By Trevor Bach
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As journalistic flareups go, it was hardly on the scale of Newsweek igniting a fresh round of Middle Eastern jihad. Still the May 17 secret press conference and subsequent arrest of legendary anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles was a classic, only-in-Miami media moment, one in which a flock of reporters hungry for a "War on Terror" scoop collided head-on with the White House's persistent wooing of South Florida's Cuban-exile community.
Posada himself, at age 77, is a walking slice of Cold War history, better suited to a Graham Greene novel than a dispassionate newspaper account. Declassified U.S. government documents portray a Cuban exile who trained for the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and quickly landed on the CIA's payroll, an "asset" running covert operations against Fidel Castro throughout the Caribbean, while still finding time to procure explosives for former Las Vegas mobster Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal.
By the Seventies, U.S. policy may have settled into a state of uneasy coexistence with Castro, but not Posada, who is believed to be the mastermind of the 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Imprisoned in Venezuela for that crime, he escaped in 1985, rejoining the CIA in El Salvador in their contra war against Nicaragua's Sandinistas. Posada hardly slowed down for the Nineties, taking credit in a 1998 New York Times profile for planning a series of bombings in Havana hotels that killed a visiting Italian -- an effort to stifle tourism there. Jailed in Panama in 2000 for yet another bombing plot against Castro, he was pardoned in 2004, eventually slipping into Miami this past March, where his attorney announced he'd be applying for political asylum.
Posada's welcome was anything but warm though. While the Cuban and Venezuelan governments angrily demanded his extradition, editorial pages around the country bristled at the notion of offering Posada sanctuary, sourly noting the ease with which he apparently crossed the border and avoided Homeland Security. ABC News's Ted Koppel opined on Nightline that in a post-9/11 environment, "when the U.S. is leading the global war against terrorism, it cannot appear to show tolerance for a man with Posada's background, even though he once worked for the CIA."
Although publicly skeptical that Posada was living underground in Miami, Bush administration officials were quietly reaching out to exile leaders here, attempting to gauge the reaction to deporting him. Was one man's terrorist -- at least in the eyes of that crucial Cuban-exile voting bloc -- another man's freedom fighter? "I believe they wanted a sounding board," state Rep. David Rivera told the Miami Herald of the Bush staffers who'd called him (and whom he refused to identify).
Journalists, meanwhile, feverishly scrambled for an interview with the elusive Posada. Jeffrey Kofman, ABC News correspondent for Florida and Latin America, spent several weeks in tortured negotiations with Miami developer Santiago Alvarez, alternately described as Posada's "friend" or "benefactor," and, most significant, owner of the boat on which Posada was allegedly smuggled from Mexico to Miami. (Posada claims a paid coyote guided him across the Texas border.)
"Very clearly, Alvarez's people wanted to humanize him. They told me that. Their objective was to let people see he's not the Devil," Kofman explains to Kulchur. But Alvarez was insisting on no pictures, only audio (a bit of a liability for a television interview), and on certain subjects being off-limits. "They were struggling for a way to make this only a positive story and not to address the more difficult questions. And it's my job to ask those tough questions. No one's going to tell us as journalists what we can put in a story."
It was the Herald that landed the exclusive chat with Posada on May 11 at an unidentified Brickell Key condo. The resulting front-page story made it impossible for the U.S. government to continue pretending Posada wasn't in Miami. Strangely, however, in a fugitive-abetting move that appeared to indicate some horse-trading with Alvarez, the Herald's story was held from print until May 17 -- the same day Alvarez told Kofman and other reporters he planned to whisk Posada out of the country, away from U.S. immigration officials and the threat of deportation to Venezuela. (The Herald story was reported by Alfonso Chardy and Oscar Corral, both of whom declined to comment on any dealings with Alvarez, referring questions to Herald city editor Manny Garcia, who did not return two telephone calls.)
But before this disappearing act, Alvarez had planned one last bold PR gambit: a clandestine May 17 news conference featuring Posada and a handful of invited press -- this even as federal authorities finally crawled into action, subpoenaing the New York Times for its 1998 Posada interview tapes.
At the New York Times's Miami bureau, reporter Abby Goodnaugh recalls Alvarez's phone call to her: "'You have to play by our rules'; that was the exact phrase he used." As Alvarez laid out his scheme, which seemed to be lifted from an old spy flick, Goodnaugh says she thought, "This is nuts." A driver would pick her up at a prearranged rendezvous point and take her to a secret location where Posada would wait. She would be allowed only two questions, and neither could address the 1997 Havana hotel bombings. Any cameras had to be submitted to Alvarez's people 24 hours in advance; they'd be handed back at the secret meeting, presumably after they'd been inspected for hidden tracking devices.