An exiled Cuban militant wanted by Venezuela in connection with the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner was released from jail Thursday and allowed to return to his home here to await trial on charges of violating immigration law.
The Bush administration's inability to keep former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles locked up sparked broad condemnation throughout Latin America and among critics of U.S.-Cuba policy. It also provoked accusations that the White House maintains a double standard on terrorism, punishing those who strike at the United States while giving shelter to a man who has admitted to deadly violence against his communist-ruled homeland.
An international fugitive for the last 22 years, Posada was arrested here in May 2005, two months after slipping into the United States, and sent to an immigration lockup in El Paso. A federal magistrate ordered him deported, but none of the countries contacted by the State Department would accept him.
Although slowed by age, incarceration and injuries sustained in bombings and shootouts, the 79-year-old Posada is seen in Latin America as a ruthless assassin so bent on destroying Fidel Castro's Cuba that he is willing to take innocent lives. Many of the 73 people killed aboard the Cubana de Aviacion plane were teenagers returning from an athletics competition in Caracas, Venezuela.
In 1997, an Italian tourist bled to death in a Havana hotel bombing for which Posada took credit during an interview with a journalist.
Posada, a Bay of Pigs veteran and a suspect in numerous plots to kill Castro, played a role in the Iran-Contra affair during his CIA service for the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
"Posada's release shows the Bush administration's position against terrorism for the cynical sham it is. It takes us back to one man's terrorist being another's freedom fighter," said Wayne Smith, a retired U.S. diplomat and Cuban affairs analyst.
Under the Patriot Act, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has had the option of declaring Posada a terrorist and detaining him indefinitely.
In a letter to the Texas court hearing Posada's request for release last fall, the Justice Department urged the court to keep him in jail because he was "an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks," a flight risk and a danger to the community.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also is empowered to keep Posada imprisoned by declaring his release a threat to stable international relations.
The Cuban and Venezuelan governments immediately denounced Posada's release.
"Cuba emphatically condemns this decision and holds the U.S. government entirely responsible for Posada Carriles being free in Miami," said Dagoberto Rodriguez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
The Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has given the case broad coverage, called Posada "the Bin Laden of the Americas" and blamed his release on inaction by Washington.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Castro, condemned the release as evidence that the Bush administration condones violence against political adversaries.
"We demand they extradite that terrorist and assassin to Venezuela instead of continuing to protect him," Chavez said at a political rally in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
Posada operated out of Venezuela during much of his CIA service and is a naturalized citizen of that country. A Venezuelan court tried him in the early 1980s in connection with the plane bombing, acquitting him on a technicality. He bribed his way out of a Caracas jail in 1985 while awaiting retrial, reportedly with money provided by a CIA colleague.
A federal grand jury in Texas indicted Posada in January on charges of violating immigration laws, citing inaccurate information in his application for naturalization.
He was transferred to a New Mexico jail pending a May 11 trial, but U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone in El Paso ruled two weeks ago that the immigration charges were insufficient to deny Posada bail.
With funds donated by fellow anti-Castro exiles in Miami, Posada posted $250,000 bail Wednesday and his wife, son and daughter put up a $100,000 bond to secure his release.
He was escorted here by federal marshals and was to be fitted with an electronic surveillance device. He has been ordered to remain in his Miami home except for visits to physicians or lawyers.
The government's failure to act to keep the militant jailed caused speculation that President Bush fears Posada might claim he was following U.S. government orders in carrying out violent acts during his decades of CIA service.
"The allegation will be that the administration didn't want to identify him as the terrorist he is for fear of him airing his dirty laundry, responding that 'I was your terrorist,' " said Peter Kornbluh, head of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, where he researches past covert CIA operations.
Posada's Miami attorney, Eduardo Soto, hinted in an interview last year that his client was privy to dark chapters in U.S. intelligence history but had kept silent out of loyalty to his adopted country.
In Havana, Camilo Rojo, the son of a Cubana de Aviacion official who died aboard the bombed plane, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that Posada's release showed "a lack of respect for all the victims of terrorism, not only in Cuba but throughout the world."