Published January 10, 2011
DORAL, Fla. – Fidel Castro's nemesis has filled the walls of his Miami-area condo with his canvases: Revolutionaries on horseback charging Spanish soldiers; dark waves crashing against the shore; the sun setting on a peaceful farmer.
For some Cuban exiles, avowed militant Luis Posada Carriles is like the horsemen, a patriot who has long battled a fearsome oppressor. To his foes, Posada is like the waves, a dangerous force responsible for Havana hotel bombings, assassination attempts on Castro and one of the deadliest pre-9/11 airliner explosions.
To others, the 82-year-old is simply the farmer, a harmless relic living out his twilight.
Lawyers began picking jurors Monday in El Paso, Texas, to hear Posada's trial on federal charges connected to the decade-old bombings that killed an Italian tourist.
The case has been more than four years in the making, and Posada has spent much of that time painting his thoughts and memories. His art says much about the cagey former CIA asset, who remains a lightning rod in much of Latin America.
Publicly, Posada has remained much like the first painting — defiant. Cocky even.
"If Castro came through the door, I'd kill him, not because I hate him but because I'd kill a cockroach too," Posada told The Associated Press during a series of interviews in Spanish and English from the home where he has stayed since he was released in 2007.
Privately, the fear of a long prison sentence has weighed heavily.
Posada painted several versions of the turbulent waters following his arrest in 2005 on charges of lying about how he arrived in the U.S., and about whether he tried to cover up involvement in the 1997 hotel bombings so he could obtain U.S. citizenship.
The Texas case likely marks the last opportunity, albeit indirectly, for Posada to be tried in the bombings or any other terror crime.
"The CIA created and unleashed a Frankenstein," said Peter Kornbluh, head of the independent National Security Archive's Cuba project. "We unleashed him on the world."
Cuba, which is providing thousands of pages of evidence and two police officers to testify against Posada in a trial that is expected to last weeks, contends he hired two men to carry out the hotel attacks as part of a plot to hurt tourism on the communist island. U.S. prosecutors have filed detailed FBI documents linking Posada to the bombings, including reports from Cuba.
The trial also could underscore what critics consider the lax treatment Posada has received compared to others accused of orchestrating terrorist acts outside the U.S, and it will likely antagonize some of Miami's politically powerful Cuban-Americans, neither a welcome prospect for the Obama administration, which inherited Posada's case.
Posada claimed to have sneaked across the Mexican border into Texas. Prosecutors say he actually arrived in Miami on the boat of a longtime benefactor using a fake passport.
Although he pleaded not guilty, Posada did not deny prosecutors' version to the AP, noting that for years he entered the U.S. under false identities while working with the CIA and other organizations.
On good days, Posada believes the U.S. government won't try to put him away for long. He has done too much for it, including informing on fellow exiles as far back as the 1960s and helping Oliver North supply Nicaragua's Contra rebels two decades later.
He hopes his knowledge about U.S. intervention in Latin America will protect him. Much of the evidence in the trial has been sealed at prosecutors' request.
On bad days, Posada recognizes times have changed, that he's no longer useful enough to the U.S. to be immune.
The white-haired, slightly stooped octogenarian's face is pocked with bullet scars from a 1999 assassination attempt that makes speaking and swallowing difficult.
"The people who worked with me from the government are not the same the ones there today. It was other times. For those there today, I am a bad guy," he acknowledged.
Under his bail agreement, he was not allowed to associate with many of his oldest friends, and an electronic ankle bracelet was a constant reminder of the limits of his freedom.
Still, he did manage to see a number of his former associates and passed the time with his children and their families.
"If I go to jail, my life ends in jail," he said in a darker moment. "Everything is finished."
Posada prefers talking about his art and is quick to show off self-portraits drawn from half-century old photos of himself as a dashing young Castro opponent with a shock of black hair.
The Posada from the sketches, a chemist by trade, arrived in Miami in 1961. Like many of his contemporaries, he participated in the U.S.-backed, ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. He joined the U.S. military, graduated from officer training at Fort Benning, Ga., and soon became a CIA asset, maintaining contact with the agency even after he moved to Venezuela in the late 1960s to head that country's intelligence agency.
Secret files from the 1960s, released in 2009, showed Posada's CIA contacts considered him a moderate if calculating player in covert operations back then, no risk at all to embarrass the agency or the U.S.
"A15 is not a typical kind of 'boom and bang' individual," CIA handler Grover Lythcott wrote on July 26, 1966, using a code name for Posada. "He is acutely aware of the international implications of ill-planned or overly enthusiastic activities against Cuba."
The CIA has since said it cut ties to him around the time he was linked to a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that took off from Venezuela.
The explosion killed all 73 passengers, including members of the Cuban national fencing team. Posada was acquitted twice by a Venezuelan court, and in 1985 escaped from prison there while being held on a government appeal. Soon after, he began helping the Contras, who were fighting Nicaragua's leftist government, according to congressional testimony. He is wanted in both Cuba and Venezuela, but the U.S. does not extradite to those countries because of fears he could be tortured.
On Monday, about 30 protesters in front of the federal courthouse in El Paso hoisted signs in English and Spanish denouncing Posada as a terrorist. Down the block, a smaller group waved American flags and signs calling him a patriot and American hero.
Posada is well aware of the international attention he draws. For Cuba, Posada signifies Washington's hypocrisy — the U.S. lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terror yet refuses to hand over a man who admitted in a 1998 New York Times interview that he was involved in the Havana bombing plot.
Posada has since repeatedly denied any involvement. When the AP asked about the interview and the crimes, Posada initially said he didn't hear or understand the questions, then mentioned his lawyer, then stopped, laughed and shrugged.
For some Cuban exiles, Posada represents defiance of U.S. politicians' desires to placate the communist island and their seeming preoccupation with human rights abuses there only during election cycles.
"He's a hero," said Blanca Hidalgo, 62, who helped organize a daylong fundraiser co-sponsored by a Miami radio station for Posada's legal defense fund. "He's the only living leader who continues the fight. If others had been like him, we wouldn't be in this situation."
There is something else. Next to the self-portraits, a sketch of Mother Teresa and a tasteful nude, sits a drawing of former Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso — a reminder of how many powerful people have protected Posada over the years.
After he was convicted in Panama in connection with a 2000 attempt to assassinate Castro there, all three members of South Florida's Cuban-American congressional delegation at the time, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, wrote letters to Moscoso persuading her to pardon him. He was released in 2004 and disappeared until he popped up in Miami in the spring of 2005.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado was among those who petitioned for his release from federal custody two years later.
And he maintains his international contacts. Following the coup in Honduras in 2009, Posada informally advised Joaquin Nodarse, whose family owns one of the country's biggest TV stations, as he briefly considered a presidential run.
Posada sees no reason not to stay in the thick of it. Even he says if Castro truly wanted him dead by now, he would be.
Besides the 1990 attack by unknown assailants in Guatemala, Posada was the target of at least one other assassination attempt. And it is Posada's survival that is perhaps his greatest achievement.
Much of his efforts could be said to have been in vain or backfired. Whether he was involved, the airline bombing became a cause celebre for Cuba, as did the Havana bombings.
Castro, though he turned over power to his brother and his health is failing, remains influential in Cuba, and Posada must still send money to the island to help feed his aging sister and brother.
These days, visitors don't come around to see Posada so often. His painting sales have fallen off.
He has even begun to talk about one day going home to Cuba, where billboards across the island denounce him as public enemy No. 1, some of them likening him to Hitler.
Among Posada's latest works are paintings of trees bursting with flamboyant red blooms. Beneath them, a man boats along a tropical river toward a stretch of sunlight.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.