El Paso Diary: Day 18 in the Trial of Posada Carriles
By José Pertierra
For the first time in the history of the thorny relations between the two countries, the United States Justice Department used a Cuban law enforcement official as well as the findings of a Cuban investigation to prosecute a former CIA agent who led a decades-long terrorist campaign against Cuba. It’s true: the U.S. Government did not charge Luis Posada Carriles with terrorism or murder, but rather with denying that he had murdered and engaged in a campaign of terror. Even so, what is happening in El Paso is historic.
Still pending matters
Judge Kathleen Cardone took the bench at 9:00 a.m. sharp. We were all anxious. Yesterday defense counsel moved to continue the case to better prepare to cross-examine the Cuban witness. The defense also asked the judge to exclude from evidence any documents originating in Cuba. Attorney Arturo Hernández also moved to exclude the testimony of any witness that the United States government brought from Cuba. Judge Cardone promised us a decision on these motions by this morning.
Before convening the jury, the judge asked attorney Arturo Hernández to approach the bench. “Did you receive from the government the transcripts of the witness’ testimony in previous cases?” she asked him. “Yes,” conceded Hernández, “but the government has not given me the five Diplomatic Notes I asked for,” he complained.
Governments customarily communicate officially through Diplomatic Notes and Hernández insisted that he has the right to review the communications between Cuba and the United States. “The five Diplomatic Notes are not relevant to this case,” Judge Cardone ruled.
Her patience wearing thin, the judge then turned to Prosecutor Timothy J. Reardon. She asked him if he planned to qualify the witness as an expert. “Colonel Hernández Caballero will testify from his experience—his observations on the scene,” he responded. “He is here to establish that the bombing incidents in Havana occurred in 1997 and that he was present at all of the scenes except one,” Reardon added.
“And Dr. Ileana Vizcaíno Dime?” asked the judge. “She will testify about the autopsy she performed and the report she wrote,” answered Reardon, adding “as well as the photographs from the autopsy.” “The autopsy photos are not relevant,” objected Posada Carriles’ attorney. Hearing this last objection, Judge Cardone lost her patience. “Let me see if I am understanding you,” she said with annoyance. “You are opposing having the jury see the photos of the autopsy, because they’re not relevant?” she exclaimed, incredulous. “What do you think, Mr. Reardon?” asked the judge.
“This is a serious case,” answered the prosecutor. “The photos are relevant, because they corroborate the statement–I sleep like a baby– that Posada Carriles made to the journalist Ann Louise Bardach of the New York Times,” he said.
In an interview that Posada Carriles gave the New York Times on June 17, 1998 in Aruba, Bardach asked Posada about the death of Fabio Di Celmo. “It is sad that someone is dead, but we can’t stop…that Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.” This morning, Posada Carriles’ attorney told Judge Cardone that these declarations to the New York Times were simply innocent “reaction and commentary regarding the death of Mr. Di Celmo.”
Attorney Hernández added that he is prepared to stipulate that Fabio Di Celmo died “at a certain time in a certain place, but not as to how he died.” He said, “There are no photographs of Di Celmo dying or being autopsied. We only have photos of his cadaver after the autopsy was completed.”
Meanwhile, the jury remained in the waiting room without the least idea of what was happening inside the courtroom. The judge finally announced her decision: she would allow the Cuban witnesses to testify and hold in abeyance a decision on the admissibility of the documentary evidence until she could hear testimony about it.
“Are you ready for the jury?” asked Judge Cardone.
With that question, the judge informed the defense counsel that she was denying his motion to continue.
Who is Roberto Hernández Caballero?
The long-awaited moment had arrived. The Cuban witness entered the courtroom. In a light-colored suit, pressed shirt and matching tie, Roberto Hernández Caballero strode confidently toward the witness stand. He is a 47-year-old Cuban law enforcement official who has spent the last 26 years performing criminal investigations on the island.
“My work is similar to that of an FBI investigative specialist,” he told the jury in response to the first question that Reardon asked him. He explained that he has “a degree in Legal and Criminal Sciences and is a specialist in criminal investigations.” He also confirmed having completed a number of graduate-level studies, including one in fire investigations.”
Through his testimony, the prosecutor wants to prove to the jury that bombs exploded in a number of hotels in Havana in 1997, and that they were linked. The prosecution does not want to use his testimony to prove that Posada Carriles placed the bombs or that he sent someone to place them—that will be established by other witnesses and documents.
The bombs of ‘97
Using several photographs that the Cuban government shared with the FBI in 1998, Reardon asked the inspector from Cuba’s Interior Ministry to identify the places where explosions occurred in 1997, beginning with the bomb that exploded in the Aché nightclub at the Meliá Cohiba Hotel on April 12, 1997.
