Telemundo network,” she said and added that the interview lasted an entire day, “although we aired it in three segments over consecutive days.”

She readily admitted the reason she wanted to speak to him.  “I wanted to interview Posada Carriles to boost the ratings for my show,” she said.

Wanting to lay a proper evidentiary foundation for its eventual submission into evidence, prosecutor Reardon showed Salazar a written transcript and a CD.  “This is a transcript of the interview, and the CD is my recording.  It has my voice and the voice of Mr. Posada,” stated Salazar.  Her declaration was what Judge Kathleen Cardone needed to accept both items into evidence.

After a brief sidebar, the prosecutor and the defense attorney agreed that the best way to proceed was simply to play the entire recorded interview on the courtroom monitors, so that the jurors could watch it.  The video is subtitled in English, and the jurors were asked to follow along by reading from the bilingual transcript that was provided to them.

Using a small laptop computer that she controlled from the prosecutor’s table, Government attorney Sue Ellis played the videotaped interview for the jury.  For the first time, the jurors in El Paso actually saw Luis Posada Carriles speaking—although his face only appeared in silhouette, because that is the way it was recorded at the time to conceal his identity.

Earlier in the case, we’d heard the defendant’s voice on some recordings made by the Immigration Service during interviews conducted in 2005 and 2006, but those were only audiotapes.  The Salazar interview is a videotape, and the jurors could see Posada Carriles while he spoke.

No one believes that Posada Carriles will take the stand in El Paso.  In the United States, the defendant is not required to testify, and his attorneys are reluctant to expose their client to even more charges of perjury.  Therefore this videotape will be the only opportunity the jurors will have to view and evaluate Posada Carriles’ demeanor as he makes allegedly inculpatory statements.

Posada: “I have no remorse.”

Among the highlights of the interview is an apparently compromising statement by Posada Carriles. “I have no remorse whatsoever, and I accept my historical responsibility.  The only option we Cubans have is to fight a violent regime with violence,” he says to María Salazar on the videotape.

Prosecutor Reardon did not ask Salazar many questions.  He preferred that the videotape speak for itself.  He twice played a snippet of the interview, where Salazar asked Posada Carriles about a series of bombs that exploded in Havana in 1997.  “It was you who thought of them, who organized them and sent people to place them?” Salazar asked him.  The ex-CIA agent replied, “For any action that takes place within Cuban territory, against the regime in Havana, I take responsibility, I am guilty.”

A boast or a confession?

Instead of opening fire on the witness, during cross-examination—as he usually does—defense counsel Arturo Hernández simply asked Salazar if Luis Posada Carriles is well thought of in Miami.  “He’s someone that the Cuban exile community holds in very high esteem,” answered the television personality from Miami.  “He has dedicated his entire life to eliminating Fidel Castro and the regime that is in power in Cuba.”

Attorney Arturo Hernández then asked that Salazar view, once again, the part of the interview in which Posada Carriles says, “I accept my historical responsibility.  The only option we Cubans have is to fight a violent regime with violence.”

“Did you take this as a rhetorical admission of a historical nature, or is he is assuming responsibility for a series of specific acts?” asked the defense attorney.

Salazar responded, “My impression is that he was taking credit for all the different attacks that have taken place in Cuba against the regime.  He was boasting about things that he might—or might not—have done.”

“One single person cannot assume responsibility for all actions in Cuba over the last 50 years, can they?” asked Hernández.

“True.  He was boasting there.  It’s not possible to take responsibility for everything that has been done there,” stated Salazar.

Then attorney Hernández asked Salazar the key question of the day for him, “Do you know if Posada Carriles admitted being responsible for the series of bombings in Havana?”

“No.  His answers were ambiguous,” said the Cuban-American television personality from Miami.

To avoid his client’s conviction, a defense attorney always looks to spark some doubt in the mind of at least one juror.  Here attorney Hernández was trying to raise doubts about the apparently inculpatory statements that Posada Carriles made to María Elvira Salazar in the television interview that the jurors watched in court.

“Have you experienced boasting from any of those you’ve interviewed?” inquired Hernández.

Salazar chuckled.  “Of course,” she said.  “They all boast.  For example, Posada told me that he wanted to return to Cuba to launch an armed attack.  They already blew away half his face.  If he returns to Cuba, they’ll kill him.  During his interview with me, he was boasting.  That is where this interview lost all credibility with me,” the correspondent stated, ending her words with resounding laughter.

“Do you know if the Castro regime is waging a disinformation campaign against Posada Carriles?” asked the defense attorney, seemingly enchanted with Salazar and laughing with her.

With a bemused expression still on her face, María Elvira looked at the defense attorney and said, “Not just against Posada but against me, too.  They have even threatened me personally.”

Hernández did not ask about the threats that Salazar claims to have received.  Instead, he turned to Judge Kathleen Cardone and announced that he had no more questions for the witness.  The judge then called a 15-minute recess.  She stood up and exited the courtroom through the side door.

Posada Carriles was giddy over Salazar’s testimony.  “No, no, no, it was great,” he said to his attorney within earshot of those of us in the audience. “Did you see?  You asked her questions and she laughed, she laughed,” he added.

