A Terrorist Goes Free

April 21, 2007

A Terrorist Goes Free


AFTER the attacks of Sept. 11, President Bush forcefully argued that it was every country’s duty to fight international terrorism. He made the case that sponsoring terrorism or simply looking the other way when it happened were equivalent acts, and the United States would stand for neither. But holes have started appearing in that principle, courtesy of a single Venezuelan terrorist, released this week from a New Mexico prison on bail.

In early 2005, Luis Posada Carriles, a Venezuelan with a long history of violent attacks in Latin America, sneaked into the United States and was soon arrested. Mr. Posada had escaped from a Venezuelan prison while awaiting trial in the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people, including all 24 members of Cuba’s youth fencing team and several Guyanese medical students. This was the deadliest attack on a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere in history — until 9/11.

Upon Mr. Posada’s capture, the government of President Hugo Chávez demanded his extradition. But the Bush administration has refused to extradite Mr. Posada to Venezuela or Cuba, claiming that it fears he will be tortured in those countries. In fact, Washington’s reluctance is more likely linked to Mr. Posada’s history as a Central Intelligence Agency operative and a darling of extremist sectors of the powerful Cuban-American community in Florida (he tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with C-4 explosives placed in an auditorium packed with students in Panama in 2000). Twenty- two months have passed since Venezuela formally asked for his extradition, offering 2,000 pages of documentary evidence to substantiate its claim, yet the State Department has not even acknowledged receiving the request.

Nor has Mr. Posada been charged with the 1976 attack, even though declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents indicate that his role has long been accepted as fact. Instead, he faces charges of immigration fraud, a travesty that could be equaled only by charging Osama bin Laden with entering and leaving Pakistan without a visa. Finally, Mr. Posada was released on bail on Thursday, even though he is an obvious flight risk and a violent terrorist.

Of course, Mr. Posada’s case isn’t the first instance related to Venezuela in which the Bush administration has set aside its principles for political expediency. Five years ago last week, the Bush administration gleefully welcomed a coup that overthrew President Chávez, replacing him with a junta that suspended the Constitution, dismissed the National Assembly and dissolved the Supreme Court. Thankfully, the Venezuelan people ensured that their democratically elected president was returned to power two days later.

Just as the Bush administration’s support for the Venezuelan junta undermined its pledge to uphold and promote democracy around the world, allowing Mr. Posada to avoid prosecution for a vicious attack he can credibly be accused of masterminding throws into doubt the sincerity of President Bush’s war on terrorism. Mr. Posada is a terrorist, regardless of the cause he fought for or the allies he might have. The Bush administration’s foot-dragging on his extradition and its failure to even classify him as a terrorist is unconscionable.

Last week, Venezuelans celebrated the return of democracy after the coup against President Chávez. But they continue to mourn the 73 people killed aboard that civilian airliner. If President Bush is serious about the principles he set out after 9/11, he need only look to Venezuela and correct the mistakes he can. The coup has passed, but the chance to extradite or prosecute Mr. Posada hasn’t.

Bernardo Álvarez Herrera is Venezuela’s ambassador