HAVANA — Cubans on Tuesday protested possible U.S. asylum for a man they call the "Osama bin Laden of Latin America."
Hundreds of thousands filed past the American Mission in Havana, demanding that Cuba-born Luis Posada Carriles stay behind bars and be made to face terrorism charges.
The government-organized marchers carried posters of Cubans who they say died in terrorist attacks Posada allegedly masterminded both at home and abroad.
Since May, Posada has been held in an immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas, for illegally crossing the Mexican-U.S. border.
Shortly after Posada surfaced, the Supreme Court in Venezuela, where he escaped from prison in 1985, ruled that "he must be extradited and judged."
But in September an El Paso immigration judge ruled against extradition. Judge William L. Abbott granted Posada a deferral of removal, which meant that Posada would not be deported to Venezuela or Cuba for fear of being tortured. (Cuba claims to have never requested his extradition.)
Since Fidel Castro swept into power in 1959, Cubans say, Posada has fought a battle to overthrow the island’s dictator. They claim he has admitted to organizing a rash of Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian and injured Mexican tourists in 1997. Three years later, they allege, he plotted in Panama to explode a bomb during visit by Castro.
Posada also remains the prime suspect in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban commercial flight that killed all 73 people aboard, including the island's teenage fencing team.
At the time, Posada was chief of Special Ops for DISIP, a secret Venezuelan intelligence agency and, according to FBI documents, attended meetings that hatched the plans to bomb the Cubana plane.
Arrested for the crime, Posada escaped from a Venezuelan jail in 1985 after two trials failed to convict him.
Under immigration rules, Posada cannot be held indefinitely without a hearing, and the Homeland Security Despartment is expected to decide his fate on Tuesday. He will either be sent to a willing third country, remain in immigration detention for a specified period of 90 additional days or be released.
Stay in Florida?
Posada has asked to be allowed to live in South Florida with his wife and children, basing his request on his U.S. residency status dating back to 1962 and his past affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency
His Cuban American supporters would like to see him go free. Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, told the Associated Press that many in his community regard Posada as a hero.
"He's been fighting one of the worst tyrannies this continent has experienced," Hernandez said.
To others, Posada's case is a litmus test for the Bush Administration's war on terrorism.
"Posada should be tried for his crimes, not scolded for some minor immigration infraction,” said José Pertierra, a Washington attorney who represents the Venezuelan government's extradition. “The Bush Administration cannot fight its war on terrorism in an a la carte fashion, picking and choosing which terrorists to prosecute. Terrorism is terrorism. Period."
War of words
Pertierra added that he would be satisfied to see Posada prosecuted in an American courtroom, citing three separate extradition treaties, including a 1973 United Nations convention that obligates all signatories to prosecute anyone accused of executing an act of violence on board an aircraft. The U.S. is a signer to the convention.
Meanwhile, the Posada case has caused a war of words on the streets of Havana.
Speaking to the massive crowd amassed along the Havana seafront near the U.S. mission, Castro read a laundry list of complaints that include working with Florida exile groups to scuttle bilateral migration accords, trying to prevent legal food sales to his government and trying to stir up dissent on the island.
As Castro took to the podium erected in front of the mission, U.S. officials activated an electronic sign behind him, streaming news headlines and criticisms of the Cuban government. Earlier, police blocked off traffic near the mission as government workmen raised a dozen billboards displaying unflattering caricatures of President Bush.
Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana, Cuba.