The prosecution tries to recover

The prosecutors took advantage of the recess to discuss how to handle the witness they still had on the stand.  Timothy Reardon, Jerome Teresinski and Bridget Behling—the three prosecutors—went off by themselves to talk.  Omar Vega, the lead FBI agent on the case, joined the impromptu meeting.

When the gavel sounded three times to announce the return of the jury, Reardon approached the podium to question Salazar again.  This time, the tone of his questions changed, as though she were a hostile witness.

“What is your opinion of Fidel Castro?” asked Reardon.

“I have very strong feelings against Castro,” answered Salazar.

“Do you support the use of violence against Cuba?” the prosecutor inquired.

Salazar hesitated a moment before responding warily, “Not necessarily, but I think that the Cuban army should remove Castro from power.”

“You testified that Posada Carriles wanted to give you an interview to clarify certain things from the New York Times reports.  Is that true?” Reardon asked.

“Certain people told me that they knew that I am an unbiased, impartial reporter and that Bardach [the journalist who interviewed Posada for the New York Times] is very biased.  Posada wanted to say the real truth, rather than what the New York Times said that he said,” Salazar replied.

Long live America

Reardon then turned again to the interview Posada Carriles gave Salazar in June of 1998.

He asked her to tell the jury, “If you thought—as you stated during the cross-examination done by the defense counsel—that Posada dodged your questions about his responsibility for the string of bombings in Cuba, why did you change the subject and not insist that he answer the questions you were putting to him?”

“It was a television interview.  I moved on.  It wasn’t something for the courts, where there is so much nitpicking,” answered Salazar.

“Nitpicking?” asked the prosecutor.  “Surely you don’t think that we are here in court analyzing inconsequential things?”

Embarrassed, Salazar told Reardon that she didn’t understand the proper meaning of the term nitpicking.  She said, “I didn’t mean nitpicking.  I meant detailed,” abruptly adding, “Long live America and the judicial due process of law.” By “America” she meant the United States—and not the continent.

Tomorrow, toward the essence of the case

After Salazar’s testimony, the prosecutors announced that tomorrow’s witness, Antonio “Tony” Álvarez, landed at El Paso’s airport only a few minutes ago.  Álvarez alerted the FBI in Guatemala in 1997 about Posada Carriles’ bombing plot against Havana’s tourist industry.  He also alerted the FBI about Posada Carriles’ plans to assassinate then President of Cuba Fidel Castro during a presidential summit in Venezuela.

Showing impatience with the slowness of the ongoing trial, Judge Cardone asked prosecutor Teresinski whether Ann Louise Bardach, another of the prosecution’s key witnesses, was in town and ready to testify after Tony Álvarez.

“She’s under a doctor’s care,” said Teresinski.  “We received an email from her attorney asking us to allow her to come on Monday.”

“She needs to be here by the day after tomorrow,” the judge said firmly.  “I’m not going to allow her to delay her arrival any more.”

The defense attorney quickly contributed his own position on the timing of Bardach’s testimony, “We oppose a delay,” said attorney Hernández.

Ann Louise Bardach is the New York Times journalist to whom Posada Carriles admitted being the mastermind of the sequence of bombings in Havana in 1997.  Bardach has been reluctant to testify in this case, and the prosecution has had a labored engagement with the lawyers who represent her before willing the battle and forcing her to commit to flying to El Paso to testify.

Probably expressing too much confidence that the case might move full speed ahead in the next few days, Teresinski told Judge Cardone, “We’d like to finish the Government’s case in chief by the end of the week.”

This observer, however, anticipates new legal skirmishes between the attorneys that will inevitably delay the proceedings beyond the Government’s optimistic target date.

Tony Álvarez and Ann Louise Bardach are the two star witnesses against Posada Carriles, at least regarding the part of the case that has to do with the bombings in Havana in 1997.  The defense attorney will do everything possible to impede their testifying, and Bardach’s personal attorney will do the same.

An aside

One of the most controversial events in the FBI’s management of the Posada Carriles case is the destruction of its investigative record.  Ann Louise Bardach broke the story that the head of the FBI’s Miami office, Hector Pesquera, gave the order before retiring that the documents be destroyed by his successors.  Pesquera has a long history of fraternizing with leaders of extremist Cuban exile groups in Miami.

Because the FBI destroyed its own files in 2004, the prosecutors have had to battle in El Paso with nothing more than copies of certain key documents, such as the money orders to Posada Carriles from New Jersey.

Last week, FBI Agent Omar Vega testified that an Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Department of Justice office in Miami inexplicably decided to close the case and authorized the destruction of the FBI files.

Agent Vega didn’t name the Miami prosecutor.  Two months ago, however, a Department of Homeland Security prosecutor told the jury in El Paso that she had asked the person in charge of the Posada case at the Justice Department in Miami to indict Posada Carriles on criminal charges, and the prosecutor refused.  The witness identified that prosecutor as none other than Caroline Heck Miller: the same prosecutor who inexorably pursued the Cuban Five with a cruelty reminiscent of Inspector Javert in his pursuit of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Might it have been Caroline Heck Miller who ordered the destruction of the FBI files in the Posada Carriles case?  If so, why?

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/noticias/2011/03/09/diario-de-el-paso-maria-elvira-la-diva-de-la-tarde

 

 

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José Pertierra is an attorney in Washington, DC.

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