Testimony From GOP Miami Candidate Helped Acquit Notorious Cuban Bomber

In Little Havana, it was an open secret that Luis Posada Carriles had blown up a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people. And many observers later suspected Carriles was also behind a series of 1997 attacks on Cuban hotels that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 others.

But in a 1998 interview with then-Telemundo TV host Maria Elvira Salazar, the anti-Castro terrorist seemed to outright confess to those hotel attacks.

"I accept responsibility for any act in Cuban territory against the Havana regime," Posada told Salazar on her show Polos Opuestos. In a follow-up TV appearance the next day, Salazar stated on-air that Posada "admitted masterminding the explosions that happened in Cuba last year."

But when Salazar was called to the stand years later in a 2011 federal trial against Posada that hinged on whether he had in fact orchestrated the bombings, she changed her tune and testified she did not know whether the infamous bomber had confessed to killing innocent people.

Now that Salazar has won the GOP primary to challenge the seat being vacated by retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, some others involved in Posada's trial say Salazar's testimony was at best unbelievable and at worst an outright attempt to cover for the bomber.

"She became the mouthpiece for Luis,” says former New York Times journalist Ann Louise Bardach, who also testified at the trial but said Posada had indeed confessed to the bombings.

Although Salazar's campaign promised an interview with New Times to discuss her testimony, the former journalist did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Her campaign manager, Jose Luis Castillo, said instead that Salazar was committed "to talking about the issues that matter to voters, like job creation."

Salazar's testimony in the Posada case is just the latest controversy linked to her days as a prominent Spanish-language news host. During the Republican primary, her opponents pulled clips from a 1995 interview she once conducted with Fidel Castro that showed her calling him "comandante" and "un revolucionario por excelencia," suggesting she was soft on the Cuban dictator. Salazar said the clips were "poisonous" and taken out of context to the point of being defamatory.

Those attack ads ultimately did not work. She won the Republican nomination last month for the District 27 congressional seat by a huge margin over former Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and a candidate who says she was abducted by aliens.

But Salazar's history with Posada actually suggests the opposite of the "pro-Castro" attacks she faced in the primary.

Posada first became famous as a planner of the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs. After the invasion fizzled, the CIA trained him in sabotage techniques and the use of explosives, as well as guerrilla tactics. Posada served at Fort Benning alongside famed Cuban-American power broker Jorge Mas Canosa. While Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) have long denied supporting Posada, the bomber himself said he received funding from Mas.

In 1976, Posada, his partner Orlando Bosch, and others founded the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), a group even the FBI listed as an "anti-Castro terrorist organization." CORU orchestrated a series of machine-gun attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations in Cuba, and when Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 exploded in 1976, killing all 73 people aboard, including teenage members of the Cuban national fencing team, U.S. intelligence agencies fingered Posada as the perpetrator. He denied committing the bombing until the day he died, but most experts believe CORU was behind the attack. Declassified FBI files show Posada was at meetings where attackers planned the bombing.

Posada then helped the CIA ferry supplies to right-wing Contra paramilitary forces in Nicaragua. Posada was shot in the face in 1990 and lost parts of his jaw and tongue; he said Mas' CANF paid for his medical bills.

When luxury Havana hotels began exploding in 1997 — killing Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo — many again suspected Posada's hand.

Posada didn't wait long before taking credit for the attack. In 1998, Bardach and writing partner Larry Rohter, then the Times' Miami/Caribbean bureau chief, scored an on-the-record interview with Posada. In a taped interview at a "walled Caribbean compound," Posada explicitly told Bardach that he orchestrated the hotel bombing and suggested he'd received support from Mas and other prominent exilios in Miami. The story set off a firestorm. Rumors had swirled for years that prominent Miamians supported terrorist attacks against the Castro regime, and here was Posada saying the quiet part loudly.

Posada, though, claimed to hate the article. According to court testimony, he sought out another media figure so he could recant his statements to the Times and take pot shots at Bardach, Rohter, and the newspaper. He said he found a willing participant in Elvira Salazar.

Of course, any journalist worth their salt would have taken Posada up on his offer of an interview. But critics say Salazar used her platform to help whitewash Posada's role in the attacks.

