- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

The most obvious tipoff that the four men had lethal intent was the 33 pounds of explosives police found in their possession. Eventually, they were convicted of plotting to assassinate a head of state.

To some, it looked like a clear case of international terrorism. To others, the four were freedom fighters trying to liberate their homeland.

The scene of the attempt was Panama in November 2000. The perpetrators were four Cuban exiles. Their target, prosecutors said, was Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was due in Panama to attend a summit conference.

Debate over the case has resurfaced with last week’s decision of Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso to pardon the four. Among some Cuban-Americans in Miami there was jubilation. The Cuban government was furious. The State Department declined to criticize Mrs. Moscoso’s action.

“This was a decision made by the government of Panama,” State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. “We never lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon anyone involved in this case, and I’d leave it to the government of Panama to discuss the action.”

Rep. William Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, said he was stunned to learn of the pardon, adding the State Department loses credibility in refusing to voice outrage over the release of people he says are “assassins,… terrorists.”

Mrs. Moscoso announced the pardon six days before the end of her term as president. President-elect Martin Torrijos was taking the oath of office Wednesday in the presence of Secretary of State Colin Powell and other foreign dignitaries.

The State Department response may have been influenced by election-year politics, particularly the administration’s interest in keeping the Cuban-American vote in President Bush’s column this November, much as it was in 2000.

Cuba has long complained about what it sees as a U.S. double standard on terrorism. It insists the United States harbors countless criminals from the pre-Castro military regime. It also alleges the United States has done nothing to prevent armed attacks by Florida-based anti-Castro groups on the island.

In response, the United States maintains Cuba supports groups on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and provides a haven for numerous fugitives from U.S. justice. Cuba is one of seven countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Mrs. Moscoso said she decided on the pardon for humanitarian reasons, claiming she feared her successor would extradite the men to Cuba, where they would await a firing squad.

The circumstances of the pardon suggest close cooperation between the Panamanian government and wealthy Cuban-Americans in South Florida, one of whom chartered two small planes that picked up three of the exiles shortly after their release.

The fourth was Luis Posada Cariles, whom Mr. Castro has described as “the worst terrorist in the hemisphere.” He is believed to be in Honduras.

Mr. Posada left Cuba after the 1959 revolution and has spent much of his life seeking Mr. Castro’s ouster. He trained for the CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, though his group did not reach shore He is wanted by Venezuelan authorities for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian jetliner that had taken off from Caracas. All 73 aboard were killed.

Mr. Posada and his colleagues say they were in Panama to help a Cuban official defect. They say they were framed by Cuban agents.

Many in South Florida consider the four heroes. Shortly after the convictions last April, more than 400 people turned up at a $100-a-plate fund-raiser in Miami to help cover the costs of an appeal. Their sentences ranged from seven to eight years.

With the pardon, no appeal was needed, and there were hugs and handshakes last Thursday as a welcoming crowd greeted the three exiles at Opa-locka Airport in Miami.

One, Guillermo Novo, was quoted by the Miami Herald as saying: “I dreamt of this day, but I did not have the confidence that it would come. This is a triumph…. It was the Cuban exile community that did this.”

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for the Associated Press since 1968.

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