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To Cuba, a Terrorist; to the U.S., a Quandary

Times Staff Writers

Luis Posada Carriles, an aging anti-Castro militant and prison escapee wanted by Cuban authorities as a terrorist, was seized by federal immigration officials in Miami on Tuesday.

Now the Bush administration, which has pursued both the war on terrorism and a hard-line policy against Fidel Castro’s regime, must decide what to do amid growing international demands that Posada be held accountable for his past -- including his alleged role in an airliner bombing more than 30 years ago.

Posada, 77, was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a private residence in the Miami-Dade County area.

Posada has been hunted, captured and lost again over three decades as a militant-in-exile who sought the overthrow of the Castro government. He surfaced in the Miami area in March, saying he had illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at Brownsville, Texas, “without declaring” himself, and then asked for asylum.

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Cuba has urged the United States to extradite Posada to Venezuela, where he faces charges in connection with the airliner bombing, but U.S. officials said they were not actively looking for him because he was not wanted for a crime in this country.

Federal agents moved against Posada after he gave an interview to the Miami Herald on Monday and then held a news conference Tuesday. At that news conference, in nearby Hialeah, Fla., he said he would not seek political asylum in the U.S. if that would “cause a problem” for the American government.

Yet cause a problem is exactly what Posada seems to have done.

Federal officials said immigration rules gave them 48 hours to decide on Posada’s status. That appeared to mean that by Thursday afternoon, authorities would have to either allow him to continue staying here under a political asylum application -- which could be seen as harboring a terrorist -- or figure out what else to do with him.

On Tuesday, just hours before U.S. officials confirmed that they had Posada in custody, Castro led a crowd reportedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands past the U.S. mission in Havana and called the United States hypocritical in the war on terrorism for not arresting Posada.

“This is not a march against the people of the United States,” Castro said. “It is a march against terrorism, in favor of life and of peace.”

Castro has castigated the U.S. about Posada’s presence in Florida in regular television addresses, questioning how he could enter the country undetected given the increased border security after Sept. 11 and calling for his extradition.

The U.S. does not extradite people to Cuba or to countries acting on Cuba’s behalf.

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This month Venezuela formally requested that Posada be sent there. The Bay of Pigs veteran, who collaborated with the CIA, escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 while awaiting a legal appeal in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner en route from Caracas to Havana. Many of the 73 people killed in the explosion were young Cubans returning from an athletic competition.

Posada also is wanted in Cuba on allegations that he masterminded that explosion. And he has been implicated in a string of bombings at Cuban tourist sites in 1997; an Italian visitor was killed in one of the explosions.

Among Florida’s Cuban exiles, there has been no major groundswell of support for Posada. Luis Martinez-Fernandez, director of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said he thought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made violence in service of a cause seem less palatable.

Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told the Chicago Tribune that he did not believe that Posada’s detention would spark protests among Cuban exiles in Miami because of the “lack of moral certitude” of Posada’s militant campaign.

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“This is not Elian,” said Fernandez, referring to Elian Gonzalez, the shipwrecked boy whose plight sparked an outpouring of support among Cuban exiles in Miami five years ago.

“The politics of passion needs to be black and white, and in this case it’s murky. He was morally suspect.”

Appearing at a Hialeah warehouse Tuesday, Posada spoke in Spanish and broken English. He began by saying: “My first words are for my compatriots who suffer in the captive island of Cuba.”

He disavowed any role in the airplane bombing, declaring that “it was an abominable act, and I had nothing to do with it.”

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Posada said he had taken a polygraph test in connection to the explosion, which occurred over Barbados. “The results of the test exonerate me,” he said.

As to the United States, he said: “I respect the laws of this country” and he pledged to withdraw his asylum application if it complicated matters for the government.

“I have lived for more than 30 years underground,” he said. “If my petition for asylum could create any problems for the government of the United States of America, I’m willing to reconsider that petition.”

If Posada does withdraw his petition, that still leaves the U.S. in the sensitive position of deciding what to do with a man whom many in the international community have branded a terrorist.

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William R. Knocke, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said the agency “has 48 hours to make an official determination of his immigration status.” Knocke added that “there are additional legal restrictions on [his] removal due to international treaty obligations.”

He said that the U.S., “as a matter of immigration law and policy,” does not remove people to Cuba or to “countries believed to be acting on Cuba’s behalf.”

Christina Perez Gonzales, an attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. in Los Angeles, suggested that the government might have to bend the rules and extend its hold on Posada beyond the 48-hour limit.

“Where are they going to send him to?” she said. “He may end up staying in immigration detention for quite a while until they figure it out.... There are cases of this happening before, when an individual doesn’t have a country to go back to.”

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Victor Nieblas, a deportation expert and adjunct law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the government could buy time for making a decision on Posada by extending his petition for asylum and having the immigration courts take up his case.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said that “just because the U.S. is campaigning against terrorism doesn’t mean that people should be handed over to countries without the rule of law.”

He predicted that “Castro will be enormously pleased” with the dilemma for the U.S. and would exploit the situation to his own advantage.

“This whole issue,” he said, will be “cleverly manipulated by Havana.”

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