By Ann Louise Bardach
June 19, 2005
Nor could he have confected a better scheme for diverting attention from Cuba's crushing economic woes and its growing ranks of dissidents.
Consider the justice dispensed to three Cubans: a fugitive wanted for terrorism, a distinguished military scholar and a popular crooner.
Exhibit A would be Luis Posada Carriles, fugitive and would-be assassin of Castro who is wanted by Venezuela for allegedly blowing up a civilian Cubana airliner in 1976, killing 73 people. Using a bogus passport, Posada crossed into the United States from Mexico in March, settled in Miami and blithely requested asylum.
For six weeks, he was undisturbed by law enforcement. Then, on May 17, he announced at a news conference that he had undergone a change of heart and would leave the country. He had no worries in regard to U.S. authorities, he said.
But his boasts were a bit much for the Department of Homeland Security, which, thus shamed, arrested him shortly after the news conference. Posada was charged with illegal entry at his arraignment June 13, which may seem like nailing Willy Sutton for pickpocketing, but he finally is in custody.
Now compare the Justice Department's casual approach to the Posada case with the treatment of Alberto Coll, a military expert of impeccable pedigree who is a dean at the U.S. Naval War College.
Coll, who made a daring escape from Cuba as a teenager, was a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney, then the Defense secretary, awarded him a medal for outstanding public service.
For many years, Coll defined himself as a conservative Republican and an anti-Castro hard-liner. (Coll's father served nine years in a Cuban prison for his opposition to Castro.)
In 1987, the late exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa asked Coll to serve as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Washington.
But to Cuba hard-liners in the current Bush administration, Coll committed the unforgivable sin. Deeply influenced by Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998, Coll slowly concluded that the U.S. embargo of Cuba was a doomed policy that, in fact, threw a lifeline to Castro.
Worse, Coll occasionally made his views public, infuriating the architects of Bush's Cuba policy, Otto Reich, the controversial former assistant secretary of State, and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Hence, Coll had to be destroyed.
The opportunity came in January, about six months after his 18-year-old daughter died in a car accident, which by all accounts left Coll devastated. Coll visited Cuba, as he has done legally over the years for research and to visit relatives. He noted on his visa that he would be visiting an aunt, which he did.
But he also had a romantic liaison with a childhood friend while seeking "a shoulder to cry on," his lawyer says. Coll did not note the rendezvous on his visa. It is the kind of semi-lie of omission committed routinely by thousands of Cuban exiles since the Bush administration instituted onerous restrictions on travel to the island last year.
Nevertheless, Coll's enemies pursued a vigorous yearlong prosecution — one that may well have cost taxpayers $1 million. Sources close to Coll believe that his liaison was discovered through secret wiretaps by the Justice Department at the behest of influential Cuban hard-liners.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, such Cuba-related investigations are allowed under the Patriot Act because the Bush administration deems Cuba to be a terrorist state.
For added measure, Coll's enemies initiated a slanderous whispering campaign in the Miami media, suggesting that he may have been involved in espionage, a charge without a shred of merit.
With legal bills close to $100,000 and overwhelmed at having to face a protracted trial, Coll agreed to plead guilty to making a false statement on a federal form. He faced five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but an incredulous judge reduced the fine to $5,000 and gave him one year of probation.
Still, he will lose his security clearance because he is now a felon, which also effectively sabotages his future with the military. But he has now made the history books as the Cuban American Dreyfus.
Finally, there is the case of Ibrahim Ferrer, the 78-year-old Afro Cuban Grammy Award-winning sonero from the Buena Vista Social Club.
Last year, Ferrer was nominated again and naturally wanted to attend the Grammy ceremony. But he was denied a U.S. visa on the grounds that he was a risk to national security. Yup, a geriatric, crooning security threat.
Hundreds of Cuban artists and scholars — many of them critics of Castro — have been barred from visiting the U.S. on the grounds of "national security" since the Bush administration instituted a litmus test demanded by Miami hard-liners.
The test: No high-profile Cuban artist gets a visa unless he or she is willing to publicly denounce Castro or, better yet, defect.
If you don't play Miami hardball politics, you don't get to come here.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who knows something about political hardball, has demanded Posada's extradition to stand trial for the Cubana bombing. He also has taken to lecturing the United States on terrorism and human rights. And Castro hasn't felt so good in a long time. This wiliest of strategists, he immediately grasped that no matter the outcome with Posada, it is a win-win for him.
All of which raises a few sobering questions: Is the administration capable of assessing authentic security risks in its war on terrorism? Can it distinguish between actual threats and political enemies? And finally, can it devise a policy toward Latin America that doesn't serve up frothy propaganda for the strongmen of Cuba and Venezuela?
Because with enemies like us, Castro really doesn't need any friends.
Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana," editor of "Cuba: A Traveler's Literary Companion" and director of The Media Project at UC Santa Barbara's Center for Film, Television and New Media.
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