When President Clinton in August offered clemency to 16 radical Puerto Rican nationalists, he was freeing members of two groups that were created in consultation with Cuban intelligence agents and that bombed more than 120 U.S. targets with Cuban support since at least the 1970s.
The link between Cuba and the Puerto Rican independence movement is rarely mentioned in news accounts of bombings and other violent acts, even though it has been an accepted fact among some counter-terrorism experts since the early 1960s. When a Senate subcommittee warned of the link in 1975, its report went largely unnoticed.
A two-year FBI investigation of the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery in West Hartford, Conn., documented in detail how Cuban support for the Puerto Rican independence movement played out on a day-to-day basis during the most violent period of the movement's modern history. But the results of that investigation, as it touched on the Cubans, were not disclosed until now.
The FBI collected what at times amounted to running accounts of conversations and meetings between Cuban intelligence agents and members of the pro-independence group Los Macheteros.
Based on the evidence, the bureau concluded in a confidential briefing memo: "Numerous court-authorized interceptions of conversations between the Macheteros leaders have determined that the Cubans support and direct the Macheteros at a firsthand level."
In addition to analyzing the FBI inquiry, the Hartford Courant spent six months investigating the links between the Puerto Rican independentistas and their Cuban contacts. It found that the violent nationalist movement--at least from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s--was an essentially unified movement supported by senior Cuban officials.
Clinton offered clemency to some members of the closely allied FALN, the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation, and Los Macheteros, "The Machete Wielders."
The FALN claimed credit for bombing scores of targets on the mainland United States. Los Macheteros, with the exception of the $7.1-million Wells Fargo robbery, limited itself to targets in Puerto Rico.
In its Wells Fargo investigation, the FBI learned that Macheteros leaders met most regularly with their Cuban contacts in Mexico City. But there was also less frequent travel to Cuba by the group's leadership. The meetings that took place outside the United States were monitored by the CIA.
According to the account of a former Cuban intelligence officer, Cubans in Mexico City provided Victor M. Gerena, the Wells Fargo guard who stole the money, with forged identity documents that let him escape to Havana. About a third of the stolen cash went to the Cubans, a variety of sources said.
The FBI determined that the Macheteros were meeting principally with four senior officers of the Cuban diplomatic-intelligence establishment. The Cuban agency most involved with Puerto Rican terrorism was the Department of the Americas, the agency responsible for Cuban intelligence operations in the Western Hemisphere.
When the FBI closed its Wells Fargo investigation in 1985, a group within the bureau argued that the Justice Department should list the four Cuban officers as unindicted co-conspirators in the Wells Fargo indictment.
A now-retired FBI counter-terrorism officer said he never learned why the Cubans were left out of the indictment. A Cuban source speculated that the State Department did not want to jeopardize indirect talks that could have affected Cuban activity in Africa.
"I don't think it was in Cuba's interest to assist in an armed robbery in the United States in 1983," the retired FBI officer said recently. "But the fact is, it did happen. And we documented it on tape. The thing that always amazed me was that it didn't cause a ripple. I was absolutely amazed.
"They were talking about Fidel [Castro, Cuba's president]. This was being decided at the highest levels in Cuba. This wasn't something the Cubans were spending a lot of time on. But the head of the Department of the Americas was involved."
The White House, asked whether Cuban support for the Puerto Rican nationalists was considered during deliberations leading to the clemency offer, repeated an earlier assertion that decisions about clemency are confidential.
The Puerto Rican nationalists have consistently dismissed suggestions of Cuban support.