HAVANA – A Salvadoran man jailed in Cuba in connection with a string of 1990s hotel bombings says he told a U.S. prosecutor that he got explosives and money directly from a former CIA operative now on trial in Texas, and that he is willing to testify against him.
Otto Rene Rodriguez told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday that he received powerful C-4 explosives and $2,000 in cash directly from Luis Posada Carriles to carry out an Aug. 3, 1997, bombing at Havana's Melia Cohiba hotel. He was captured trying to enter the country on a subsequent trip with 1.5 kilos (3.3 pounds) of C-4 that Posada had given him, he said.
"Truthfully, looking me in the eyes he cannot say he doesn't know me," Rodriguez said. "He does know me. He used me like a tool."
Posada, 82, is not on trial directly for the bombing campaign — but rather for allegedly lying about his involvement to federal authorities during immigration hearings after he sneaked into the U.S. in March 2005.
Cuba's decision to make Rodriguez and another confessed bomber, Ernesto Cruz Leon, available for the AP interview was part of an effort to show its willingness to help in the U.S. case against the Cuba-born Posada, who is considered Public Enemy No. 1 on his native island.
The interviews were conducted one-after-another at a spacious government house in a residential neighborhood of Havana with Cuban officials present.
Rodriguez and Cruz Leon both said they agreed to be interviewed voluntarily and were not pressured or offered any preferential treatment in return, although Rodriguez said he hoped his continued cooperation might help him get out of jail sooner. Both men had their death sentences commuted to 30-year terms in December.
There was no way to independently verify their stories.
Prosecutors in El Paso, Texas, could not immediately be reached Tuesday evening, though in the past they have declined to comment on the case, citing government rules. Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the American diplomatic mission in Havana, said she had no immediate comment.
Posada admitted responsibility for the bombing campaign in a 1998 interview with then New York Times reporter Ann Louise Bardach but later recanted. She has been subpoenaed to testify at the trial.
The bombing campaign, which was designed to cripple Cuba's then-budding tourism industry, killed an Italian national and wounded about a dozen people.
Rodriguez, a pudgy 52-year-old with a thin white mustache and tiny white ponytail, said he came to know Posada in San Salvador in 1997, but the latter was using the alias Ignacio Medina at the time. Prosecutors have argued at the trial that Posada used various aliases, among them Medina.
Rodriguez said Posada presented himself as a Cuban freedom fighter, and expressed interest in Rodriguez's services after learning he had military training and was ideologically allied with El Salvador's right-wing government in a civil war against leftist rebels.
"An American prosecutor came here and talked to me, and I promised that if I needed to testify against (the man I knew as) Ignacio Medina, I would," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez's story could be an important piece of the case against Posada, though he said that up until now he has not been asked to testify. He said he could not recall the name of the U.S. prosecutor who visited him in jail along with four FBI agents in late 2009 or early 2010.
Posada was on the CIA payroll from the early 1960s until 1976. He participated indirectly in the Bay of Pigs invasion and later moved to Venezuela, where he served as head of that country's intelligence service. He was arrested for planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. A military court dismissed the charges, then Posada escaped from prison before a civilian trial against him was completed.
In the 1980s, he helped Washington provide aid to the Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua's leftist government. In 2000, he was arrested in Panama in connection with a plot to kill Fidel Castro during a summit there. He was pardoned in 2004 and turned up in the U.S. the following March, seeking American citizenship and prompting the immigration hearings that led to the current charges against him.
Cuba has complained bitterly that Posada has never been brought to justice for the bombings and other terrorist acts, and that even now the most serious sanction he could face on the charge of lying to immigration officials is likely to be well under 10 years in jail.
A Cuban medical examiner and an Interior Ministry investigator were to take the stand in El Paso on Tuesday, but their testimony was delayed at least one day after the defense raised a series of objections.
In his interview, Cruz Leon, who has admitted setting the bomb that killed Italian Fabio di Celmo, said he never met Posada personally, but has no doubt he was the force behind everything.
He said he was paid and given explosives by another Salvadoran, Francisco Chavez Abarca. Chavez Abarca, who was arrested in Venezuela last year and extradited to Cuba, has acknowledged his role in the bombings, and testified at his Cuban trial that he was working for Posada.
"I am simply a soldier who they sent to a war that wasn't mine, and which I never should have gotten mixed up in," Cruz Leon said.
He also said he was interviewed by the U.S. prosecutor, but was not asked if he would be willing to testify at Posada's trial.
Both Cruz Leon and Rodriguez gave interesting details of their time in Cuban prison, most of it spent on death row.
They said they were held together along with others convicted in the bombings in a special area of the maximum-security Guanajay jail, near Havana, which Cruz Leon described as "a jail within a jail."
Both said they were treated with respect, and they have earned more favorable treatment as time has gone by. They said they spend most of the day together in a common area, are allowed to grow vegetables in a small garden inside the prison, and have been given an oven to cook their own food.
Cruz Leon said he was even granted permission to have a cat in his cell, his companion for 10 years before it died of old age last month.
A polite 39-year-old in a checked polo shirt and smart black shoes, Cruz Leon said he is a devout Roman Catholic and carries a deep sense of remorse about the death he caused.
"I think I am going to hell, because I took a life and that cannot be forgiven," he said.