US/CARIBBEAN – Anger mounts over inaction on 1976 bombing

by Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, May 25, 2007 – When Caribbean foreign ministers meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Capitol Hill in mid-June, they are likely to urge Washington to deal with the man thought responsible for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people off Barbados, most of them Caribbean nationals.

Two onboard explosives brought down the aircraft shortly after takeoff from the eastern Caribbean island, killing all the passengers, including the entire Cuban national fencing team, 11 Guyanese — mostly medical students — and more than a dozen nationals of North Korea.

Flight CU-455 had flown from Venezuela to Trinidad, and then to Guyana, before heading to Barbados. It was scheduled to continue on to Jamaica before landing in Cuba. It never made it past Barbados’ scenic west coast.

US and European tourists on the beach, as well as local citizens, watched in horror as the crew tried to turn the aircraft around after the first explosion, only to lose the battle as a second bomb ripped apart the cabin. Gushing black smoke, it plunged into the Caribbean Sea — putting the small cluster of Caribbean nations at the centre of a Cold War row between the US, Cuba and Venezuela that has lasted to this day.

Cuba and Venezuela, as well as Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad, have persistently named the anti-Castro Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, now 79, as the main suspect, and also allege that he has been protected by US federal agencies.

Shortly after the bombing, Posada was arrested, tried and acquitted by a military court in Venezuela, but escaped from prison while awaiting a second trial in a civilian court. Posada ended up serving eight years in jail in Chile, escaping yet again, and becoming a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative in Central America.

About three years ago, declassified CIA files confirmed that Posada had talked about bombing a Cuban plane in the weeks leading up to the tragic attack.

Posada was also implicated in a series of terrorist bombings in Cuba in 1997 in which one person was killed and 11 wounded, as well as an alleged assassination plot against Cuban President Fidel Castro, for which he was ultimately pardoned by Panama’s US-friendly President Mireya Moscoso.

When Posada turned up in Miami, Venezuela and other governments called on the US to hand over the man they believed was behind the worst terrorist attack ever in the region.

However, on May 8, a Texas judge freed Posada on immigration charges linked to his illegal entry into the US, outraging governments and citizens in Cuba and Venezuela, in particular.

Caracas accused federal prosecutors of deliberately fudging the case so Posada would walk free. Washington has refused to permit his extradition, maintaining that Posada cannot get a fair trial and could ”face torture” in Venezuela, and has never hidden its lax attitude towards bringing him to justice. Few countries in the hemisphere have offered to stand as a neutral court venue.

Caribbean foreign ministers, who met this month in Belize City for two days, discussed the issue at length and devoted a special section of their communiqué to the bombing, saying they hope Washington holds a consistent line on terrorism, as it has demanded of other nations since the 9/11 attacks.

”The ministers therefore reiterated their expectation that the government of the US would take appropriate action against the suspected terrorist at present in its jurisdiction. They emphasised that justice was necessary to bring closure to the families of the 73 passengers whose lives were lost in this tragedy, an event which still evokes outrage and painful memories in the Caribbean from whence the majority of the victims originated,” the officials said.

Referring to the controversial court decision, Caribbean ministers recalled the shared commitment of the US and the 15-nation Caribbean Community in the fight against terrorism ”an area in which the US has played a leading role on the international stage as well as their shared undertakings as members of the international community, in keeping with United Nations Security Council resolution, on the subject to bring to justice the suspected terrorists.”

In about a month, the same foreign ministers and heads of government are going to be in Washington to meet with President George W. Bush, and to participate in a four-day ”Conference on the Caribbean” aimed at strengthening relations with the US and the five million members of the Caribbean Diaspora in North America. The matter is expected to be raised at least at the level of Secretary of State Rice, regional officials say.

Still, some surviving relatives like Dorothy Norton, who lost her only son, a medical student, seem resigned that the tragedy may go unpunished. ”At age 76, I do not now have the energy to fight this one. Some of my relatives in the US have encouraged me to fight, but I am too old,” she said.

Former Guyanese cabinet minister Jeffrey Thomas, who lost a brother, says he ”is at a loss to find out why Guyana’s government is not more aggressive on the issue” and called the US position ”hypocritical”.

In the late 1990s, the Barbados government erected a plaque at Payne’s Bay where the aircraft went down, and invited a very emotional Cuban President Fidel Castro to unveil it.

Guyana, meanwhile, has stopped publicly commemorating the anniversary. (IPS)