“This hotel is in one of the most populous areas of Havana, in a tourist zone visited by a large number of people. It’s a very important hotel, close to the Hotel Riviera,” explained the Cuban inspector to the Texans on the jury.
“I went personally to the nightclub at 5:00 AM,” testified Hernández Caballero. He explained that when he arrived at the hotel, “the first thing I observed was the huge destruction, especially in the bathroom, and the alarm among the workers.” He testified that the explosion had destroyed the washbasins in the bathroom, shattered the urinals and torn through the walls and roof.
Reardon showed the jurors three photographs showing the condition of the Aché nightclub immediately after the explosion. The photos piqued their curiosity. I noticed that when Reardon showed them one of the photographs, some of the jurors tilted their heads. Why? I thought. I then looked at the courtroom monitor. The photo was placed sideways and Reardon scrambled to straighten it. Several of the jurors giggled uncomfortably in a brief moment of levity, in the midst of the evidence of the terrorism that Cuba has suffered for more than 50 years.
Reardon then showed the inspector another photograph and asked him to describe what he saw. The witness pointed to “the crater caused by the explosion.”
The explosives expert next to counsel
Posada Carriles’ attorney did not remain silent during the direct examination of the Cuban inspector. He raised objection after objection. The judge rejected almost all of them. With an even more strident tone of voice than usual, his interruptions annoyed the prosecutor, but they could not quiet the inspector, who described in detail the crime scenes depicted in the photographs.
Some of the objections from Posada Carriles’ attorney seemed ridiculous. For example, attorney Hernández objected to the inspector’s use of the words crater and explosion. “He is not qualified to make that evaluation,” said the defense counsel.
Remember that yesterday we reported that attorney Hernández complained that he had not been able to find an explosives expert who could help him examine the evidence. A reader of this Diary made a very astute observation, “Why doesn’t he get his own client to give him some lessons?” True enough. Posada Carriles is an expert when it comes to bombs. The U.S. Army trained him in the use of explosives at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1962. It would be difficult for Hernández to find a better explosives expert than his own client.
What the witness wasn’t asked
The witness was not asked—and the jury does not realize—that Francisco Chávez Abarca confessed to having placed the bomb that exploded in the Aché nightclub in the Meliá Cohiba Hotel in April of 1997. At his trial, he confessed that Posada Carriles recruited him, trained him in the use of explosives, supplied him and paid him $2,000 for each bomb placed. Chávez Abarca said that Posada even “congratulated (him) for the bomb he placed at the Aché.” He is now a prisoner in Cuba, serving a 30-year sentence for terrorism. The prosecution wanted to depose him in Cuba, but Judge Cardone would not allow it.
The Cuban inspector went on to describe to the jury in detail the destruction he observed at the Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional in July of 1997. “The Hotel Nacional is Cuba’s most most iconic hotel, visited by presidents. It’s in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood,” he testified.
“When I arrived for the investigation, I observed the after-effects: the crater, the broken glass and the area where the telephones had been that was also destroyed by the explosion,” said the Cuban witness. The jurors took note and looked at the photos they were shown, including one from an explosion in the Meliá Cohiba Hotel on August 4, 1997 and at the Sol Palmeras Hotel on August 22nd of that year.
The murder of Fabio Di Celmo
But the photo that most impacted the jurors was the one of the lobby and bar at the Copacabana Hotel, shortly after the explosion that took the life of Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997. Fabio was only 32 when he was killed.
The inspector from Cuba pointed to “a very large bloodstain amongst the wicker chairs.” He said, “you can see the blood from the person who was wounded by the explosion.” He further explained that the photo showed “the bar area, and in the right-hand corner, we can see where the ashcan that was destroyed had been.” “Shrapnel from the ashcan was propelled by the explosion,” he testified. “This was the main focus of the blast.” Reardon asked the inspector to circle the blood pictured in the photograph and then to date and initial the circle. The witness did. The prosecutor asked him to do the same with the spot where the blast occurred.
Reardon waited a moment to allow the jury to take their time examining the photos of the explosion at the Copacabana. No one dared break the silence. The courtroom monitors showed the blood spilled from Fabio Di Celmo at midday on September 4, 1997, and the jurors stared at the photograph in stunned silence.
I thought of Giustino, Fabio’s father—and also of Livio, his brother. I remembered the photo of Fabio playing soccer that Giustino proudly displays in the restaurant that carries the name of his son. The restaurant at 17th and J streets in Havana’s Vedado district. I must admit that I had to look away from the monitor. It was difficult for me to look at the picture of Fabio’s spilled blood.
