Earlier this month, Armando Fernandez Larios sent shock waves through diplomatic circles when he confessed in Washington to a role in the September 1976 murder there of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States.
The implications for Chilean-American relations are profound. Larios was then a Chilean army captain assigned to dictator Augusto Pinochet’s notorious secret police, DINA. Letelier – who had been imprisoned and tortured following the 1973 overthrow and murder of Socialist President Salvador Allende – was Pinochet’s most eloquent critic.
Closer to home, still, is the stark reminder that the bomb that decimated Letelier’s car was planted by anti-Castro Cuban exiles – amid the exiles’ boldest bombing rampage in the 25 years that have passed since the CIA trained 1,000 of them for an invasion of Cuba.
And perhaps most striking of all is that names of the more notorious of the Cuban CIA operatives are reappearing in the current Iran-contra expose.
Ever since the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, succeeding US administrations have been faced with what Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott calls a “disposal problem” – what to do with 1,000 highly-trained covert operatives fanatically devoted to anti-Castroism and for hire in the name of any cause that might lead to Castro’s demise.
In fact, rather than dispose of them, the CIA’s clandestine operations division, its Latin American clients and others have periodically chosen to avail themselves of the exiles’ skills. In 1972, for example, the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President – known more familiarly as CREEP – hired three Cuban Bay of Pigs veterans for the fateful Watergate burglary.
The following year, the exiles found a new patron in Chile’s Pinochet. Three years later, Washington was fuming over the 30,000 soldiers sent by Castro to protect Angola’s Marxist regime from South Africa, and Congress had prohibited the CIA from acting. Together, these two developments emboldened the Cuban exiles to strike with a vengeance.
First, the converged on a small town in the Caribbean to make plans. In June 1976, according to numerous published accounts, leaders of some 20 exile extremist organizations met in Bonao, the Dominican Republic. The FBI reportedly placed an informant on the scene.
Within a month, the terrorist rampage began with a July 14 bombing in Barbados of a car owned by a Cubana Airlines official. It culminated a dozen explosions and three months later with a sabotage of a Cubana airliner, which went down with all 73 aboard.
As the bombs were exploding that summer, two Chilean intelligence agents traveled to Letelier’s adopted city of Washington. Their presence reportedly became known both to then CIA director George Bush and his deputy, Vernon Walters – now US ambassador to the United Nations.
On Sept. 21, 1976, as Letelier drove to his office with young newlyweds who were his coworkers, a powerful explosion gutted his car. Letelier and the woman were killed. The young man escaped serious injury.
The FBI was soon on the track of the two assassins, but took nearly two years to complete its investigation. Finally, on Aug. 1, 1978, a grand jury indicted four Cuban exiles and three Chilean intelligence officers – including Fernandez Larios and DINA boss Manuel Contreras – in connection with a double murder.
The Chileans were never extradited. Two of the Cubans were later acquitted. The two others, Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez, who allegedly detonated the bomb, remain fugitives. Now that Fernandez Larios has turned himself in, the case will be reopened, and perhaps even the Cuban exile connection will be reexamined.
But the Cubans did not stop with Letelier, nor with the sabotage of the Cubana airliner. Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez are also wanted for the March 1979 bombing of a TWA terminal at New York’s JFK Airport.
And the same army of Cuban operatives was tapped by Oliver North’s “shadow network” to handle the covert and apparently illegal supply of the contras.
Bay of Pigs veteran Luis Posada Cariles has been identified as North’s link to the contra supply operation based in Ilopango, El Salvador. Posada has also been placed by Venezuelan intelligence officials at the 1976 gathering of Cuban exiles in the Dominican Republic. For nine years, until his escape last year, he had been jailed in Venezuela for the Oct. 6, 1976, Cubana airliner bombing.
Armando Lopez Estrada, “military coordinator” of Brigade 2506, the Miami-based Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, has also been placed by the FBI in Bonao. Last month, he admitted to The Wall Street Journal that he had been there, but denied attending any meeting where an airliner bombing was discussed. He also said he began recruiting Bay of Pigs veterans in 1983 for the contras’ southern operational base in Costa Rica.
The Cuban exile presence along Nicaragua’s southern border is significant. In 1984, the CIA was preoccupied there with eliminating Eden Pastora from a position of influence. Once a hero of the anti-Somoza revolution, Pastora had become disillusioned with the Sandinistas and chose to assemble his own contra force in Costa Rica. However, he refused to cooperate with the CIA or the right-wing contra faction led by Adolfo Calero and national guardsmen who had served under Somoza.
Then, in May 1984, a bomb exploded at a press conference called by Pastora in La Penca, Nicaragua. Pastora was severely injured. Eight others were killed. As later disclosed by Tony Avirgan, an American newsman injured on the scene, and by Washington lawyer Daniel Sheehan, the bombing was planned by the contra supply network subsidized out of the White House by Oliver North. The dirty work, according to an affidavit filed by Sheehan in December, was left to the Cuban exiles.
In February 1984, claims Sheehan, two of the Cubans working closest with the contras, Rene Corbo and Felipe Vidal, were led to the man who would plant the explosives in La Penca. Corbo has been identified by The New York Times as the principal link between the contras and Brigade 2506. Vidal, according to Avirgan, is a killer himself. The Miami Herald [sic]
En route to their hit man, Corbo and Vidal were referred to Watergate burglar Eugenio Rolando Martinez – who told The Wall Street Journal in January, “We all keep in touch … We love each other” and to Frank (no relation to Fidel) Castro. Like Posada Carriles and Lopez Estrada, Castro was reportedly at the Dominican rendezvous in 1976. In fact, according to Saul Landau, co-author with John Dinges of “Assassination on Embassy Row” (the story of the Letelier murder), Castro was the FBI’s informant on the scene. Eventually, according to Sheehan, Corbo and Vidal were flown to Chile. There they were introduced to their explosives export, Amac Galil, a terrorist on the payroll of none other than the secret police of Augusto Pinochet.
And so the circle closes.
But the connections go even further. Among the Cubans’ earliest handlers were Theodore Shackley and Thomas Clines. Between 1961 and 1963, the two were the CIA’s Miami station chief and deputy chief, respectively. Both have been connected through North’s right-hand man, Maj. Gen. Richard Secord (USAF, ret.) to both ends of the Iran-contra operation. But theirs is the story of yet another disposal problem. Until the Cubans and their overseers are properly dealt with, the seemingly endless spillage of blood will continue.