In Salazar's 1998 Telemundo interview, Posada railed against the Times and claimed he intentionally "misled" the newspaper's reporters by using false information. He said he fingered Mas as a "supporter" only because he was already dead and could not sue Posada for libel. And he bragged about allegedly getting one over on Bardach and Rohter, who were "naive" enough to print his statements, Posada said. He claimed he told the Times "a series of things that were not true" to protect his real backers, whom he did not name. (The Times stood by its story, though it appended a clarification stating Mas did not pay for Posada's bombings.)

In the years between the 1998 interview and the 2011 court case, Salazar interviewed Posada and Bosch on TV multiple times, including one CNN en Español interview in which Posada and his lawyer Arturo Hernandez were brought on TV to rail against FBI informant Gilberto Abascal, who'd testified against Posada before returning to Cuba. (Many observers criticized the fact that, after working with the FBI, Abascal wound up living in a fancy Cuban estate with a pool.)

In the meantime, Posada was arrested in 2000 in Panama on charges he'd allegedly tried to kill Fidel Castro. But he beat that case, and eventually, both he and Bosch moved to Miami and took up landscape painting as a hobby.

Luis Posada Carriles
Luis Posada Carriles
Carlos Barria/Newscom

In 2011, the feds finally charged Posada, although not specifically for the terrorist attacks. Instead, he was indicted for allegedly lying to immigration officials in El Paso, Texas, about whether he'd ever carried out political violence in other nations. Many experts believed the charges were a "make-up" attempt to hold Posada accountable for his actions after the feds had clandestinely supported his violence for years.

Either way, the bombings in Havana were central to the government's case, and Salazar was called to the stand to discuss her interviews with Posada. According to an El Nuevo Herald news report from that year, Salazar testified she was not certain the bomber had taken credit for the 1997 attacks.

"Did Mr. Posada specifically take responsibility for the attacks?" Posada's defense lawyer asked.

"Not specifically," Salazar responded.

In an account of the events written for the Cuban state-run website Cubadebate, writer José Pertierra wrote that Salazar claimed the Cuban government was waging a "disinformation campaign" against both her and Posada.

Posada was later acquitted of lying to immigration officials and died this past May at the age of 90.

Bardach says she believes that Salazar's news programs were free platforms for Posada and his allies and that Salazar appeared eager to shield Posada from criticism and to help him when called to testify at trial.

Bardach also told New Times she was floored to hear Salazar's claim in court that she had heard from "others" that Bardach was "biased." In fact, Bardach said Salazar had doggedly tried to get her to appear on Salazar's TV program with Posada and had repeatedly tried to flatter Bardach by calling her a "great journalist." Bardach mentioned the incident in her 2002 book, Cuba Confidential, in which she wrote that Posada, unhappy with her journalism, tried "another approach" with a more conciliatory Salazar.

Of course, Salazar is far from alone in giving Posada a friendly platform. Many Spanish-language TV reporters interviewed Posada and Bosch in their day, and the Miami Herald has also been accused of treating Posada with kid gloves. Bardach once wrote that El Nuevo Herald worked as a "pro-bono publicity arm" for Mas' pro-Posada CANF.

But Salazar's involvement went a step further when she testified in his criminal case. Posada's alleged masterminding of the 1997 bombing was central to the case. Testifying in a case like this is exceedingly rare for a journalist. Bardach and the Times initially fought hard against Bardach taking the stand. She eventually relented and told the court that Posada had reached out to her because he did not like the way the Miami Herald had written about his alleged attacks.

Salazar, meanwhile, stated she believed having Posada on her TV program would increase viewership.

"I wanted to interview Posada Carriles to boost the ratings for my show,” she reportedly testified.

Salazar faces a difficult path to Congress this November. She's campaigning against the well-funded, well-known Democrat Donna Shalala in a district that voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But among the older Cuban GOP base, it's unlikely Salazar's relationship with Posada would cost the former TV host many votes. To many older Cubans who fled the Castro regime, Posada is considered a hero and freedom fighter. Voters have regularly elected politicians who are open about supporting Posada: Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado once wrote a letter to federal authorities in Posada's defense, for example.

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