I looked instead in the direction of the prosecutor’s table. The attorneys had a number of blue volumes before them. The black lettering on the white labels read: Caso volcán. I saw the ones marked Volumes II, III and IV. I do not know their contents, but they appear to be the records of the Cuban investigation into the terror campaign waged by Posada Carriles in 1997.
Colonel Hernández Caballero came to testify in El Paso at the invitation of the U.S. Government. He headed the investigation in Cuba into the 1997 bombings. The prosecutors wanted him to tell the jury about the findings of his investigation.
“Giustino was the one who identified the cadaver,” Hernández Caballero told the jurors. Hearing the word cadaver hit me in the pit of my stomach. Giustino has always told me that the reason he moved to Havana is because he feels his son’s spirit alive there. Fabio loved Cuba, and Giustino has made it his mission to keep his son’s memory alive. All Giustino asks for is that justice be done. All of Cuba knows this, but in the United States few people even know his name.
From his prison cell in Colorado, Antonio Guerrero wrote Giustino a poem. In it he tells Giustino, “Even death is full of life, when the cause is worthwhile.” It is painful to see Fabio as nothing more than a cadaver. But the photograph of the cadaver bears witness to his murder. A Salvadoran named Raúl Cruz León killed him in cold blood. But Cruz León was only the hired gun. The mastermind behind Fabio’s murder was Luis Posada Carriles.
“Posada Carriles prepared the explosives”
On July 1 of last year, Venezuelan authorities captured another Salvadoran, Francisco Chávez Abarca, at the airport in Caracas. He was on an Interpol watchlist, as he was wanted on first-degree murder charges in Cuba. Six days later, Chávez Abarca was sent to Cuba to answer for the murder of Fabio Di Celmo and for a string of bombings at hotels and restaurants in Havana in 1997.
At his trial in Cuba last December, Chávez Abarca confessed that Luis Posada Carriles prepared the explosives that Raúl Cruz León placed in the Copacabana.
“Posada Carriles prepared everything for Raúl Cruz León, and I delivered it,” said Chávez Abarca. “With his own hands, Posada also hid the C-4 explosives in the portable television that Cruz León took to Cuba in 1997,” he continued. Those explosives were the ones that killed Fabio Di Celmo.
The day after the murder of Fabio Di Celmo, Luis Posada Carriles made a call from Central America to his friend Paco Pimentel who was then living in Venezuela. Cuban authorities have a recording of the call in which Posada told his friend, “Paco, have you been keeping up with everything? You have no idea, three in a row in three hotels in Miramar, all well synchronized and without any possibility of detecting the messenger, and this is just the beginning. I promise you that more messengers are on their way to Cuba to execute new actions.”
Miramar is a comfortable neighborhood in Havana. Among its many hotels are the Copacabana, the Chateau Miramar and the Tritón. Three bombs exploded within a few minutes of each other on September 4, 1997 at these hotels. One of them killed Fabio. “All well synchronized,” said Posada Carriles in that recorded telephone call the day after.
In June of 1998, in an unprecedented collaboration between the two governments, Cuban authorities provided the FBI with the evidence it had compiled in the investigation conducted by Roberto Hernández Caballero, today’s witness in El Paso.
Although Posada Carriles is not on trial for murder, the jurors now know that a series of bombs exploded in Havana’s hotels in 1997 and that one of them killed Fabio Di Celmo.
Jurors don’t know that Chávez Abarca confessed to recruiting Raúl Cruz León—and that he did so at the behest of Posada Carriles. They also don’t know that Posada assembled the explosives and secreted them into Cruz León’s television set. They won’t learn about Posada’s call to Paco Pimental the day after the explosions.
The indictment establishes the parameters of this trial, and it charges Posada Carriles only with false declarations and perjury, yet the truth is seeping out.
Next week jurors will hear Posada Carriles in his own voice, boasting to Ann Louise Bardach and Maria Elvira Salazar, two journalists who interviewed him, that he has no remorse and that he is the mastermind behind the bombs in Havana.
Anyone who heard Roberto Hernández Caballero’s testimony today or saw the photos showing the effects of the explosions now knows the reason why the Cuban Five were sent to the United States: to penetrate the extremist Cuban-American groups responsible for a campaign of terror against the island. The FBI knew it from the beginning. So did the White House. Yet the Five were tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and were given long sentences in U.S. federal prisons, while Posada Carriles remains free to enjoy the trappings of a comfortable life in the United States.
Perhaps this case will mark a much-needed turning point. Posada Carriles ought to be in prison and the Five ought to be free.
I learned that Leonard Weinglass, one of the key attorneys for the Cuban Five, is seriously ill in a hospital in New York. Let’s send him millions of abrazos. Lenny needs them.
José Pertierra practices law in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela in the case to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.
Translated by Machetera and Manuel Talens. They are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity.